Visionary Leaders Try Things that Others Don’t See

[It is my pleasure to once again bring you guest blogger, James Allan. Enjoy this post below! -Seth Kahan]

How are visionary leaders created?  What does it take for a person to create, enhance and maintain a successful global business that continues to innovate and expand?

To answer these questions, I spoke recently with Isadore Sharp. 

Mr. Sharp worked from dawn to dusk in the construction industry in Toronto, and then drifted into the hotel industry in 1961, at the age of 30.  Since then, he has spent the last 49 years doing what most entrepreneurs can only dream of.  He created a luxury mid-size hotel brand named the Four Seasons, took it public, and then expanded its reach to the most exotic and popular business and tourist destinations in the world.  All the while, he made it profitable.

He outlined his journey in his auto-biography, aptly named Four Seasons.  Some of his enduring innovations include shampoo, full-sized bath towels and bathrobes in every hotel room.  He also created a company-wide respect for employees at all levels which did not previously exist.  This philosophy, entitled "The Golden Rule", has reached every end of the Earth since it applies universally accepted principles.  His enduring respect for people, both customers and employees, has continually fortified his brand as the mid-size luxury hotel of choice.  When Oprah Winfrey asked Julia Roberts what’s the best thing she’s ever slept on, she replied "A bed at the Four Seasons."

So what did he tell me the foundations of his success are?

  1. You’ve got to be able to judge opportunity:  When asked if he was better at judging people or property, he quickly replied, "I’m best at judging opportunity.  Each individual has their own strengths.  Engineers and scientists saw the opportunity for space travel, and they acted on it.  My success has come from judging opportunity in the luxury hotel industry and acting on it."  He later added, "People in poor countries like India are born into abject poverty and can’t get out because they don’t get the opportunity.  We are fortunate to live in North America where opportunity is plentiful."
  2. Try things that other people don’t see:  He flat out ignored the experts, even his own, when they told him the luxury hotel market in London was over-saturated.  When deep in debt in the 1980 recession, and interest rates were peaking, he asked to borrow more money.  When investors were plentiful and the brand was strong, he intentionally slowed his company’s growth.  Why? "Opinions are expressed based on past fact. Ask yourself, ‘What is the future?’  I like trying things that other people don’t see. You see the risks. You know there will be a possible penalty to pay.  As long as it’s not destructive, follow your ‘subconscious belief’ – it’s a fanatical belief – that what you’re doing will work." 
  3. Upbringing is important:  He contributed much of his extreme self-confidence to his upbringing.  "I think how you’re brought up can help a lot.  You should be allowed to make mistakes, and get on the learning curve.  It’s good when you get the support you need, and sometimes it’s an Invisible Hand."  According to his book, he did not have doting parents.  They encouraged him to be independent as early as the age of 6, when he would have to find his own way to school.
  4. Participate in Team Sports:  "Participating in team sports showed me the desire to try your best, even if you didn’t always win.  You could decide to run your fastest, and you still might not win.  That sort of attitude encouraged me to not have a fear of failure."
  5. Follow your Passions of the Moment: "We all really do know what our skills are, and what we are gifted at.  You’ve got to follow your passion of the moment (passions change over time).  Let the passions be your guide, and let your skills direct what you want to do.  Don’t try to become someone who you are not…Don’t try to plan your life, rather take opportunities as they arise.  We all have capacity to do more.  Look for the opportunities that allow you to do that.
  6. Never Compromise your values:  The current recession has affected the luxury hotel market, but Mr. Sharp has seen it all before. "In these times, don’t change what you’re doing.  You have to adapt to the circumstances, but don’t change your values.  Stick to the priorities you want to preserve.  The recession will be over soon, and you want people to know who you are and what you stand for.  At the Four Seasons, we use the term ‘control without compromise’.  We have to adapt to the recession, but we are not going to cut things which may compromise our values."

Sources:  « James Allan interviews Isadore Sharp »

About the author  James Allan is President of SHM Consulting, a firm devoted to improving human and organizational performance.  Clients include Cisco Systems, Costco Wholesale, TD Ameritrade and the Montreal Canadiens. Visit his website at

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  • Ernest Semerda

    Good post Seth! Thanks for sharing.

    Frank Tilbot summarized foundations to success pretty well.. which is similar to what is said above - "We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action."


  • Dan Rockwell


    Thanks for posting Jame's interview. It's helpful to see the broad range of ideas that Mr. Sharp offers. His influences are broad which opens the door for many others with diverse backgrounds.

    I was delighted to see his comments about follow your passion. There are many reasons to stay the course. The nonprofit I lead recently adopted a "follow your successes" approach. Some might say, stick with your plan but is something better comes along I think it's better to ride that pony!

    I wrote about follow your passions at:


    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell