The high school, my daughter, graduated from this past May, held a modified in-person graduation ceremony this past Saturday. Held in our football stadium, so both immediate families, the students, and faculty could be socially distant, it was a touching tribute to the challenging end to their senior year. Dr. Fauci would be proud, as we all wore masks and didn't gather before or afterward. For most families, it was the first time we had been on the school campus since last March when classes were canceled, and remote learning becomes the norm. Like many across the country, their Prom was canceled, and graduation recognitions for four years of hard work were delivered virtually.
The exuberant commencement speaker referenced their experience as a fantastic training ground for leadership – success, as measured in what others achieve. His comments, along with a recent McKinsey Quarterly article on “Why you’ve got to put your portfolio on the move,” made me think of several clients I'm currently working with in various stages of innovation sprints, strategy visualization, and agile alignment, versus others I've been in touch with for months, if not years, who are still contemplating about whether they should do anything differently.
I believe a compelling strategy, lasting change, developing exceptional talent, real innovation, and extraordinary leadership are all fairly easy to intellectualize. Unfortunately, they're incredibly elusive to internalize and find the courage to actualize. Every leader currently on the fence about using Covid-19 as an impetus to rethink, reimagine, if not reinvent, a key part of their business is struggling with the right leadership formula. It's easy to think of what's happening to us – this global pandemic, the racial divide, and the economic uncertainty taking much away from all of us. It's an entirely different DNA to combine one part strategy, two parts prudent judgment, and three parts speed and agility to create a vision and a path forward. Beyond all that you don't seem to have control over, your clarity of intent, focus on a set of prioritized pursuits, and an ecosystem of strategic relationships as an independent sounding board is what you do have control over to create sense and sensibility.
The organization's strategic path forward and its choice to share a visionary story with its target audience, may not be just about the leader. But it has everything to do with the vision of that leader. When I compare and contrast two global organizations, the CEO of one who saw a drastically changing market back in March and began to assemble his top thinkers to "reimagine" their organization, seems like on a different plant than the other. The CEO of the second company read the same articles and watched the same stories unfold. Yet, he seems to be constantly looking for permission to act, move, or consensus to agree that it's the right decision to move forward.
The first CEO is asking his global team to "work their tails off to come together and solve a few strategic challenges. We have vast resources, incredible intellectual horsepower, and a rallying cry to take care of our people, customers, partners, and become a stronger company because of this global pandemic." Earned trust, incredible candor, long hours, unparalleled empathy. These are the attributes he sees as non-negotiable and foundational to anyone on his team, charged with leading others. On a recent call, we agreed that collaboration for the sake of collaboration is a waste of time. Being able to count on one another to consistently deliver on a few commitments, leveraging individual strengths and shoring up growing edges, as a team, is what will make those collaboration efforts priceless. I can't help but believe a week in the same room would change the second CEOs perspective on speed and agility amid the chaos.
Here are a handful of other differences I've noticed between visionary leaders who act, versus those who perpetually are busy and sit on the fence contemplating their next risk aversion move:
Their Seal Team Gets Strategic Priorities Done. Visionary leaders seldom accomplish anything by themselves. As the stewards of the ship, they make tough decisions, set the compass, and empower their teams to execute the path forward. Unfortunately, in the over-inclusive mindset of some, consensus building has become the equivalent of the intellectual cancel culture. Cross-Functional Task Forces now include the janitor, the parking lot attendant, and the chimney sweeper on the most strategic initiatives, so "all the voices are heard!" I'm a strong believer of a shared purpose – we're all in this together – to accomplish a common mission, vision, or battle an enemy. Yet, I'm finding that a Seal Team mindset, comprised of the organization's best thinkers, most competent doers, and strongest relationship builders, get more done in a fraction of the time, with fewer resources, or the drama than the battalion some leaders try to deploy. The anxiety of our current times heightens pressure, stress, deadlines, uncertainties, and financial hardship. Add personalities, personal agendas, and self-interest, and you have the recipe for good ideas to be squashed by small minds.
Innovation, Change, and a New Path Forward is all about Visionary Storytelling. People can't follow you if they don't understand where the ship is headed. And many organizations at the moment are rudderless. Visionary leaders understand that only when they inspire others to inquire will they begin to identify unique insights. When those insights are tested, and the experimentation proves beyond good ideas, the team can implement new solutions, they begin to believe. Believability is a powerful enabler of those trying to challenge the status quo. Its biggest ally is visionary storytelling – simple to understand, easy to internalize, and fast to act on. If you want your ideas to be remembered and repeated, they must be simple-easy-fast. Visual stories make them that much more clear, easier to communicate, and dramatically faster to cascade.
Steady Emotional Stewardship Wins the Day. I have a tweet from Warren Buffett that reads, "You will continue to suffer if you have an emotional reaction to everything that is said to you. True power is sitting back and observing things with logic. True power is restraint. If words control you, that means everyone else can control you. Breathe and allow things to pass." Several visionary leaders I'm currently working with have developed an abundance of emotional intelligence. They have mastered an awe-inspiring control over their own emotions and reactions and have nurtured a knack for reading others' emotions. They make fantastic role models if you're lucky enough to be around one, or better yet, work for a leader as an EI role model. In Marshall Goldsmith's Stakeholder Centered Coaching, we also use feedback as a powerful tool to ask others about a particular behavior that doesn't help an executive develop their leadership brand. Lastly, the visionary leaders I'm blessed to work with set the team's emotional norms. They're crystal clear on how they work together with respect, integrity, candor, and courage to discuss differing views with civility.
I get that real change or innovation isn't for every leader. And that's OK. Many don't want the spotlight, and they're uncomfortable with the risk-taking and the incredibly difficult work necessary to make themselves, their teams, and their organizations world-class. Let's not pretend it's Covid-19 that drives most of these leaders out and their businesses toward bankruptcy. Their underlying challenges started way before this global pandemic came around.
For those visionary leaders who are challenging the status quo, we're all rooting for you to succeed. We believe in you, love your zest for a life well-lived, and work well-done, and can't wait for a front-row seat to the next amazing chapter.
Here is to your efforts to avoid a decline toward obsolescence,