Success at this requires leaders to have the flexibility to assume a duality of roles, which often may seem diametrically opposed: The ability to inspire those they lead, yet be open enough to be equally inspired by them. Developing a comfort with the sometimes-necessary shift from being a leader to being a follower -- or quietly leading from behind. Achieving the delicate, yet critical balance between boldly blazing the path forward while also being empathetic to the concerns of those who have to follow it.
Three different models of leading can help you get there. Call them reverse reflex, positive narration, and excelling versus competing.
While it might seem awkward in these already uneasy times, embracing the counterintuitive is often the best way to move forward. I call this the reverse reflex and I have been surprised to see how many of our clients and partners have been putting this to good effect.
A Mexican travel and tourism business we use from time to time is one example. A perfect trifecta of economic recession, swine flu, and increased drug issues put this business in a paralyzing place. While most companies would accordingly look to extend their accounts payable, this company took out a $20 million line of credit in order to settle with their vendors ahead of schedule. They made this counterintuitive move in order to build strong relationships with their vendors now and for the long haul. Its effect was nothing short of a business jackpot.
Some great historical figures have embraced the reverse reflex. Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood this in leading the U.S. out of the Great Depression. Rather than start with more immediate and tactical issues, his reverse reflex was to make America's future less risky -- and the institutions created in service to this objective have fairly successfully stood the test of time. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The Securities and Exchange Commission. The Federal Housing Administration. The Fair Labor Standards Act. Social Security. All set the stage not for quick fixes, but prolonged prosperity for generations to come.
There is nothing that people need more in times like this than leaders who embrace the positive. It's not just a matter of what they say, but the way they act. They're more likely to have open-door meetings. To publicly have lunch with the team. It shows in the way they interact with customers, and the way they treat their associates. The fact is that no one eagerly follows a negative leader.
Here's a personal anecdote that highlights the power of this notion. When Prophet and Play joined forces last year, the <I>Richmond Times-Dispatch</i> wrote a feature about the news and the publisher sent me a vellum printout of the article. I thanked him for taking the time to do that -- particularly given the pressure he and his entire industry are under.
He responded: "I want people to understand that there is really good news out there. The first thing I do every morning as I read our paper is cut all the good new stories and send them to those involved. And so every day, when people say there is no good news out there, I can actually say as a matter of fact there were five pieces of good news today or there were eight pieces of good news, and last week there were 32 pieces."
Every company needs leaders who put the accent on the positive, whether highlighting the good news, celebrating success, or even just smiling rather than pensively walking the halls. It all combines to make the times more interesting, and less trying, and ultimately more positive.
Excel, don't compete
Today's environment poses a great opportunity to jump the curve to the new life cycle of a new business model - one where you depart from focusing on beating the competition and instead focus on excelling, on your unique strengths. In doing so, you're moving away from having the same reference points that are common to your sector to actually changing them and creating your preferred future.
The Velvet Underground, a band that dates back to the era of the Beatles, understood this kind of paradigm shift. In the music business, the common measure of success is hitting platinum or gold in record sales. But the Velvet Underground didn't want to compete on that basis, and instead focused on what they did best -- inspire others through their live shows to go out and create their own bands.
In fact, the group never did sell a tremendous number of albums. But it did influence the launch of some 5,000 bands around the world, all of which had their own influence on music and musicians. Exponentially, you could argue that by excelling, versus competing, Velvet Underground had as much, if not more, impact than the standard-setting Beatles.
These are, indeed, interesting times. Those who see these times through a different type of lens, as an opportunity to rethink what they stand for and how they want to be seen, and adjust accordingly, will come out ahead. As leaders and as stronger businesses.