For leaders who never stop learning
“Digital disruptors prey on complacency. Now is not the time for business as usual. All companies need to act like challengers and embrace disruption to reimagine their businesses. They need to sharpen strategies, energize engagement, and accelerate transformation to win.” Dino Trevisani
President and General Manager, IBM Canada
They say that being a CEO is one of the loneliest jobs in the world. It’s particularly difficult when their organization is facing, or in the midst of, disruption — a word that’s overused, yes, but also one that fits the bill because it epitomizes the intensity of confusion, panic, and distraction that comes with massive technical and social changes.
Today’s executives have been in the thick of digital and demographic shockwaves for most of their careers — an existence synonymous with a life in perpetual chaos. To thrive in this chaos, leaders need to restructure their organizations to manage multiple business models and revenue streams (advertising, reader revenue, events, merchandise, etc.), they also need to transform the company culture in ways that will be, without a doubt, foreign and prickly for some. It’s a massive undertaking to reinvent legacy organizations and lead them out of confusion and into a future of clarity and confidence organization. But in the end the challenges are worth the rewards.
Media’s seemingly endless struggle to transform itself has been at the top of my mind for several years. Over that time I’ve gathered a number of notable insights from leaders who have struggled and prevailed in the face of revolutionary changes, those who actively embraced change to fuel new ideas, innovations, and industries, and the advisers who have counselled both.
I’m sure you’re familiar with some of these individuals, but there will likely be others outside your familiar leadership landscape that I hope will inspire you as they have me.
Leadership in the 21st century
Leadership consultant, university professor, columnist, and keynote speaker, Dr. Ed Brenegar has been working with senior executives and entrepreneurs for over 30 years helping them be more effective leaders in a world racked by constant change.
Brenegar asserts that leadership in the 21st century is fundamentally different than it was two decades ago. Prior to the year 2000, the typical corporation was a top-down, closed hierarchy that absorbed raw talent into its organizational structure. It was a time of few leaders and many followers. Today, successful organizations are open systems where the raw talent actually transforms the organizational structure — where everyone can function as a leader.
Mainstream media grew up in the 20th century and prospered, particularly in the era just prior to the internet. It probably seemed like a logical idea at the time to carry that winning leadership equation forward after the turn of the century, but the results proved otherwise. Worrying though, that despite the financial devastation that continues to pummel the media business, we haven’t seen much change in its leadership models in the past 20 years.
Breneger’s assertions about shared leadership remind me of an interview I did with serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and author of The Great Rewrite, Leonard Brody back in 2016, where he talked about the reversal of power we’re seeing today across organizations and society.
Prior to the internet, power was controlled from the top-down, whether that be from presidents, principals, priests or publishers. Fueled by massive changes in technology and social behavior, that traditional pyramid of power has been completely inverted in almost every facet of our lives.
The 2017 Edelman Barometer Trust Study supported Brody’s claim, reiterating that there has been a fundamental shift in the relationship between those who traditionally held authority and the people they once managed. Getting back to the publishing world…
We live in a people-powered planet, not the publisher-powered one that once wielded considerable influence over society and governments. But it’s only been in the past few years that some media executives have started to recognize that. What most lacked in 2000, and many still do to this day, is vision.
What is a visionary leader?
Dr. Breneger’s definition is one we subscribe to at PressReader and is worth bookmarking and reading often… “Visionary leaders are the builders of a new dawn, working with imagination, insight, and boldness. They present a challenge that calls forth the best in people and brings them together around a shared sense of purpose. Their eyes are on the horizon, not just on the near at hand. They are social innovators, and change agents, seeing the big picture and thinking strategically.
“There is a profound interconnectedness between the leader and the whole, and true visionary leaders serve the good of the whole. They search for solutions that transcend the usual adversarial approaches and address the causal level of problems. They find a higher synthesis of the best of both sides of an issue and address the systemic root causes of problems to create real breakthroughs.”
The professor also shares that visionary leaders have a talent for:
• Seeing, not just what changes need to be made, but the impacts those changes will have on the future
• Articulating those changes in a way that helps others envision the impacts of changes before ever implementing them
In thinking about Dr. Breneger’s viewpoint, let’s each ask ourselves these three questions to see how we measure up:
1. Can I envision the changes that need to be made in my organization so we are prepared for whatever the future brings?
2. Can I communicate our vision (and necessary changes) so that others can easily visualize them and rally around a shared sense of purpose?
3. Do we practice first principles to tackle root causes that stand in the way of building a new dawn for the whole (employees, customers, shareholders, suppliers, and partners)?
If the answers are not in the affirmative, then we really need to ask ourselves the toughest question of all, “Why?”
Lessons from three visionary leaders
If I were to choose leaders who epitomize Breneger’s definition, these individuals immediately pop into my mind: Phil Knight (Nike), Sir Richard Branson (Virgin), Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs (Apple), Jack Ma (Alibaba), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Larry Page (Google), and Bill Gates (Microsoft). Let’s take a look at three of them a little more closely.
Phil Knight: Keep your eyes on the horizon
You’ve all heard Nike’s “Just do it!” mantra. But did you know that when the company came up with that catchy phrase in 1988, it wasn’t at the top of its game. The winter before, the company experienced the biggest slump in its history; it was in dire straits.
But Phil Knight, Nike’s co-founder, took a bold risk to rebrand the company with a slogan of dubious origin; that move was considered by many to be the catalyst behind the company’s reversal of misfortune. Today Nike is the number one apparel brand in the world with annual revenues of over $US34B and net income of $US4.2B.
Knight was an imaginative, insightful, and bold leader who did not believe in micromanaging employees. Long before the power pyramid flipped in favor of people, Knight recognized leadership talents in those he employed. Once he shared his vision with new hires he trusted them to perform to the best of their abilities (their way) and he gave them the space to do that. He inspired them to…
“Dream audaciously. Have the courage to fail forward. Act with urgency.” Phil Knight
Sir Richard Branson: Serve the good of the whole
As a teenager, this self-made entrepreneur and philanthropist was dyslexic and struggling with academics. He had dropped out of school at 16, but his age and failure to graduate didn’t hold him back.
To appease his father who wanted him to complete his education, Richard made his first big deal. He promised his father that he would sell the equivalent of US$8K worth of advertising needed to launch a magazine he felt young people needed — The Student. If he missed his goal, he would return to school; if he made it, he would be free to launch his first real business.
400+ companies later, the charismatic icon has given us some of the most successful people-first brands in the world — an incredible legacy that has afforded him a net worth of over US$5B and a life most of us can only dream of. And here’s why…
“From my very first day as an entrepreneur, I've felt the only mission worth pursuing in business is to make people's lives better. There's no point in starting a business unless you're going to make a dramatic difference to other people's lives.”
Sir Richard Branson
Can any of us truthfully say that why we do what we do is to make a dramatic difference in peoples’ lives? Probably not too many if we’re truly honest, and that’s okay. Because although we can’t change our past, we can make a new and better future for ourselves and others.
Oprah Winfrey: Be the voice of vision
A few years I read an editorial about the leadership secrets that made Oprah the first black woman billionaire in world history with an estimated worth of US$3B. There were many, including her unquestionable love of her audience, her empathy for others, and her ability to motivate millions. It’s why “Oprah for president” is a mantra sung by many in the US. In an interview at Stanford University Business School, she told the audience that her mission is to try to lift people up…
“I'm trying to bring little pieces of light into people's lives because my job is not to be an interviewer, my job is not to be a talk show host or just to own a network. I am here to raise the level of consciousness to connect people to ideas and stories so that they can see themselves and live better lives." Oprah Winfrey