“Going where no man (or woman) has gone before” has become a modern day cliche representing adventure, bravery, and futuristic thinking. OK, I’ll admit, I have always loved Star Trek – both the William Shatner version and the modern version. I am not an obsessed ‘trekkie,’ yet I love the chemistry of the leadership team on the Enterprise, the far-out encounters, and the uncanny metaphoric similarities of these adventures and our lives today.
With that as the setting, I wonder, when we leaders embark upon a path ‘where no one has gone before,’ what is the ideal way to proceed to best ensure our success?
Come on, let’s be honest, many of us simply ‘follow suit’ as leaders. We may ‘up the current game’ in our company by being competitive in how we ‘play the game;’ yet, how often do we really ‘change the game?’ You know what I mean: monumental, often scary, strides in veering off the beaten path and going ‘off radar’ to pursue an aggressive goal. Shareholder pressure, personal and professional fear, recessionary conditions, and a myriad of factors contribute into our conservative approaches. Yet, as leaders in today’s world, it is our job and our responsibility to chart new paths. If we don’t encourage playing dangerously and coloring outside the lines – who will? We must continue to innovate, push, explore, and make it safe for others to do so – otherwise, we will stagnate, avoid risks, become complacent, and ultimately not progress in our roles and contribution to our organizations.
So, let’s break it down. If we truly want to lead, which means stretching, pulling, pushing, and discovering, what are a few things we can consider to improve our success ratio or at least minimize our risk of totally flaming out?
- Know your audience and meet them where they are. Basic 101: we must know who our stakeholders are. Whether we are driving a new compensation plan internally, introducing a new product or service, forging an entirely new channel to market or going after a new donor pool on an entirely different scale. We need to know what they need and want. We need to create a ‘win-win’ scenario and present our approach to them in a manner they will understand.
- Build and nurture a network. Many have heard me speak about the importance of building a network before you need it. As leaders we need to have a support system who will tell us the honest truth (even if what we hear is not what we want to hear), and provide advice and perspective as we move forward. Having peers and colleagues to offer candid feedback throughout our careers, and in this case as we chart new paths, is critical. Instigate these relationships now. Choose individuals who will complement and augment your talents and background. Select resources who will fill the gaps in your capabilities or your visibility within and beyond your organizations. Having additional sets of eyes looking at your approach can reveal the weak links, as well as areas for further exposure.
- Be a three-dimensional chess player. As leaders, we have to think strategically not just tactically. Sure, it is important to know what to do next; yet, it is even more important to have our paths charted 3-4 steps ahead. It is not enough to understand and calculate our movements, we need to consider the other parties moves, as well. If we get stuck, then pursue input from stakeholders, mentors, and colleagues. None of us have all the answers, so we need to be secure enough to ask for help and insight when we need it. One last point, as we develop our critical thinking capability, remember critical thinking is not negative thinking. It is simply our ability to think ‘out-of-the-box’ and to be the devil’s advocate on what may work, and what may not work. When we are pursuing new approaches, we have to think of all the things that could go well, as well as those that may be insurmountable. Then, we discover new chess moves to overcome those obstacles, or maneuver around them.
- Be resilient. In a prior article on Resiliency, we discuss the importance for leaders to be resilient in the face of strong head winds. We all have failed on occasion. How we pick ourselves up from these stumbles is what people remember, not whether we failed or not. Leading through adversity and showing resilient behavior is what inspires our followers.
Taking risks is a critical component of leadership. If we are not stretching beyond our comfort zone, we are not learning. If we are not exposing ourselves to the risk of potential failure, we are equally not exposing ourselves to the risk of success. Playing it safe breeds complacency. Our competition loves this. Whether our competition is another person vying for the same promotion, another company selling a similar product or service, or a nation vying for a majority share of import/export business – we will lose by not taking calculated risks.
So, as leaders, we need to take the risk we are more afraid of taking. “Go where no one has gone before.” Our decision will chart our trajectory. Not choosing our ‘Star Trek Moments’ guarantees we will always be the follower, not the lead dog.
And as the old saying goes: “If you aren’t the lead dog, the view never changes.” How true.