Fast Company

Five Fundamentals of Fanatical Leadership

If you’ve ever worked for a boss that was openly enthusiastic about what they did, then you know how infectious that becomes for the entire company. These individuals can set the course for helping the organization separate itself from the pack by passionately ignoring the status quo and the naysayers who protect it. While not crazy, leaders like these are most certainly fanatical about changing an industry and perhaps even a culture mindset. They can also rally other folks around a radical ideal. 

Fervent leaders are not just committed, they are rabid about a better way to thinking about a problem, its solution and established norms. They question authority at every turn and thereby uncover far reaching opportunities that others patently disregard. Such ideas are found in the history books in nearly every generation, from pioneering automaker Henry Ford and McDonald’s trailblazer Ray Kroc to the just recently departed Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg; all of whom stopped at nothing to alter the course of not just a company, but, in many respects, society in general.

Fanatical leadership isn’t just limited to the uber entrepreneur. They are also found in niche industries, remote cities and practically every Main Street across the United States. There are two things to consider here: (a) being a fanatical executive doesn’t mean painting your body in the team’s colors and shouting at the top of our lungs at a sporting event, and (b) this mindset is not one that can be developed externally; executives either have it or they don’t. I would submit that many business leaders possess such characteristics, but may need a bit of help to bring it to the forefront. It’s not that they don’t want to portray their committed passion; it’s just that day-to-day activities can put anyone in a rut. Here are some ways in which management teams can ensure they maintain that fanatical dedication in the office:

* Set audacious goals: Jim Collins is widely credited for the idea that good companies become great by first setting a BHAG, or Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals, in his book Good to Great. We’ve seen these before; President John F. Kennedy declaring the U.S. will strive to put a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s, even though no one knew how to do it. Herb Kelleher launched Southwest Airlines with the seemingly impossible goal of “democratizing” the skies despite having never run an airline before and facing fierce opposition by established competitors that made every attempt to put the fledgling Dallas-based company out of commission. Businesses that are lead by people obsessed with seeing a dream become a reality will have an advantage over rivals.

* Take creative risks: Breaking the proverbial mold can’t be done piecemeal; you have to stand for something and engage, at times, in unconventional thinking. Here’s a good example – a San Diego-based craft brewer, Stone Brewing Company, founded in 1996 by Steve Wagner and Greg Koch, is now 14th largest craft brewery in the United States and has twice been named “All-Time Top Brewery on Planet Earth” by BeerAdvocate magazine. Its vision is for consumers to never again accept bland, boring and soul-less beer, stating that “Fizzy yellow beer is for wussies.” In its quest to further the cause, they have set up a distribution operation that allows smaller craft and micro-brew beers to sell their products on the market, opening opportunities for their competitors who, like them, were shut out by the large distributors that were exclusive to the big conglomerates and thus refused to carry their products, or would do so only at exorbitant costs. At first glance, this tactic would appear to hurt Stone’s own goals. The reverse has been true, because the company recognizes that this initiative will benefit all craft brewers.

* Be okay with setbacks, but not with giving up: Management must not be afraid to showcase their own desire to look for new ideas and opportunities. Equally important to highlight is how to do so in a calculated manner and accept that not every idea will bear fruit. Thomas Edison illustrated this mindset very well when asked about his 3,000 unsuccessful attempts to invent the light bulb before actually doing so. His response was "I didn't fail 3,000 times. I found 3,000 ways how not to create a light bulb." Executives who articulate this same mindset will give employees permission to try.

* Allocate money and time for others to take chances: Corning is renowned for this approach. Giving people the opportunity to conduct their own abstract thinking on a topic of their choosing – be it engineering, marketing, sales, operations or finance – as a standard part of their work week fosters creativity in the workforce. It also gives people permission to let loose their imaginations. You’ll find many folks will respond favorably to this and want to devise new and profitable ventures for the company as thanks for allowing them to challenge their own line of thinking. Budgeting monies for such initiatives is also important, for it keeps such initiatives from draining the coffers without appropriate checks and balances. It also gives employees an idea as to how much of their day can be spent on brainstorming.

* Reward good – and not so good – ideas: Many organizations are good about recognizing the achievements of others when they are successful; even those firms that don’t encourage risk taking will usually highlight an employee’s accomplishment when it goes right. The mark of a great company, though, is when they reward the calculated attempt at creating something great that didn’t work out. The reality is not every new idea will wind up being a good one, but that shouldn’t automatically warrant an executive’s condemnation. What’s more, not succeeding at the intended task doesn’t necessarily mark something as a failure. Take 3M’s famous PostIT Notes story. The glue used for this product line was actually considered defective for its Scotch tape products because of its less than adequate adherence qualities. The batch sat in a barrel at the company’s R&D line for some time until employees began to look at its benefits in leaving notes for people and themselves without worrying about ruining the materials it was placed upon.

Executives that thrive on championing worthy, audacious goals that are bigger than themselves and - as important – their own company will put their money where their mouth is to make that happen. They are driven by an insatiable desire to see a dream come true. It’s that level of good fanaticism that can be of great benefit to an organization if channeled into such things as taking creative risks and not being afraid if something doesn’t go right the first time. People will respond with terrific enthusiasm, and will succeed more times than not; and often exceeding everyone’s expectations in the end.

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