One of the most talked about and quoted magazine articles of 2006 was published in Fortune magazine and entitled: “What it takes to be great”. Geoffrey Colvin, the author of the article, drew on a number of research studies and anecdotal examples from modern history to illustrate that the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success.
The secret to greatness, he suggested, is in painful and demanding practice and hard work. The conclusions from this article have been quoted at valediction ceremonies, sports awards banquets, in CEO presentations and numerous less formal interactions and discussions over the past six months. The lure of greatness is something that is powerful, inspiring and appealing to many, but what does it mean in an entrepreneurial context? Is there such a thing as entrepreneurial greatness?
Greatness is not easy to define because so many people will see different actions, outcomes or achievements as great. The saying goes that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”; the same can be said of greatness. What I consider to be great may be very different from what you consider to be great. As we look for some commonality in respect of a definition for greatness in a business context, some concepts and themes are important:
Moving From Success To Significance
Many business people start off by dreaming of success: leading a company, creating significant wealth, being recognised and respected for one’s achievements. Business success is largely associated with creating wealth and value. Significance moves past just the creation of wealth into the domain of making a real difference, of impacting people’s lives in a positive way and leaving a lasting legacy.
Maslow described this as self-actualisation. It is the reason Warren Buffet has bequeathed $42 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the reason Bono spends more time talking to influential people about poverty and Aids than performing for his fans, and the reason that Oprah Winfrey has invested time, effort and energy in the creation of a school to develop leaders from underprivileged backgrounds in South Africa.
Creating Positive Change That Has
Greatness is associated with change. If you just do things the way they have always been done, it is highly unlikely that people will link you with greatness. The change that is created by great business leaders lasts much longer than their time at the helm of an organisation.
Consider how Henry Ford changed the way products are manufactured using an efficient assembly line process, or the way Herb Keller redefined the airline industry by delivering low cost with high service at Southwest. These are entrepreneurial leaders who have reshaped industries. In South Africa, Adrian Gore has reshaped the medical aid industry with Discovery Health and Pravin Gordhan has reshaped our perception of the taxman and proved that government departments need not be inefficient and incompetent.
Consider what makes a leader “great”. The cold, rational response in a business context may be return on investment, but there are very few people who would consider this the sole criterion for greatness. Being classified as a great business leader is far more complex than just money. Great business leaders tend to ignite and share passion, touch lives, develop people and enable others to perform past what would otherwise have been possible.
Robbie Brozin, founder and CEO of Nando’s, once said to me: “No person can do this alone, not Richard Branson, not Bill Gates, nobody. Building a great business is about surrounding yourself with good people and sharing your passion with them so that they are infected by it.” Passion and business success are integral. There are very few, if any, successful business people who are not truly passionate about their business. Passion is contagious and if you’re passionate about what you do, other people are drawn in and willing to do things they would otherwise not have done. Passion provides energy and energy enables action.
Great leaders act as role models, mentors, teachers and motivators for others. They touch and influence people in unique ways, often without realising it. I have listened to Mark Lamberti, the CEO of Massmart, speak on three occasions. Each time I listened to his story, I have gained a fresh perspective and new insights on what it takes to be great in business. He openly shares his philosophy and the lessons he has learned in growing a business. These stories motivate and inspire me to be more and do more with the talents I’ve been given. People want to learn and grow; great leaders enable and encourage others to never stop learning and to keep growing.
Creating Something New
Great leaders create. It may be a company, it may be a philosophy, it may be a new way of doing things. If you are satisfied with the status quo and just want to maintain things as they are, it is unlikely that you will ever move towards greatness.
Pierre Omidyar created a new way of transacting when he devised an online auction site that ultimately became e-Bay. He realised that there were significant inefficiencies in the traditional auction system and that the Internet could be used to enable a far more efficient market place. By experimenting, creating, refining and working hard, he grew a business with a global reach and has created wealth and employment for many others. To effectively create, you need to think, experiment and execute.
Gandhi said that “as human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world … as in being able to remake ourselves”. In examining the habits, practices and traits of entrepreneurial leaders over the past three years, I have discovered that in order to be a great leader of crowds, one first needs to be a great leader of one’s self and a great relationship builder with others.
Many authors have expressed this in different ways. In Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the first three habits focus on personal leadership (1. Be Proactive; 2. Begin with the end in mind; and 3. Put first things first). The second three habits focus on interpersonal relationships (4. Think win-win; 5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood; and 6. Synergise).
