Do You Pass the Leadership Test?

The true mark of a leader is the willingness to stick with a bold course of action—an unconventional business strategy, a unique product-development roadmap, a controversial marketing campaign—even as the rest of the world wonders why you're not marching in step with the status quo. In other words, real leaders are happy to zig while others zag. They understand that in an era of hyper-competition and non-stop disruption, the only way to stand out from the crowd is to stand for something special.

middle of the roadI've said it before, and I'll say it again: It's not good enough to be "pretty good" at everything today. You have to be the most of something: the most elegant, the most colorful, the most responsive, the most focused. For decades, organizations and their leaders were comfortable with strategies and practices that kept them in the middle of the road—that's where the customers were, that's what felt safe and secure. In the new world of business, with so much change, so much pressure, so many new ways to do just about everything, the middle of the road has become the road to nowhere. As Jim Hightower, the colorful Texas populist, is fond of saying, "There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos." To which we might add companies and their leaders struggling stand out from the crowd, even as they play by the same old rules in a crowded marketplace.

That simple proposition has been an article of faith for me for a long time—and I was reminded of its power, especially in tough times, twice over the past few weeks, thanks to strong declarations of strategic independence from two determined CEOs. Consider first the unique business strategy and retail experience being created by Luxottica, the global eyewear company with annual sales of $6.6 billion. A recent report in The New York Times described its "unusual and risky" effort to rethink and reimagine the customer experience of buying eyeglasses, by creating memorable retail environments that feature a concierge, wind machines and treadmills (to allow shoppers to try on glasses in conditions that resemble real-world usage, and touch screens that operate as both mirrors and cameras. (Imagine being able to try on glasses, upload photos to Facebook, and asking friends and family to email reactions while you're still shopping.)

There was something of a raised-eyebrow tone to the Times report, and who knows if Luxottica's plans to build 10 to 15 of these stores in Australia, the United States, China, and Britain, will turn out to be a flash of insight or a flawed vision. What's clear though, is that in an industry ravaged by a bad economy (new glasses are a pretty postpone-able purchase), and by the cheaper-is-better pressures of the Internet, the route to long-term prosperity does not come by staying in the middle of the road.

Andrea Guerra, Luxottica's CEO, put it about as well as anyone has: "Crises are not only about negative things," he said. "Where the world is changing and changing fast, your thoughts have to be bold."

Now consider a different twist on this same theme. Last week, Jeff Bezos announced plans to release a new-generation Kindle that will be even cheaper ($139) than the current generation, but will make only a few modest improvements in quality and performance. Even as analysts applauded the success of the Kindle thus far, they wondered why Bezos and his colleagues weren't making the device much more functional, colorful, and powerful. In other words, why weren't they taking the simple Kindle and enhancing it to go head-to-head with Apple's iPad and other companies searching for an iPad killer?

To which Bezos offered a strategic insight about his business just as compelling as Andrea Guerra's take on his business. "There are going to be 100 companies making LCD tablets," he told the Wall Street Journal. "Why would we want to be [company] 101? I like building a purpose-built reading device. I think that is where we can make a real contribution." In the staid world of eyewear, a little razzle-dazzle is in order. In the razzle-dazzle world of mobile computing, a little simplicity counts for a lot.

It's hard to overcome the pull of conventional wisdom—established ways of doing things, familiar ways to size up markets. That's why it's hard for leaders to do something genuinely new—to embrace one-of-a-kind ideas in a world filled with me-too thinking. But that's the job description for leadership today. After all, if you do things the way everyone else does things, why would you expect to do any better. How are you planning to zig while everyone else zags?

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. His next book is Practically Radical. Follow him at twitter.com/practicallyrad.

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2 Comments

  • perspective2

    Are you bold enough to discuss the "new employee loyalty" ? Is your lradership transparent trustworthy and believeable? Public and private organizations are into a phase of creative disassembly where constant reinvention and adjustments are constant. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are being shed by Silocon Valley, AIG, Chevron, NUMI, Wells Fargo Bank, HP, Starbucks etc. and the state, counties and cities. Even solid world class institutions like the University of California Berkeley are firing staff, faculty and part-time lecturers.
    Yet many employees, professionals and faculty cling to old assumptions about one of the most critical relationship of all: the implied, unwritten contract between employer and employee.
    Until recently, loyalty was the cornerstone of that relationship. Employers promised job security and a steady progress up the hierarchy in return for employees’s fitting in, performing in prescribed ways and sticking around. Longevity was a sign of employeer-employee relations; turnover was a sign of dysfunction. None of these assumptions apply today. Organizations can no longer guarantee employment and lifetime careers, even if they want to.
    Companies that paralyzed themselves with an attachment to “success brings success’ rather than “success brings failure’ are now forced to break the implied contract with employees – a contract nurtured by management that the future can be controlled.
    Jettisoned employees are finding that the hard won knowledge, skills and capabilities earned while being loyal are no longer valuable in the employment market place.
    What kind of a contract can employers and employees make with each other? The central idea is both simple and powerful: the job or position is a shared situation. Employers and employees face market and financial conditions together, and the longevity of the partnership depends on how well the for-profit or not-for-profit continues to meet the needs of customers and constituencies. Neither employer nor employee has a future obligation to the other. Organizations train people. Employees develop the kind of security they really need – skills, knowledge and capabilities that enhance future employability.
    The partnership can be dissolved without either party considering the other a traitor. Is you leadership transparent and ethical by communicating that employee loyalty is dead ?.

  • Michael Simms

    I Do and this is why.Once a Marine Always a Marine. And I was proud to have served my country as one. Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome was implemented into each and every Marine including yours truly. We used this phrase to describe our actions when we surmount an unexpected obstacle. Some of our detractors would say this is just code language for “cheating” but I would respond by saying there’s no such thing as cheating in war. Accomplish the mission, achieve the desired end state, and don’t bother me with details. If you’re a Marine and you fail at some task, you’re usually counseled about your failure to improvise, adapt, and overcome. It’s just expected. As thoughts turn to actions, Marines have one overriding thought pattern that weaves its way into everything. You can do it to. Like a Marine, this is a phrase that you should adopt and implement. I said that we would start moving from thoughts to actions and this is the beginning lesson. When things look impossible, you just have to get a little more creative.