The next three attributes required for great strategic leadership are: vision, creativity and imagination. Many times these are lumped together and the fine nuances between the three are lost. We often hear that someone is creative and imaginative or has vision and creativity. People refer to these traits as though they were synonyms.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  They are mutually independent characteristics. You can be creative but lack vision. You can have imagination but lack creativity. I will show how each of these are unique and individual traits but each are required for strategic leadership. Let us first look at the role that vision has played in the theater of history and destiny.

John Man in his book “The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan” notes that Genghis Khan was a leader of exceptional vision and modernity. Furthermore, Man states that vision, direction and ambition were the key leadership traits that Genghis Khan possessed and used to conquer and administrate his vast empire. Genghis Khan’s vision was the unification of China, that later evolved into global conquest.

Napoleon had a vision of a unified Europe. We may feel that war has no value in such visions, but this assertion allows us the luxury or arrogance of judging history by 21st century standards. One could ask if Europe might not have been better off if Napoleon’s dream had been realized. Would the world have suffered through WW1 and WW2 if there had been a united Europe? What if Alexander’s dream of making Greek democracy the dominant world system had been realized in 320 BCE? Would we be facing a Middle East where terrorism seems rampant and we are bogged down in wars that seem to have no ending?

But what exactly is a vision? It has been said that when you link goals and action items to a vision, it becomes a plan, but where does the vision come from in the first place? Why do so many people and organizations seem to have a plan but no vision?  We have five year and twenty five year plans but seldom do we see five year or even one year visions.  You can have a vision and no plan or a plan and no vision but the more common state of affairs is a plan without a vision. Take the following test. Select ten companies that either you own stock in, admire or think would be great companies to work for. Now go online and see how many of these have a strong and clear vision statement.

For example, let’s take 3M.  Go to Google and type in “3M Vision statement.”  Here is what you will find:

3M Brand Identity Vision

“We earn customer loyalty and respect when we effectively differentiate from our competition, communicate and reinforce the 3M brand strategy. The 3M brand identity standards serve to continually reinforce our frame of reference and the 3M brand promise.”

Unnh??  Do you know what this means? Does anyone at 3M know what it means? Do you think the average 3M employee comes to work saying: “Today I am going to work hard to continually reinforce our frame of reference and the 3M brand promise.”  By the way, what is the 3M brand promise? 

Ok, let’s try another company. How about Microsoft?  Go to Google and type in “Microsoft Vision Statement.”  Here is what you will find.

Microsoft:  A Vision and Strategy for the Future

“Diversity and inclusion are integral to Microsoft’s vision, strategy and business success. We recognize that leadership in today’s global marketplace requires that we create a corporate culture and an inclusive business environment where the best and brightest diverse minds—employees with varied perspectives, skills, and experiences–work together to meet global consumer demands.  The collaboration of cultures, ideas, and different perspectives is an organizational asset and brings forth greater creativity and innovation.”

This is the first of four paragraphs relating to Microsoft’s vision and strategy. It is alternately referred to as a vision statement for global diversity and inclusion. This latter interpretation seems to be closer to what this statement is about than a corporate vision. Are you inspired to work for Microsoft’s vision? Do you know what it means for you as an employee? What is Microsoft’s ultimate goal? If you know, I would appreciate your comments.

Let’s review the purpose of a vision:  Here are some suggested purposes for a vision or statement of vision:

  • Vision statements are the inspiring words chosen by successful leaders to clearly and concisely convey the direction of the organization. By crafting a vision statement, you can powerfully communicate your intentions and motivate your team or organization to realize an attractive and inspiring common vision of the future.
  •  Vision statements define the desired or intended future state of an organization or enterprise in terms of its fundamental objective and/or strategic direction.  Vision is a long term view, sometimes describing how the organization would like the world in which it operates to be.

As a purist, I might insist that all employees should share in the knowledge of the purpose of the organization. How do we expect anyone to go beyond mere organizational compliance and conformance if they do not buy into and subscribe to a larger purpose for their company?  However, as a pragmatist, I have to admit that the visions of many great companies are perhaps only known to the founder or senior leaders.