Emotional intelligence was identified by Daniel Goleman as the foundation to great leadership. Emotional intelligence (EQ) has five different areas; three of them focus on the leadership of self: self-awareness; self-regulation and personal motivation, and two focus on the interpersonal relationships: empathy and social skill.
So, developing leadership greatness happens on three levels: first, one has to learn to lead oneself, and then one should develop the ability to lead in an interpersonal context in order to have the foundation to lead larger groups of people. Many ambitious young entrepreneurs want to dive straight in to leading teams or larger groups without developing the ability to effectively lead themselves and develop relationships with others.
Developing Personal Leadership As A Foundation For Greatness
“Personal leadership is the self-confident ability to crystallise your thinking so that you are able to establish an exact direction for your life, to commit yourself to moving in that direction, and then to take determined action to acquire, accomplish or become what your goal demands.” So said PJ Meyers.
The most consistent attributes of people who move towards greatness in different contexts is a high level of self-awareness, setting and pursuing goals and the effective management of time.
Hence, three things that can contribute significantly to the development and enhancement of one’s personal leadership competence are:
- Doing a realistic self-evaluation and assessment of one’s strengths, weaknesses, passions and desires.
- Taking time to set meaningful and significant goals that draw you in a particular direction and cause you to take determined action to achieve what you desire. Articulate your goals in a way that inspires you and reminds you of what you have committed to.
- Employ a system to effectively manage your time. Whether that means buying and using a new diary or taking the time and effort to carefully plan your week, the effective utilisation of time will pay massive dividends in the long term.
Growing Interpersonal Leadership To Support Greatness
Developing interpersonal leadership is about developing richer, deeper relationships in which one can get honest feedback and learn to trust and draw on the support of others. You will be hard-pressed to find a leader with integrity who does not attribute much of their success to working closely with individuals whom they trust.
Developing strong interpersonal relationships is easy for some and takes a lot more effort and energy for others, but it is important and useful for everybody. To grow and enhance your interpersonal leadership, you should:
- Listen more and talk less. Listening is one of the most powerful communication tools available to all of us and the more we use it, the richer our relationships with others become – this applies equally in a work, home and social context.
- Ask for feedback and be open and forthcoming in providing feedback to others. Feedback is one of the most powerful mechanisms for facilitating positive change, yet many people shy away from it for fear of feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable.
- Make and keep promises. Promises that are kept build trust, and trust is the basis of powerful interpersonal relationships. A promise made and kept is a massive investment in an important relationship, but a promise broken is a huge withdrawal that takes much time and effort to recover.
Leading a large group of people is ultimately what it takes to be great, but it is very difficult to do if you are not able to lead yourself or develop meaningful one-on-one relationships with others.
Leading large groups is what people are remembered for and where entrepreneurs and businesspeople achieve real leverage to do what otherwise could not be done. To effectively lead a large group of people, it is important to:
- Establish an outcome that you are aiming to achieve. It can be called a vision, a mission or a set of goals, but in the end it is a target that aligns the group and gets them working towards something that is common, that they understand.
- Foster a sense of identity and belonging within a group. Human nature dictates that people naturally like to feel part of something and if you can provide them with that sense of belonging, they will be far more effective in contributing to the success of the group.
- Address and resolve conflict in the group. Conflict will arise in any group, and the response of the leader will have a massive impact on the cohesiveness of the group. Some managers prefer to sweep conflict under the carpet; this has the effect of eating away at trust and destroying effectiveness. Strong leaders address conflict in a firm but constructive way.
Ultimately, in business, success and greatness are achieved through other people. Greatness in sport is sometimes recognised as largely an individual effort. Tiger Woods’ effort on the golf course and Rodger Federer’s exploits on the tennis court are often recognised as solo efforts, but very few, if any, success stories in business are solo performances. Therefore, if you are to achieve greatness in business, you need to learn to work with, trust and empower other individuals to assist you in moving towards your dream.
Greatness as a business leader is about making the decision that you want to be great, being bold enough to move past the things that you are just good at, being disciplined enough to continually invest in yourself and others to build behaviour and competence that leads to greatness and, finally, to carry on in spite of the challenges and obstacles that life may throw at you.
