Brandt On Leadership -- Finding Your Place Under The Sun

Dec. 21, 2004
Summer is a great time to walk away from your shadows and go for it!

No summer vacation is complete without a little homework. And the best homework for leaders during their time at the beach is the kind that doesn't involve e-mail.With that in mind, put an umbrella in your drink and reflect on how your life and business could be different if you could only: Free Yourself: In the novel Dangling Man, Saul Bellow describes a character as being someone who had discovered "that there were some ways in which to be human was to be unutterably dismal. His whole life was given over to avoiding those ways." Unfortunately, that phrase -- unutterably dismal -- describes the vast majority of work experiences. Your challenge as a leader is to live the second sentence of that passage, both in how you conduct yourself and in how you create an atmosphere for greatness. It isn't easy. Our lives are filled with people helpfully telling us all that we can't do, including:

  • Parents who tell us we shouldn't do what we love because there's no money in it;
  • Teachers who tell us that we don't have an aptitude for a subject;
  • Coaches who tell us that if we show up for another day of tryouts after today's drubbing, then we obviously can't see the light of day; and
  • Managers (not leaders) who tell us we're not suited for management or customer service.
Remember one thing about these people and their restrictions on you: THEY ARE ALL WRONG. Most people have had the satisfying experience of proving at least one person wrong about where their talents did or did not lie; where most of us fail is in realizing that such revelations and achievements are not just one-time events. The leader's first job is to recognize the limits that he places on himself -- and on his organization -- and to discard them. The leader's second job is to work with his subordinates and peers to help them realize the greatness that they can achieve -- and to push them until they do. Recall when you did great work -- were you comfortable at the start? Did you have the confidence to create it yourself? Or did you borrow that confidence from someone -- a parent, a teacher, a coach, a leader (not a manager) -- who believed in your potential? Your most important role as leader is to be that person for your team members. Everything else is just paperwork. Think Big: Most leaders and organizations with limited confidence end up with a corollary problem: They think too small. They try incremental improvements, or hope that a small price decrease will save the future. But it never does. There are two problems with playing for peanuts, whether in product innovation or strategic planning:
  • It takes as much time, effort, sweat and pain to play for peanuts as it does to go for something bolder, and
  • Even if you win, all you get is, well, peanuts.
Current research in a variety of sports shows that the smaller the target an athlete aims for -- a corner of a tennis court, a golf pin from 100 yards -- the better the results as the body and mind unconsciously collaborate to achieve success. In the same way, all successful businesses also look for the smallest, most difficult target -- becoming the next Microsoft or Wal-Mart or Just as in sports, most never hit their target, but you'll get a hell of a lot closer to success by thinking big at the start rather than merely trying to survive. Now go back to your little umbrella. I -- and your staff -- will be waiting to see what you learned on your summer vacation. John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm.

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