Leadership: INSEAD Professor Neil Bearden

Leadership often requires radical change, pushing us well outside our comfort zone.

During a seminar about careers in business school academia, a young woman asked:

“Medical school professors work in hospitals. They have patients. Law school professors have cases and causes or sometimes they work as judges. But how do business school professors get experience with what they teach?”

“Well … we teach executives who visit for classes and they tell us about their business,” the visibly flushed lecturer answered. “And some professors take consulting work.”

“But is that really the same as, say, taking care of patients or seeing lawsuits through?” she replied.

I’ve created and sold two startups then worked as an intrapreneur inside two Fortune 500 businesses I’d joined after acquisitions. Now, I’m a research fellow at a top-tier business school.

Teaching is different than pushing a project forward as an employee or flying in as a consultant. That’s not to belittle either teaching or consulting but they’re not the same as starting or running a business.

This brings us to a recent decision made by one of my favorite INSEAD faculty, Neil Bearden, professor of decision science. Seemingly, out of nowhere, he made the decision to quit and work as an entrepreneur, opening his own school.

Nothing was wrong with Neil’s job; just the opposite. He had what many people would consider a dream life; the job security that comes with tenure at a top-tier school, the adoration of students, a flat in Singapore where Hawker centers sell great food at rock-bottom prices. He loves teaching and researching. Neil has a wife and a young child. Really, everything countless people in life would want.

And, to clarify, he’s grateful for all of it. Like me, Neil’s a first-generation college student from what many consider a backwater red state. Plenty of childhood friends work blue-collar jobs, a few can’t find work at all, and a small number are all too familiar with the US penal system. More than a few are familiar faces in AA and NA meetings. He’s not familiar with the other side of the tracks; he’s from there. Neil has no trust fund to fall back on or family business with an always-open position.

And yet, as the magic age of 50 inches ever closer, Neil found himself in a Tony Robbins seminar.

My sole knowledge about Tony are memories of late-night infomercials back when people still watched commercials. I’d be almost asleep when the sound boosted up and Tony burst into the bedroom like an uninvited evangelist on too much Adderall. What could Neil, a Ph.D. psychologist with a long list of academic papers, possibly learn from Tony Robbins, a man whose education ended with high-school?

Quite a bit, apparently.

I won’t claim to know what Tony Robbins is about, positive or negative. Except that a whole bunch of people I know and respect seem to be willing to act on his advice to change their lives, Neil being one of them.

At Tony’s seminar, he pictured himself in 20 years, a semi-retired Professor Emeritus in the same office doing the same thing he’d always done.

For many people, it’d be an idyllic life. Corduroy jackets with elbow patches, maybe a pipe, messy desk, adoring students, super flexible schedule, and plenty of money in the bank.

For Neil, it sounded like a recipe for a life of missed opportunities, of regret. A life not lived to the fullest. Of not pushing to and through the boundaries he taught students to conquer. Teaching mountain climbing is, after all, a whole lot different than climbing mountains.

And so one day, not long ago, after discussing the issue with his wife, they found a house in the US, decided to buy the kid a dog to ease the transition, then he marched into the dean’s office and resigned.

My time as a shepherd

I finished high school at 17 and went to a kibbutz, the only place that didn’t require any money to hang out, money being something I didn’t have. I shepherded sheep for a year and a half working in fields near Meggido, watching my flock graze and thinking. When I wasn’t with the sheep I hung out in a communist enclave with people from all over the world, living and playing underneath red flags. All of which wasn’t a bad way for a kid from southern Indiana to grow up.

You learn a lot as a shepherd. Sheep have a bad rep. They’re far more self-reliant than people give them credit for. If you zone out, the sheep will find their own way back to the sheep barn as a flock. If you get lost the sheep will guide you; getting lost with 400 sheep following is an interesting experience. When sheep birth a lamb in pasture good shepherds will notice and carry the newborn back. I was a lousy shepherd and missed at least one birth so baby and mama made the multi-mile hike back surprisingly none the worse for the wear.

There are sheep in the flock who are natural leaders. They’re noticeably smarter than other sheep and lead while the other sheep (and, sometimes, a directionally challenged shepherd) follow.

The biggest challenge shepherding sheep is that if a shepherd isn’t careful the sheep will split into two or more groups each walking a different direction. It’s a pain to get them pointed back towards one another. They’ll also sometimes start walking in circles around enormous bushes where they can’t see the other side. They follow the sheep in front of them thinking they’re going somewhere while they’re actually just wasting energy walking to nowhere and not eating. It’s best to avoid getting to a place where the sheep are walking to nowhere because it’s really hard to get them out of this pattern.

People often make fun of sheep, “sheeple” being a common insult. But people are actually more like sheep than we care to admit and that’s not necessarily bad. We’re taught from a young age to conform, play by the rules, fit in, and not cause trouble. We graze and work as a group. We’re pushed together when we stray, we generally collectively find our way back to the sheep barn safely. If we leave a flock, it’s usually to a larger group. More than a few of us blindly follow those in front, oblivious that we’re walking in giant circles.

Still …. Beautiful pastures, limited responsibility, fresh grass, going to bed in fresh hay. By any objective measure, life isn’t bad for sheep, or people, if you're part of a strong flock. Of course, once they can’t produce anymore it’s off to the kebob stand but the sheep don’t know that until the end.


This raises the question, what is leadership? When we teach leadership what do we really mean? What are we teaching? Are we just encouraging people to be the sheep that walk in front or is there something else?

Arriving at the sheep barn one day, I’ll never forget the day one of my favorite leader sheep was being carted off to the butcher. We used paint colors to identify groups of sheep and she had a spot of purple on her head earning her the name Punkie.

“Punkie’s one of the first to follow me and leads the flock,” I told my boss, objecting.

“I know but she’s too old for lambs,” he answered.

He didn’t contest she was a leader but those leadership traits weren’t useful enough anymore so off she went, the butcher driving her away, leaving a trail of dust behind. If she could talk, I’m sure Punkie would say she’d had a fine life.

Neil, an expert in decisionmaking, made a decision to short-circuit that possibility.

One unfortunate pattern in life is that I seem to always meet the most interesting people when they’re on the verge of leaving and Neil is no exception. I didn’t know him nearly as well as I should have but, true to what I do know, he’s decided to step far outside his comfort zone, to climb the mountain rather than teach how to.

Leadership is ultimately taught by doing. Neil’s demonstrating the courage to upend his life, to radically change direction before that old van arrives. It’s scary, but admirable. I wish him the best.