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On Leadership: A 21st Century Approach for Driving 'Dog Year' Firms into the New Millennium

Scott Shemwell's picture
President & CEO Strategic Decision Sciences

Scott Shemwell is the president and CEO of Strategic Decision Sciences. His firm provides its clients with Quantitative and Qualitative analysis and insight throughout the major decision...

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Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare. -- Japanese Proverb
In the 1970 Academy Award movie 'Patton,' George C. Scott played the irascible politically incorrect General who, while not the best loved commander, consistently led his armies to accomplish hitherto unknown levels of excellence, a task repeated almost 50 years later by Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf during Desert Storm. Contrast these rapid successes with the bureaucratic, indecisive, politically correct, fiasco called Vietnam. Rapid, decisive and generally correct decisions are the hallmark of truly successful organizations; then, now, and even more so in the future. Often using combat metaphors, business in this century will be even more competitive and more cutthroat. Military comparisons may be more than the norm, as the corporate battlefield continues to take-no-prisoners. Leaders continue to face downsizing, outsourcing, mergers & acquisitions, restructuring, and perhaps a host of new buzzwords that impact directly on the firm’s capability of adding economic value and shareholder wealth. How can an individual survive, much less excel in this environment? In one segment of the movie, Patton is shown on one side of a river demanding that subordinate commanders on the other side fumbling with a map and looking for a place to ford “get a move on”. Much like the, leaders in the new millennium must move quickly and decisively with minimum missteps. First mover advantage will only reside with those that can cross the river without drowning. Blindly driving full speed into a quagmire will only result in getting stuck and spending massive resources getting back on track. But will the task of the leader change in this century? The evidence suggests that decisive leadership is a trait as old as human king. Twenty-five centuries ago, Sun Tzu described a conversation between a general and his lieutenants. The subordinates wanted to check with a governmental bureaucrat concerning a decision about a pending military action. The general responded "It is today that our fortunes must be decided.” The enemy was quickly and decisively dispatched. Lengthy discourse over the battle plan would probably have been met with a better-prepared adversary with an increased likelihood of defeat. First mover advantage is fundamental to the Homo sapiens’s competitive environment. Throughout history rapid decisive decisions based on solid knowledge have repeatedly won the day. In business today, this is truer than ever. Leaders who show character, intelligence, knowledge of the situation, and shear determination than have attained more by those whose attention to the irrelevant has stifled an organization’s ability to move forward. Traits of the 21st Century Leader
Often repeated, sometimes trite, but correct saying “the only constant is change” today needs to be restated, “the only constant is accelerating change.” Our ever faster revolving world no longer cries out for individuals to stand at the forefront of change, but screams for Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena;” the individual who is engaged in the “game” not just a bystander – the leader! Leaders are symbols of the process of renewal; candidates for political office (even those with the incumbent party) always decry the need for change. True leaders have always “earned” their position, not just by appointed title. How does one earn the mantel of leadership? What traits will leaders exhibit and are they similar to their predecessors? The tasks of leaders are well defined; Envisioning Goals, Affirming Values, Motivating, Managing, Achieving Workable Unity, Explaining, Serving as a Symbol, Representing the Group, and Renewal. While these activities are time honored, there will be some changes in the new millennium. ENVISIONING GOALS – Individuals and organizations need a purpose, a direction, a sense of the future and their contribution to it. Vision is the first and foremost task a leader faces. Marshalling the synergistic effects of the extended enterprise to exceed the current and future competitors. The primary purpose of the leader is to steer the firm through a myriad of competitive minefields towards an ever-evolving goal. While the goal is never reached, the process of driving through the fluid technological and business process landscape is the fundamental charter of leadership. AFFIRMING VALUES – Every individual and firm has a set of values; those principles that are fundamental to existence. Sometimes compromised, never the less, values provide a purpose for being. Leaders establish values, reinforce values within the matrix of contemporary times, and preserve and enhance values for future generations. MOTIVATING – Leaders stand at the head of the parade. Motivating, mentoring, cajoling, and even directing, leaders must set the example through their behavior and example. Piloting the organization into the uncharted waters of the next decade requires individuals who can convince their peers, subordinates, and even superiors that their course is true. This skill requires skills that encompass human behavioral understanding as well as a