3 reasons leaders hate research (and why they shouldn’t)

Eric Ames

Eric Ames

Senior Partner @ ClarityCC


If you’re a leader and you’re not on board with data today, let this be your last call to get on the train. 

In fact, you’ll probably have to do some running to catch the caboose because it left the station a while ago.  Writers in Forbes, CNN and other sources have been saying for years that data is of crucial importance to organizational growth in today’s business landscape.  Jim Barbaresso, speaking about the value of vehicle data, was famously quoted saying that “Data is the currency of the digital age.” Again, he said that three years ago, and we all know how fast things can move in that time.

Yet, today many business and non-profit leaders struggle with the whole data and research thing.  Even those who have accepted the general fact that data is important are often reluctant to make good use of it for their organization. 

Here are 3 reasons leaders hate research and why they need to turn that hate into love, pronto.


1. They aren't wired for it

Many leaders find research as exciting as watching concrete set.  Why?  Most leaders are not wired for lots of details.  In his book Do Scale, Les McKeown explains that for leaders to be able to scale their organization, they need to surround themselves with people who have different skill sets – the first one being a Chief Operating Officer.  What’s the difference?  The CEO or leader is the keeper of the vision and organizational DNA.  The COO is the details person, the one who executes on vision and gets things done.  Then there are others who are even further wired to comb through data and find patterns and clues that can help you stay on the path toward growth in an ever-changing market.

If you are a CEO and find yourself needing to have your fingers on everything, you are likely hindering not only your current performance, but also your future growth and sustainability.  To find out your own leadership style, McKeown’s company Predictable Success has a quiz you can take on their website.

boxing glove

2. Fear of a punch in the pride zone

Most leaders deal with pride (having been in leadership positions ourselves, we speak from experience).  Pride isn’t always a bad thing; it can motivate us towards excellence.  But there is a negative kind of pride, too.  Most leaders assume that they have to do everything, know everything and be everything for their organization, etc.  John Maxwell describes this as “Superman syndrome…[where leaders] rely on their own prowess to solve problems and advance the organization.”  And indeed, some have great ability and capacity. 

The trouble with research is that it can be seen as a threat to that self-assurance, because the results may show that, as the leader, you didn’t know some things.  And that might put your leadership in question.  No one wants to entertain the thought that they are, or could be seen by their staff or team, as “the blind leading the blind”.

The trouble with research is that it can be seen as a threat to that self-assurance, because the results may show that you, as a leader, didn’t know some things.

But the best leaders know that it’s not all on them to know everything.  Instead, they develop great teams and an environment where knowledge gaps aren’t seen as poor reflections of leadership, but opportunities for discovery and growth.  As Stephen Covey has said, “It takes humility to seek feedback.  It takes wisdom to understand it, analyze it, and appropriately act on it.”  Remember: the point of research is to eliminate knowledge gaps.  Don’t fight it; find out what you don’t know and grow!


3. Tight budgets mean paying only for things you can see

If you lead a major corporation, you’re probably fine and dandy with research.  You likely have a whole department (and large budget) devoted to it.  But it’s a different story for businesses and non-profits who don’t have a large staff or a dedicated “find out what we’re missing” budget.  Time and again we’ve seen that, when research is a line item beside web design or other more tangible goods and services, someone takes out the axe and chops it off the budget.

Yet, one of the major tenets of marketing is, “What does your customer need?”  Here we see so many leaders assume that they know, instead of taking the time to find out.  And it can literally make the difference between success and failure.

For example, we’ve been part of the communications team for several winning political campaigns and research was probably the third most expensive item after advertising and personnel.  No, it was not thrilling to spend hours studying graphs and statistics.  But data informed EVERYTHING we developed in our communications strategy and, ultimately, it helped lead to success.

Like a house built on a concrete foundation, the needs of the market are what your organization is built upon.  Would you skimp on pouring a proper foundation for your home?   Of course not, because everything sitting on top of it depends on it for stability.  It’s a good analogy, because data is as visible and sexy as the concrete pad of your home.  When we work with clients on brand consulting, our process almost always starts with research.  While we think our hunches are pretty good about what may be hindering organizational growth for a client, we don’t want you to stake your budget on a hunch.  Data gives you confidence in your planning.  It doesn’t have to be super expensive and time-consuming either.  We have seen the big tools in action, but market research technology is making it easier to harness data every day. 

So the next time you hear the words “data & research”, don’t cringe.  Get on the train and see where it takes you.