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Friday, March 13, 2015

Visionary Leaders: What’s Their Secret?

By: Gail S. Perry

An executive once asked me a question that launched me on a 4-year quest for an answer.  We were discussing examples of visionary leaders who led their organizations to great heights.  He looked at me with desperation in his eyes and said, “HOW do visionary leaders think of this stuff?  I’m not Steve Jobs or Henry Ford.  I have no brilliant ideas.”  

My only response, at the time, was “I don’t know…our process just works” and to give him some real client examples.   But it bugged me that I couldn’t explain exactly HOW it works.

As an engineer, I am driven to understand how things work…and thus began the 4 year quest.  I started paying attention to when and how that “flash of visionary inspiration” happens when we work with consulting clients.   

And my quest to understand HOW the process works led me to a variety of studies in strategy, innovation, neuroscience, leadership, psychology, business history, and military history.  Along the way, I discovered that there are actually TWO definitions of “strategy”1.    But most of us, are only familiar with one!  Did you know that?  I was stunned.

In the 1830’s, the definition of strategy “lost” a key component when two strategy books were written based on the successes of Napoleon.  The first was written by a German, Clausewitz, and this dense, hard-to-read tome carried forward the full definition of strategy from the earliest thinkers on the topic of strategy, from Sun Tzu forward.  The second book, written in French by Jomini, was much easier for readers to understand.  But Jomini’s book left out a portion of what Clausewitz and all prior writers had included in their definition of strategy.  

Fast forward from 1830 and you’ll see that military strategists relied upon Jomini’s writings…and business strategy concepts evolved from military strategy.  Consequently, the definition of strategy that most of us are familiar with is actually only a PARTIAL definition.   Today, we define strategy as “how to get from Point A to Point B.”  
 
The missing component of strategy, which was dropped by Jomini in the 1830’s, is:  How to determine the strategically unique “Point B” in the first place – not just choosing an obvious “Point B” that others in your industry are likely to choose.   This strategic inspiration is what we associate with visionary leaders.  

I know that the Institute’s strategic planning process is unique because we (admittedly unknowingly) have always incorporated the FULL definition of strategy - our clients regularly have strategic insights regarding “Point B” and then we develop a strategy to get from Point A to Point B.  But to understand HOW our process facilitates the mysterious “inspiration” part of strategic visioning, I had to study further.  

Neuroscience and writers in the field of innovation tell us that creative ideas are nothing more than the brain combining bits of already known information in a new way.  If you look at scientific discovery, the arts, history…you see this is true.  In my study of innovation, I’ve yet to see an example of a truly original idea.  In reality, ideas build upon pre-existing information and combine things in new ways.  

By way of example: Steve Jobs had a spark of inspiration when he visited Xerox and they showed him their research into GUI (Graphical User Interface) and he imagined combining this with a desktop computer. Henry Ford had a spark of inspiration when he visited an animal processing plant and imagined reversing the “animal disassembly line” and, instead, creating a moving assembly line to build an automobile.  

I’ve been privy to watch flashes of inspiration happen when a client combines things in a new way and realizes “there is our Point B!”  So HOW, exactly, do we incubate strategic visioning?   And that’s when I had my own “aha!” moment.  To “incubate” means to ensure the right conditions exist for something to take form.  And THAT’S the secret!

So what are these conditions?  First, the brain needs to contain lots of information and ideas to have fodder for new combinations.   The Institute’s proprietary strategic planning process stocks and stimulates the brain via the strategic thinking exercises we lead the client to perform, as well as via our use of diverse teams (which brings more information, facts, and ideas into the process).  The more you have to work with, the more likely you are to find an innovative combination.   

Second, one’s mind must relax.  Ever notice how your best ideas come when your mind is calm?  In the shower?  While jogging? While you are half asleep?  That’s when your brain is free to combine things in new and innovative ways.  Our workshops are conducted in stress-free locations. And we simply lead the team, step by step, through various strategic thinking and decision-making exercises in a relaxed environment.  There is no pressure or expectations for the leadership team to come up with something brilliant.  We simply work through our proven process.

So, the answer that I have come to, after four long years, is that you need to create the right conditions to be “visionary”.  A leader can prepare him/herself by constantly learning.  Read.  Study.  Attend seminars.  Network.  Get out and visit other companies.  Steve Jobs visited Xerox.  Henry Ford visited the animal processing plant.  Both had numerous outside interests.  The more you learn and experience, the more information you will have in your head.   Then, relax.  Free your mind and let inspiration find YOU.  

Furthermore, I came to realize that a good leader doesn’t have to have all the answers. The Institute’s inclusive process actually takes the burden off of the leader and leverages the innovation potential throughout the organization.  When all staff understand the big picture, this information gets combined with everything the staff knows and has experienced….and creative ideas spark!    At one client, the factory union steward is the individual who actually had the eureka moment regarding the future of the company.

To fill your mind with new ideas and to network and learn from other organizations, we invite you to attend our upcoming Strategy Execution Summit.

And if you want us to lead your team through the process of finding your strategically unique “Point B”, contact us about our strategic consulting services.

1In the spirit of continuous learning, I also highly recommend one of the sources that helped provide the final missing link in my study on this topic:  William Duggan’s book, Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement.


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Gail Stout Perry

Gail Stout PerryGail Stout Perry

Gail is co-author of The Institute Way with over 20 years of strategic planning and performance management consulting experience with corporate, nonprofit, and government organizations. Other posts by Gail Stout Perry

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