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© Peter Hermes Furian

Don’t Be A Lemming 

A human lemming has been defined as “a person who unthinkingly joins a mass movement, especially in a headlong rush to destruction.”  If you are an executive, of course, it’s not a good idea to be one.

Following the crowd as a lemming in the business world often results in lack of innovation and uninspiring company stagnation.

It should be noted that the animal lemming, a furry little Arctic herbivore, has been given a bad rap. It migrates in large herds that become drastically reduced at times due to a shortage of moss to feed upon. Lemmings do not commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs to drown in Arctic water as the 1958 Disney “documentary” White Wilderness suggested. That part of the film was staged, but that’s where today’s mythical description of what it means to be a lemming began.

In a disturbing trend, it seems that more CEOs are too quick these days to follow the lemming trend du jour without sufficient consideration. There are times when being part of a mass movement might be appropriate, of course, but copycat moves can easily reduce or eliminate native advantages that a company might have otherwise found profitable.

It’s easy to see why executives do this. They will not be blamed for doing what everyone else is doing, but to strike out in a different direction and fail could cost them their jobs. Their companies will probably not go under if they blend in with the herd, but the chances of outstanding success can be significantly limited.

Many of us have had kids who ask, “Why can’t I do it; everyone else does!” The adults in the family then have to think it through to see if it is okay to follow the crowd in that situation. Sometimes it’s okay, sometimes not. In a company, it is up to the board of directors and senior executives to be the adults in similar situations.

High-quality executives are independent in their thinking. They take time to get the facts, make their own decisions and choose the best path for their company—even if it goes against what is considered the industry norm. The resulting risks may be greater, but the rewards for a contrarian can be truly outstanding. 

Successful entrepreneurs win this way. Walmart founder Sam Walton said, “Swim upstream. Go the other way. Ignore the conventional wisdom.” Sheldon Adelson, the late billionaire, added, “If you do things differently, success will follow you like a shadow.”

More than 25 years ago I wrote a column for another publication entitled, “Zig When Others Zag?” In a study of the strongest competitors of the large oil company for which I had once worked, a surprising conclusion emerged: The odds of success in a venture are often better if a business pursues a strategy almost directly opposite to that being pursued by the thundering herd of its competitors. The very fact that “everyone else is doing it” seems in itself to open up opportunities to someone taking the opposite tack.

I thought then, and I am even more convinced now, that zigging when others are zagging—and not being a lemming—can make a lot of sense.  

Jack Goodhue, management coach, can be reached at

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