Sure, there may be an element of good luck involved, but as Gary Player said: “You make your luck; the more I practice, the luckier I get.”
Great leaders are defined not by how they respond when things go well, but by how they respond to challenges. It is easy to keep going when things go well. It is more difficult to do so when things are going badly. All leaders go through periods when things go badly, when they are faced with adversity and there seems to be no way out. Being great is about adopting the attitude embraced in the words of Rudyard Kipling from the poem If: “If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone, and so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’…”.
The greatest contributor to the success of Richard Branson is his resilience and ability to overcome challenges. In the pro-cess of building the Virgin empire, he has been through many tough and testing challenges that would have broken a less determined individual. He had to sell his initial creation, Virgin Music, to generate cash to pay off other debts. A few months after launching Virgin Atlantic he had to convince the banks not to shut him down after a decline in travel and an increase in oil prices. He has also made several failed attempts to circle the globe non-stop in a hot air balloon. He has endured failure on many occasions, but he has not let that defeat him or prevent him from taking on his next challenge.
Good vs Great
The opening line of one of the best business booksof the 21st century reads as follows: “good is theenemy of great.”
Why is this such a profound statement? How might this statement be affecting you right now? What can you do to positively respond to this statement? This is the line that Jim Collins used to open the book entitled Good to Great.
He goes on to say: “And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great.” You see, if you are good at something, in business or in life, there is very little incentive to change or explore how you could become truly great.
It takes effort, guts and determination to go through the necessary self-exploration and perspiration to become great at something. Most businesspeople are not prepared to make that investment if they are already good at what they do.
If you wish to develop a business that is great or be a great entrepreneurial leader, you need to break away from the areas where you are just good, you need to work hard to move past being just good, you need to make an investment in greatness.
The essence of the article in Fortune magazine that I referred to in the opening paragraph of this article is that greatness takes deliberate practice and hard work. Research suggests that you are very unlikely to become truly great at anything unless you are willing to deliberately practise and work hard to become great.
As the Fortune article states, deliberate practice involves:
- Approaching critical tasks with an explicit goal of getting much better at them.
- Focusing on what you are doing and why you’re doing it in the way you are doing it when you carry out the task.
- Getting feedback on your performance after the task and making the necessary changes to improve.
- Building mental models to make sense of your situation – your industry, your company, your career – and enlarging the models to encompass more factors.
- Carrying these out in a disciplined and regular way. Occasional practice does not work.
How to take yourself and your company to greatness
Build and share passion
- Assess your typical week and evaluate how much time is spent on things you love, that inspire and energise you. Work through the other activities and reassign, delegate and minimise them in a responsible but definitive way so you spend more time on the stuff you enjoy. Remember that there are other people out there who love the stuff you hate.
- Reconnect with your motivation for getting involved in the business in the first place. Spend time thinking about what inspired you to be there and remind yourself what is really important about what you do.
- Take time out. It is hard to build and share passion when you’re exhausted. Relaxation brings perspective and passion.
- Interview the people who work for you to find out: Are they currently stretched in their job? Where do they want to go with their career? What will it take for them to get there? What can you do to help? You will be amazed by how a sincere conversation can change a working relationship for the better.
- Write down the key business lessons that you have learned in your career. Attach a real life story to each lesson. Share the lesson and the story whenever you get the chance. If you don’t think about your lessons and write them down, you are far less likely to remember them at the opportune moment.
Create and build
- Build some “think time” into your weekly schedule. This is time you dedicate to thinking through problems and putting things into perspective. Push yourself to think about the future of your industry or sector and what you can do to shape that future.
- Experiment with new ideas. Try things on a small, inexpensive scale. If they don’t work, discard them. If they do work, embrace them and build them into bigger, more influential projects.
- Create a new measure for success in your business, such as: How brave have we been? What rules have we changed? How do we rank on the creativity index? Evaluate yourself with your team against this measure on an annual basis
- Redefine failure. Consciously work through redefining failure from a negative outcome to a positive opportunity to learn.
- Share the load. Foster a relationship with a colleague, mentor or friend with whom you can share your frustrations and failures and who can help you put things in perspective and recognise ways to get up to fight the next battle.
- Engage in scenario planning. Prepare for the negative scenario. Work through some negative business scenarios with your team and decide how you will respond if such scenarios hit. In real life the negative outcome is usually not as bad as the scenario and you already have the tools and response to deal with it.