For lead­ers who never stop learn­ing

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“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

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