How many people knew what Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Steven Jobs or Sergei Brin’s visions were?  Most visions are not adequately shared or understood by the followers of such visions. Nevertheless, there are still powerful visions at play in the development of any great country or organization. The more powerful the vision, the greater the achievements usually are. Thus, the greatest mistake is to have a leader without a vision or with an insignificant vision that is not worth the effort.

Great visions inspire great efforts. It has been that way down through history and it is no different now. The Bible says in Proverbs 29:18 “Without a vision, the people will perish.” Great leaders know that great visions are essential for the development of great strategies.

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Audacity is the second trait of great strategic leaders. Great leaders in history have been most defined by their moments of audacity.  We remember Caesar crossing the Rubicon. To cross the Rubicon meant to burn a bridge that had never been crossed before. For Caesar, it meant that all of Rome would be against him. “ Roman law forbade any general to cross the Rubicon southward with troops; any Roman soldier south of the Rubicon became automatically a civilian and was no longer bound to obey his military commander’s orders – rather he was obliged to obey the law” (Wikipedia).  Would Caesar’s troops stand by him or would they obey Roman law? Even if they did stand by him, could he defeat at least five armies larger than his that could be brought to battle against him by Pompeii, one of the greatest Roman generals of all time?

Audacity is defined in the Free Online Dictionary as “the trait of being willing to undertake actions that involve risk or danger; “the proposal required great boldness”; “the plan required great hardiness of heart.”  Audacity involves courage, commitment and fortitude. It involves risk taking and a challenge to embrace the unknown. It is a way of ignoring the possibility of failure and thinking about the possibility of accomplishing amazing things.  People who are audacious are not afraid to fail but neither are they rash and ignorant of the odds arrayed against them.

Alexander the Great was rejected by the Tyrians who cut off the heads of his emissaries and tossed them from the city walls into the sea. They believed that they were impregnable and their walls could protect them. They laughed at Alexander’s request to make a sacrifice to the gods in their city. Outraged by their actions, Alexander spent seven months building a mole that was over 200 feet long into the city.  After defeating the Tyrians, Alexander destroyed the city and sold the remaining inhabitants into slavery. No one believed that Alexander could prevail against the City of Tyre and all thought his attempts were foolish and rash.  The City of Tyre is long forgotten but Alexander remains enshrined in history.

Shaka Zulu was born in 1785. His father was chief of a small Zulu tribe in Africa.  Shaka grew up in a warrior society and developed a new weapon called the iKlwa, a short spear that was very effective in battle. Shaka was very different from the typical Zulu warrior. Shaka had a vision of a unified Zulu nation. To accomplish this, Shaka started waging war to bring the various tribes under his command.  He did not believe in surrender and believed it was only honorable to fight to the death. Shaka took on larger and larger enemies and eventually increased the size of his command from 1200 to over 250,000 warriors. Shaka went from warrior to King by dint of his audacity and vision.

Audacity is a key element of most great business decisions.  From Disney starting a comic strip with Mickey Mouse before sound and motion were known to most people or  Bill Gates buying MS Dos to power IBMs new PC’s, we can see the audacity that such leaders exhibited. Think of Sam Walton starting a five and ten in Bentonville, Arkansas in 1950. This was fifty years after the start of such retail giants as: Ben Franklins, Woolworths, JC Penneys, W. T. Grants, Kresges, and not least Sears and Roebucks. There were over 2 million retail establishments in the United States in 1951. Who would have thought that the first Wal-Mart (Called Walton’s 5 and 10) could have had a chance to get off the ground in the face of such well-established and strong competition?  However, the odds did not stop Sam Walton. He was audacious and bold.

Look at the leadership in your company.  Is your leadership audacious or is it conservative. Are your companies everyday goals and vision bureaucratic and stultifying or are they invigorating, inspiring and challenging.  Are your workers excited about the start of the week or are they lamenting that “the weekend is over.”  Would they subscribe to the idea that “Thank God it’s Monday” or to the credo of TGIF?  People all want to be part of something that is bigger than they are. That is why people identify with sports teams, racers, athletes, movie stars, fantasy heroines and others that seem larger than life.

