In a discussion with my son about my recent blog on how to motivate and inspire, he reminded me of the outstanding Jim Collins book Good to Great. In it, Collins describes the research he and his team carried out to identify the factors in highly successful companies that produced and sustained great results over a period of years.
These factors included getting the right people on the bus, confronting the brutal facts, maintaining a culture of discipline, etc. However, Collins begins his discussion with leadership as the first step to greatness. The most successful leaders possess what he calls Level 5 leadership.
Level 5 Leadership is not the showy and powerful leadership style most of us imagine in an exceptionally successful company. It is instead leadership that builds teams, shares successes, and focuses nearly exclusively on results.
Level 5 leaders mix personal humility and professional will that supersedes ego and brings about sustainable results for the organization and the leaders who will follow.
This is all very valuable, and if you have not read the book or read it long ago, I encourage you to pick it up and explore what makes an organization and a leader great.
However, in my discussion with my son, I was struck most with the fact that Collins and his team discovered this information about the importance of leadership in spite of initial efforts to downplay its significance.
Collins states in the second chapter of the book that he directed his research team to avoid the simplistic “credit the leader” or “blame the leader” mindset common today. He believed leadership was too often used as the modern “answer to everything.”
Even with this effort to look at all possible factors, Collins asserts that he and his team were “surprised, shocked really, to discover” the importance of leadership and the type of leadership required for turning a good company into a great company.
When faced with the results, Collins took the information they found and wove it into a very valuable bestseller.
His revelation led me to think about how often leaders expect or hope for a given result and then face something entirely different.
Humble leaders are open to the possibility that they do not have all the answers. This allows them to absorb new information and adapt to surprising circumstances. They can adjust their behavior and their thinking to unexpected events and outcomes.
In short, outstanding leaders recognize that surprises are inevitable and they are able to deal with them.
So, how does an effective leader handle surprises? Let’s look at some strategies.
Plan – The best way to avoid surprises is to consider the possibility that surprises will occur. Certainly, it is not possible to predict all factors that may affect an organization. No amount of planning can overcome external factors such as natural disasters or economic downturns or internal factors such as personnel conflicts, but thinking about those possibilities reduces their impact once they occur.
Listen – Be open to new information. Actively seek the opinions of both naysayers and yahsayers. What are their reservations? What are their complaints? What are the probable outcomes of different alternatives? Once a surprise surfaces, effective leaders listen even more. What options are available for dealing with unexpected events?
Learn – Explore the experiences of other people and other organizations. Focus on curiosity and learning as strategies for success. Look at what works and what does not work for others while implementing and modifying strategies to align with the group’s or organization’s unique environment.
Focus – Collins described exceptional leaders as people whose primary concern was what served the interests of the company. Their decisions reflected their concern with growing the organization even if those decisions were difficult to make. As such, they approached surprises and setbacks with questions about how unexpected events affected the mission and the bottom line.
Take the broad view – Leaders who excel take a systems approach to decision-making. They recognize that each decision affects other components of the system. In both planning and implementation, exceptional leaders seriously consider the law of unintended consequences. What are possible results of every decision both inside and outside the organization? How can the leadership team minimize or prevent unintended consequences?
Remain positive – Excellent leaders remain positive even if things look bleak. Level 5 leaders as described by Collins are driven to do whatever it takes to make the company great. Collins used the term fanatically driven to describe them. Effective leaders learn from negative situations. They admit mistakes. They remain in control of their emotions. Their positivity affects those around them.
Consider opportunities – Not all surprises are negative and not all negative outcomes must remain so. Outstanding leaders look for ways to turn a perceived negative situation into a positive. They use their positive attitude, their passion and their wealth of information to consider how to turn possible disasters into triumphs.
Great leaders expect surprises and show confidence in their ability to handle them.
What other strategies do you see outstanding leaders using to prepare for and deal with unexpected or undesired events?