strong grounding in technology. MANAGING – Not all aspects of leadership include sticking your entrepreneurial neck out. Many daily tasks require good fundamental managerial blocking and tackling. Most everyday activities revolve around moving the organization forward through the process of continuous improvement. One step at a time is the way most of us move from point A to point B. Effective leaders must manage these processes as much as and perhaps even better than their visionary concepts. One cannot over look the daily grind in our search for excellence. ACHIEVING WORKABLE UNITY – Diversity is the organizational hidden strength. Capitalizing on the business, technical, and political strengths of different constituents is the synergistic effect of today’s high performance team. Each individual is different and each requires different approaches to management and leadership. Today’s diverse team is the backbone of extended global enterprise. Capitalizing on the strengths of each individual and their organization extends the leaders influence across the globe. Truly, today, no man is an island – nor is any leader. EXPLAINING – Today’s knowledge workers do not accept dictates from management. These highly educated individuals don’t just demand explanations about decisions, they expect a voice. In this complex society, no individual or group of individuals can expect to exceed the sum total knowledge of the whole. Bringing the brainpower of the entire organization to bear on an issue requires informing and “getting buy-in” from individuals who “really” control the knowledge of the firm. SERVING AS A SYMBOL – Western society often depicts the leader as the person on the white horse leading the charge against all odds. This metaphor is older than Joan of Arc and is the quintessential view of the leader. True today, we continue to posture leaders on their pedestals. Contemporary leaders may not physically challenge the windmills, Don Quote style, but they do take on the establishment directly, decisively, and with success. These champions of the white horse are our modern heroes – sometimes doing battle with corporate American, not necessarily adversarial, these individuals often establish new companies. Sometimes, in their battle they become the champions within their own firms. REPRESENTING THE GROUP – Leaders typically head a group of individuals. Often this group has differing pints of view on any given subject. Even after extensive and often headed discussions, the group’s perspective may be somewhat diverse. Again, diversity is strength, and leaders must accept and present broad encompassing views that capitalize on the synergy of the whole, not just the ideas of the few. RENEWAL – As discussed earlier, change is omnipresent. With change comes uncertainty and leaders will be required on operate in an environment where they don’t know all the answers. Indeed in some cases they may not even know the questions. However, as in the past, knowledge subordinates demand leaders who not only respond to changing conditions, but also drive change themselves. The 21st century leader will exhibit tenacity, tenacity, and tenacity! Tenacity in the face of adversity and rapidly changing environments, tenacity despite rapid and seemingly unrelenting technological progress, and tenacity with the human element and the followers needs for support and growth. Like their colleagues of old, today’s leaders will be required to make quick decisive and generally correct decisions. Failure to do so will only open the door for those who may be more successful. Intense competitive environments will be the hallmark of future. Not unlike George Patton, today’s leaders will find themselves in intensely life and death (in the corporate sense) situations. In other words, those darlings of Wall Street today may be the relics of the future. The difference between success and the oblivion is leadership. Not just the individual, but organizational structural leadership! In other words, an organization comprised of leaders. In such a case are there any followers? Leaders beget followers and followers beget leaders. A true high performance organization has leaders who are leaders, and leaders who are followers and vice versa. But what does this mean? High performance knowledge driven entities are the sum total of human behavioral understanding. In this emerging world, tomorrow’s leader will be asked to perform tasks hitherto unknown. Or are they? Capitalizing on the leadership expertise of the past and reformulating these concepts for the future, leaders in the 21st century will extend our knowledge of this subject. The 21st century leader in Roosevelt’s arena will be asked to take on new, untested tasks. Patton like, they will accomplish the perceived impossibilities. This level of performance will become the norm! Vision without viable actionable plans will fall in the abyss, but without a vision of the future, arbitrary actions are irrelevant. Smart leadership has been the hallmark of the past and will be in the future. Making good decisions rapidly continue to be the core competency of good even great leaders. The more things change, the more they stay the same – so it is true with leadership as other human and physical events. More than ever, standing up in front of adversity and driving events towards the organizational vision is the task of the 21st century leader. While the task is large, most will not only be up to it, but will exceed.
To the victor belongs the gold of early mover advantage. To the timid belong the leftovers.
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