The average person is not audacious. Most people eat the same thing for breakfast and supper at least twice a week. Most people take the same trips ever year to the same places. Most people do not jump out of planes, climb a mountain or go to strange new countries that they have never been to before. Most people avoid change and would be happy if things always remained the same. Most corporate leaders are like most people. Their visions are boring and their lives are mundane. 

To be honest, for most of my life I avoided challenge and sought the sane and conventional.  I found jobs where I had security and a steady paycheck.  I learned early on to avoid risk and to take the guaranteed employment.  I have since learned that we all need more challenge in our lives. We all need bolder goals and more audacious visions.  It is not enough to simply put in 8 hours a day until we can retire. A life lived that way is simply a life falling into a form of early death.  We need to be excited about Mondays and what the week can bring. To do this, we all need to be more bold and audacious.

The first of the six traits that I believe all great leaders have is Discipline.  Great leaders exhibit extreme self-discipline and develop the same discipline in their followers. The power of discipline accounts for a large amount of their success.  But what is discipline?  A definition from Wikipedia is as follows:

In its most general sense, discipline refers to systematic instruction given to a disciple. To discipline thus means to instruct a person to follow a particular code of conduct “order.” Discipline is the instant willingness and obedience to all orders, respect for authority, self-reliance and teamwork. The ability to do the right thing even when no one is watching or suffer the consequences of guilt which produces pain in our bodies, “through pain comes discipline.” –United States Marine Corps

I think the juxtaposition of pain and discipline is interesting. I firmly believe that the willingness to exhibit discipline is mitigated by the pain and suffering that one is willing to maintain.  Pain and suffering are essential elements in the accomplishment of all great efforts. Whether you want to lose weight, gain six pack abs, become CEO or simply retire with enough money in the bank to overcome worries about finances, pain is a corollary to discipline.  We entail pain when we put off eating more than we need, when we exercise though we would rather watch TV or when we forego some leisure time to paint our house or wash our car.  

Pain may sound like too strong a word to describe the accompanying feelings, but it focuses our attention.  Perhaps too many people today now believe that desire is enough to achieve what they want.  That they can play all day and not have to pay the piper when the storm comes or that somehow they are entitled to success.  Magazines, TV and radio shows all trumpet the achievements of celebrities who were somehow born lucky or became overnight sensations.  Seldom if ever does the public see the private pain, deprivation, hard work and discipline that are behind the lives of these celebrities.  The public is brought up on a carnival and fantasy ride that leads it to think success is simply being in the right place at the right time. 

Hannibal is famous for crossing the Alps with 100 elephants and 50, 000 men. How many people realize that nearly half his men died in the crossing and only 10 elephants survived, most of which died shortly afterwards?  Can you imagine the difficulty of crossing the Alps into Italy only to be met by an army which was three times larger than yours?  Most men would have given up and sought the shortest way to return home. However, Hannibal’s pledge to his father when he was 12 years old to avenge Rome may have been one reason for his discipline.  Hannibal was focused on protecting Carthage and defending it against Roman imperialism.  Hannibal could endure any suffering as long as it brought him closer to his goal. This is a working definition of discipline.

Napoleon could spend the entire day in his saddle during a battle.  He was everywhere on the battlefield to rally his troops and to show his visibility and support for their effort. Even when wounded Napoleon would refuse to leave his troops.  Napoleons mother was a strict disciplinarian and it is said Napoleon often went to bed hungry to teach him self-discipline.  Napoleon wrote “I have never found the limit for my capacity for work.”  Napoleon was not a shirker; he did not try to get out of the hard work.  Napoleon was guided by the vision of a united Europe much as Alexander was guided by the vision of spreading democracy through the world.  Discipline is an unwavering belief in the justice of your goals.  Napoleon believed in the vision that he set for Europe.  Discipline kept him focused on his vision through the hardship and attacks of most of the rest of Europe.  

