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.
I’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?