Dedication and patience are crucial to leading a successful organisation, but the greatest and most enduring companies of our modern age have something else – leaders who look beyond the confines of business convention and into a different future; leaders who see opportunity where others see obstacles.
There are five principles to which I believe outstanding businesses of whatever size, era or market segment – unfailingly return. Considered collectively, these strengths – the impulses to democratise, revolutionise, simplify, organise and author – are all defined by, a quality I call 'Limitless'.
Limitless leaders are never the type to settle for being big fish in small ponds. With egalitarian vision and aiming to make a sustained contribution, they give themselves the greatest chance of creating real change by giving to the many what is held by the few. A striking number of Limitless businesses began when an entrepreneur tried something new, and liked it enough to put their faith in the idea that others would like it too. That usually meant imaginatively inventing something; making an existing product or service better, or more widely available and affordable; or seeing a great idea in one territory and then taking it to another.
One way or another, the bravest and truest entrepreneurs have always been about the extension of access. For Henry Ford, it was the horseless carriage, also known as ‘the automobile’. For Margaret Rudkin, it meant baking more of the bread she’d originally devised for her sick son. Today, winning ideas take off and can leap across continents in seconds, but it has always been true that if just one person knew they were on to something good, the masses would eventually come around.
The process may have dramatically accelerated in our digital world, but that doesn’t mean tomorrow’s leaders don’t have plenty to learn from the democratisers who did it first.
The most transformative organisations and teams aren’t always the ones whose leaders shout the loudest. To oversee a business revolution, you don’t just need a compelling vision of the future; you also require the quiet perceptiveness, adaptability and human awareness to make it a living reality. Revolutionaries discover new ways of thinking about business and breaking through the boundaries of what their peers considered possible, but it takes a rebel to lead a revolution. Nonconformists achieve their impossible dreams by being uncommonly aware of and alert to the people and society around them. It’s their humanity, humility and receptiveness, their willingness to change their tactical approaches, that allows them to achieve their strategic goals.
To make your mark in a world overloaded with complexity and information, you need a clear, concise voice and the fewest steps possible between your idea and its fulfilment. Those who profit the most from their simple ideas tend to be those who fundamentally believe in simplification, not just as an expedient or economic strategy, but as a defining aspect of their identity. That’s true for long-lived, world renowned, best-in-class organisations such as LEGO and Chanel but it’s also true of those who lead by example, who inspire others by their unstinting devotion to their daily tasks and their unflagging respect for the materials they work with.
Just like so many people do in their lives, workers at many companies view ‘getting organised’ at work as clearing up their desk at the end of the year, or the ritual re-shuffling of departments with which a new boss inevitably makes as a symbolic mark on the business. They are seen as processes that have to be endured before you can get back to what you’re actually paid to do. Yet the most effective people don’t treat organisation as a chore or an annual spring clean. They see it as the best way to start realising their goals now, instead of in some mythical ‘then’.
Leaders of the most effective companies think the same way, and make sure their staff understand and benefit from the fact that it’s the best way too. Relentlessly improving and evolving systems will deliver a continuous stream of excellence as organisations adapt, expand, get resilient and grow. Think of it as superior output through constant adaptation.
Our shiny new digital economy has made old-fashioned talk about the importance of the story more important than ever. From professional sports to Michelin-starred restaurants, storytelling is explicitly acknowledged in all spheres of public life as a force that gives meaning to human experience and has a real impact on what individuals and communities can accomplish.
Everything an organisation does is part of a narrative because every aspect of human understanding is shaped by a story. If you want to lead your organisation to exceptional feats, you have to embrace and assert your own story, and the responsibilities of authorship.