The Dark Side of BHAGs

In a previous blog post titled “What is your BHAG?” I wrote about the concept of a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG)–and the compelling benefits that result from having one. What I did not address is the potential dark side.

First, review that previous blog post. This time, as you read it, ask: “Are there any downsides to the BHAG concept?” “Under what circumstances might a BHAG backfire or create negative unintended consequences?”

Consider these three potential hazards:

HAZARD 1: A BHAG has the potential to fixate you in a way that you miss important changes in your operating environment. With JFK’s “land on the moon” BHAG, for example, a case can be made that NASA became a “one-program agency” and missed important opportunities (Logsdon, 2011).

HAZARD 2: A BHAG that is beyond the grasp, coupled with intense top-down pressure to achieve it, can create burnout or foster poor ethics as in the case of VW’s infamous cheating of the diesel emissions test. In her book The Fearless Organization (2019), Amy Edmondson uses the VW emissions debacle and other examples to show how real this hazard is. She writes: “The same script—unreachable target goals, a command-and-control hierarchy that motivates by fear, and people afraid to lose their jobs if they fail—has been repeated again and again.”

To mitigate these two hazards, leaders need to be present, to listen and to continuously engage with their teammates and the ever-evolving operating environment—balancing the need for challenge and intense focus with a need for support and broader awareness.

HAZARD 3: The BHAG concept implies that bigger is better and that leaders aren’t living up to expectations unless they pursue massively ambitious goals with a relentless sense of urgency “day after day, week after week, month after month, for years” (Collins, 2020). Is there room for a simpler, more sustainable philosophy for leaders? Can we find meaning and make valuable contributions to our communities without a BHAG? Or, given the culture we live in—focused on “more, more more”—is that aspiration itself a BHAG?

So, are we to do away with the idea of a BHAG? I say, emphatically, “No!”

I believe that leadership, whether driven by one person or expressed as a collective process, includes igniting us to rise to extraordinary efforts and to transform into what we need to become in order to achieve what must be done. Unearthing and communicating a meaningful, challenging goal–whether you call it a BHAG or not–is vital to that process.

But be thoughtful about it. Invite as many people as you can into the process in order to galvanize autonomous choice and authentic commitment. Be resolute in your focus while you also continuously seek feedback from the environment and your teammates. Be relentless and humble. Be steadfast and open to change. This is what leaders do.