The primary part of building culture involves fostering the right leadership. Empowered organizations are created by leaders who build understanding across the company and reinforce positive behaviors. These leaders gain credibility through substance and are typically admired and respected by the organization. It is easier to follow someone you admire and respect. The leaders I admired and learned the most from had the following five qualities: Vision; Leading by example; Managerial courage; Communication clarity; and curiosity to evolve.
First and foremost: Vision
Vision is the ability to see ahead and chart a path of success to the desired goal.
First and foremost, leaders need to have vision. Each of us has our favorites in this category. Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company, Jamsetji Tata of the Tata Group, Lars Magnus Ericsson of Ericsson, Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita of Sony, Steve Jobs of Apple, Josephine Esther Mentzer (Estee Lauder) of the Estee Lauder Companies, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Morris Chang of TSMC top my personal list.
A vision is created by understanding where you are, where you want to go and how to get there. Great leaders are never satisfied with where they are. They want more and develop their wanted state and plans to get there.
If the vision is significant in scope, the leader needs help, and for this, they need to convince people in the organization to follow them and help realize the vision. This is not an easy task—the leader is asking their team to trust them with something that does not exist and also trust their ability to lead them to the goal. This means the vision must be credible, realistic, create excitement and be valued. An unrealizable vision is a fantasy. A vision that is driven by illusions of grandeur is a vivid imagination at work.
To create a vision, the leader must possess a deep understanding of these factors:
- The market the company operates in
- The company and how it is placed in the market relative to competitors
- The company’s competitors and how they may evolve
- The company’s capabilities and gaps to realize the vision
- What it takes to win and what may trip the company up
- The history of how and why others have tried and failed or won with similar approaches
These factors raise hard questions that must be answered before one can pitch a vision and get buy-in.
The leader must possess deep conviction that their vision is right and that they will get there come hell or high water. This requires the leader to display courage and persevere, because there will be bad periods that will test their belief, abetted by the scores of skeptics. It is the leader’s confidence, conviction and focus that will get them through these times. I say “focus” because when people panic, they thrash about.
When the chips are down, one needs to stop, take stock and start fixing things step by step.
I met Neil Armstrong, the first person to step onto the moon, at a company event and was privileged to take a photo with him. I proudly display that photo in my home office. He was the most humble and respectful person I have ever met. He described himself as an engineer sent to place a mirror on the moon for the guys at Los Alamos. And he told us that when he and Buzz Aldrin were about to land on the moon, their spacecraft’s guidance computer had a series of glitches.
They could have aborted the mission due to the possibility—and extreme danger—of not coming back. But he could see the moon just below. He had not come 238,000 miles to abort his mission. He landed the module and walked into history. Now that is courage and conviction.
As for perseverance, I am reminded of my time racing sailboats. We would occasionally lean so heavily off the boat to reduce the surface area on the water that the boat would capsize with a gust of wind. When that happens, you have a few options. You can hang around the boat hoping to be rescued and not finish the race. Or you can stand on the centerboard, causing the boat, still full of water, to flip over. Then you can climb into the boat and start bailing water with a can.
I typically chose the second option. As the water got to a very low level inside the boat, we tightened up the sail and let the boat start moving. When the boat gained momentum, we pulled the suction valve and released the remaining water in the boat. And this process speaks to wanting to persevere and not give up. When things go wrong, you need to right the boat and follow a process before you start moving again, and then you can drain the remaining water.
Most visionaries also think far and deep and are pragmatic. They do not try to scale a mountain all at once. They break their scaling into phases and plan each phase meticulously. They hire people with the right skills for each phase. They set what needs to be achieved by when and judiciously spend money along the way to the top of the mountain, because money is like oxygen—without it, you cannot reach the top.
Finally, realize that a vision is time-dependent. One may be ahead of one’s time. Maybe the market is not ready for the product, the technology is not there to make it usable or cost-effective, or there is just no compelling use-case. Sometimes, one falls behind because the product takes too much time to develop, and others get ahead.
All said and done, for a company, a leader without vision creates an uncertain future.
This article is an excerpt from Sandeep Chennakeshu’s new book “Your Company Is Your Castle: Proven Methods for Building a Resilient Business.”