Discipline is a belief in the value of your products and services.  The core purpose of business is to provide value to the world and specifically to stakeholders.  If we are producing products and services that we believe in, we should be willing to go the extra mile to sell and promote our goods.  How many of us today would suffer pain or deprivation to promote our business?  How much pain or deprivation would you suffer to uphold the good name of your products and services?  The news seems full of entrepreneurs who seem to exist for the sole purpose of making a quick buck.  Suffering and pain would be far from the thought of many of them as they take advantage of others for their own gain and profit.  How many CEOs would willingly suffer for their employees?  When Caesar was warned that he might be assassinated, he went to the senate anyway.  How many business leaders will take responsibility for their failures and fall on their own swords?  Indeed, the norm seems to be to blame others or to find a “bankruptcy” escape route while hiding as many personal assets as one can.  Bonuses seem to abound even in the face of layoffs.  Who in leadership has the discipline to suffer along with their troops?

Take discipline.  Bake it with the five other traits that I am going to discuss and you have the makings of a great leader.  Without discipline, you have nothing and are nothing.  You can pretend, you can play games, you can wish, you can hide, but you cannot run from the fact, that discipline is an essential ingredient to greatness. Everything else without discipline is trivial and ephemeral. With discipline comes pain.  If you are not willing to take pain then as Harry Truman said “get out of the kitchen.” Leaders without discipline are like salt without the saltiness, they are fit only to be discarded.

In order to answer this question, let’s take a look at the following seven strategic leaders.  Several of these individuals are on various lists of the greatest strategic leaders of all time.  You may not agree with all of them but there is no doubt that they wielded a great influence over people and history:

  • Alexander the Great
  • Hannibal
  • Julius Caesar
  • Genghis Khan
  • Napoleon
  • Shaku Zulu
  • Adolf Hitler

By the way, adding Hitler to my list may offend some people, but I am not saying great equates to humane, ethical or moral leadership.  In fact, I doubt that many of the above leaders where concerned with these characteristics.   Hitler was in a class by himself when it comes to immorality and brutality to others. Only Hitler sought a kingdom on earth based on false notions of racist and biological supremacy as well as planned and systematic genocide. 

I am saying that all on this list were great strategists, perhaps given their reign more in the short-term than in the long-term.  One of the criticisms of Hannibal was that he could win any number of battles with the Romans but not the war.

I have spent many years studying the characteristics of such leaders as noted above. I have found that there are six traits which underlie the success that each of these individuals has had.  I may be so bold as to extrapolate from these individuals and claim that “all” great strategic leaders evidence these same six characteristics.  Furthermore, I will claim that these traits are perhaps the major contributing factors to their strategic success.  I use the tentative word “perhaps” because all ex post facto efforts to label history tend to be biased by the culture in which the author was born and raised and by the obvious fact such traits are attached to greatness with the value of hindsight rather than foresight.  It is all too easy to judge history from our present playing field and remain blind to nuances and influences that took place at the time.  Many studies of successful companies suffer from the same problems of attribution.

Take the lists of “great” companies that several well known authors have compiled and in many cases made into best selling books. Some of these would include:

 1. In Search of Excellence:

2. Discipline of Market Leaders

3. From Good to Great

4. Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People

In each case, the author compiles a list of currently “great” companies and then goes to find several traits or characteristics that seem to fit each. This is ex post facto reasoning.  Do these traits cause the company to be great or do they evolve from the behaviors of great companies?  Do they truly predict that companies will become great?  Will these companies remain great? Way not wait for five to ten years and see how many of these companies are still the “Greatest.”  When a decade or two goes by, generally the companies on such lists have not held up too well. This should cast some doubt on the universality of the traits proposed by the author and the power of the model he/she advocates for actually predicting greatness. With predictive reasoning, we would list six or seven characteristics and then forecast on the basis of these traits which new companies will be great as well as which companies will remain great. A model that could predict greatness before the fact rather than after the fact would truly have some value. What I am talking about is the ability to predict who is going to win the game before the game versus the ability to armchair quarterback the day after the game is over.

Given the caveats I noted above, I will  list each trait that I see as highly characteristic of great strategic leaders and try to make a case for why each was and is critical for strategic success.  I will allocate one blog to each trait and then do a final summary. By the way, at least the leaders I have noted above are still on several lists of great strategic leaders many decades after their deaths.

Dr. Deming used to talk about “superstitious management” in his seminars. His stories were always good for a few laughs.  You think of the “rational” manager concept and all the books that are written on good management practices and the idea of superstitious management seems like an anachronism.  You may (as I was) be inclined to think Dr. Deming was kidding.  However, the more I consulted, the more I found out that superstitious management is not a joke; in fact, in all too many places it is the norm.  I will talk about some of these norms, but first let’s define superstition.  According to Wikipedia:

Superstition is a credulous belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge. The word is often used pejoratively to refer to folk beliefs deemed irrational. This leads to some superstitions being called “old wives’ tales“. It is also commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, prophecy and spiritual beings, particularly the irrational belief that future events can be foretold by specific unrelated prior events.

Dr. Deming believed that managers too often held irrational assumptions about cause and effect relationships that would lead them to believe they could foretell future events. For instance: take the common usage of Performance Reviews or Merit Reviews.  A still prevalent belief is that if we rate and rank employees and drop the bottom ten percent each year, we will improve performance and productivity.  Whence does that belief come from, perhaps an old wives tale? However most likely it stems from some wishful thinking not based on reason or knowledge.  How many companies have you seen go through the yearly search for a new performance management system? How many managers do you know who hate their performance review process? How many employees do you know who are clamoring for their yearly performance review?  How many companies do you know with outstanding performance that would cite their management or employee review system as the major contributing cause?

Dr. Deming pointed out in his many writings all the ways that traditional rate and rank systems actually had an adverse impact on performance.  The decrease in morale, the lack of innovation, the decline in risk taking, the lack of imagination that can all be linked to systems that have no basis in reality. The employees see no relationship between cause and effect with these systems. They work as hard as they can, but still the company moves to Mexico.  They put in long hours, work overtime, accept pay cuts and benefit decreases, but still the company declares bankruptcy.

We all want to belief that hard work and motivation will pay off in increased performance, but the reality is that the system we work in has as much to do with our success or failure as our own individual efforts. That is why people succeed in the US while in other countries they fail. People do not become smarter when they move to the US.  We have a better system that permits people to achieve here. You still need to work hard and smart to succeed but we have a system that provides a foundation for hard work and motivation to pay off.  

Hoping for motivation and hard work alone to pay off is one of the biggest superstitions in management. It shows a lack of imagination and creativity. It puts the responsibility on workers and not on the system to change. It expects individual performance to result in increased profits and higher quality.  Dr. Deming showed over and over again that lower costs and improved productivity came from changing the system, removing barriers that blocked people from doing their best and applying scientific measuring techniques to all processes in the organization. There are no shortcuts.  Scaring your employees yearly or bi-yearly will not result in any significant change. If by some chance, you do get better results, only a superstitious person would believe that there is a link between the two.

How many times have you seen a mission statement that said “We want to be the best” or “We highly value our employees”? We tend to just take these for granted and most employees will simply ignore them. In fact, even at the best companies or most successful companies, the mission statements are virtually unknown by most employees if not most of management. I have visited dozens of companies wherein most of management could not begin to tell you what their mission or vision is. Why?

The answer is simple. Either the mission statement is in the head of the founder or the existing mission statement is boring and unmemorable. Cookie cutter statements such as noted above are not going to inspire anyone. Worse, they fail to provide any stategic direction. What is missing is imagination. The kind of imagination that inspired the Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Avatar. I am not talking about “Pie in the Sky” type planning. I am talking about words and visions that inspire and excite us. Adventures and goals that take us out of our mundane everyday lives and help make us part of something bigger than ourselves. We all want to be part of something great, something memorable. Whether it is simply by supporting our sports team, having our children on a winning team or joining the church choir, we need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. However, we must believe that this “bigger’ thing is going somewhere exciting or has the potential to be a winner. 

Are you inspired by your company mission or vision? What would it take for you to be more inspired? Do you self inspire? Do you have y0ur own personal vision and mission? Why not?

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