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Can your leadership change business or even the world?

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George Bernard Shaw sculpture in Onatrio, CA at the site of the annual Shaw Festival.

Conceptualizing leadership

I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the idea that leadership, in its truest sense, is a function of clarity and change. One of my favorite quotes is by the somewhat controversial George Bernard Shaw, who maintained that, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

To adapt the world to oneself, one must have a very clear idea of oneself. It is not the undertaking of a non-conformist soul in search of meaning in the world, but rather the endeavor of a man or woman with a very clear sense of purpose… a man or woman who can clearly communicate that purpose to others. It is a reasonable theorem – born out a million times over by different personality modeling methodologies – that most people crave clarity but have no idea how to create or achieve it. Clarity, for those people is stability, where stability is defined as a sense of certainty about the future. The misnomer, I believe, is the idea that people need be assured of success, when in truth, they simply need be assured of purpose.

Leaps of faith

Throughout human history, from simple survival, to civilization, to politics and business, people have shown a willingness to take great leaps of faith based entirely on one person’s ability to paint a picture of the future. And whereas none could be assured of such a future, the simple clarity of vision was enough for people to risk life and livelihood in pursuit of it.

Whether you are talking about a tribe setting out across the African tundra, three ships setting out across the Atlantic, or a tiny Asian country setting out to war, the principle is the same. They did these things, in spite of their fears because they believed in the outcome.

Being a quality leader

So how does this apply to your business? If you, like many business owners, find yourself spending too much time managing your team, and not enough time leading them, it is most likely because the team does not understand where you are trying to go. And, if the team does understand where you are trying to go, and they still won’t go with you, they probably don’t believe that you are going to take them to a better place.

The solution? First find clarity for yourself – hire an outside consultant if you have to who can help you see past the trees to the forest and the future beyond – and then paint that picture for your team. If they still aren’t with you, it might be time to make some hard decisions. If it comes to that (and it sometimes does), stop hiring resumes and start hiring people for their ability to see where your organization is going and willingness to help you get there. Because if you’re growing a business, there are going to be a lot of changes – a lot of UNcertainty – along the way, but people will accept and even embrace that uncertainty if they have a clear and consistent goal.

In fact, few things truly are certain, but here is one that is – there are people alive today that are going to change both business and the world as we know it. The question is will you be one of them?

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36 Comments

36 Comments

  1. Jason Blackburn

    January 28, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Elijah,

    Couldn't agree more with your conclusion that we all need a greater clarity of purpose both personally and professionally to not only lead ourselves but to lead others. This is the foundation of the training we do at Laser Focus Training after all.

    However, it seems that "Leadership" training is all the rage these days, and that management training has taken a backseat. Being a manager is not as "sophisticated" as being a leader, but in view it is just as important, if not more so.

    So how do see the difference between leadership and management, and do you believe that having this clarity of purpose can make one a more effective manager as well, which is what I train?

    BTW…great article…been looking forward to the first one since you told me you joined AG. Congrats.

    Thanks,
    Jason

    • Elijah May

      January 29, 2012 at 4:44 pm

      First of all, thanks for the reply, Jason. I really appreciate the feedback.

      In answer to your question, let me start by saying two things: 1) I believe that leaders lead, regardless of where they are within an organization, and 2) I believe that leadership AND management, at any level, are ultimately about support.

      Here is what I mean….

      A top healthcare consultant recently recounted to me the story of a young man who, despite being "challenged", was given the opportunity to work as a night custodian at a hospital. This young man took great pride in his work and did a remarkable job, ultimately leading people to notice and comment on the difference it made. Just imagine the impact that a crisp, clean environment has on the patients and staff of a healthcare facility. It directly improves morale, and therefore quality of care, and therefore people's health. Unfortunately, however, this young man was *promoted* to the day shift, where he promptly got into an altercation with someone about walking on *his* wet floors and was fired. This example goes to show that A) pride of purpose and leadership of self alone are enough to make real difference, and B) there is an abysmal failure of management in not recognizing and supporting the strengths (and limitations) of one's team.

      Yes, I believe that "leadership" and "leadership training" have become somewhat cliche terms, often devoid of any real meaning. Nonethless, I believe there is a genuine need to identify the true leaders within in organization and empower those people so that they can empower others to maximize their talents. There is just as much need, however, to identify non-leading managers (aka organizational bureaucrats) and get them out of the way.

      As to the difference between leadership and management, I think it's merely a question of scope. A managers job is to help the individuals on his or her team apply the company's greater purpose to his or her specific role and be great in that role. The "leader" of a company is responsible for keeping that greater purpose in focus. At least, that's what I think.

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Business Entrepreneur

How to effectively share negative thoughts with your business partner

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) You and your business partner(s) are in a close relationship, and just like a marriage, negative emotions may play a role in the relationship.

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You and your business partner are in a relationship. Your business was born when you shared a common vision of the future and became giddy from the prospect of all you could do together that you couldn’t do alone. Now, you spend much of the day doing things together in collaboration. The stakes are high; there are obstacles to overcome, decisions to make together, deadlines to meet, and all the stresses of running a business.

It’s no wonder a business partnership can often be just as complicated and emotional as a romantic relationship. If you are struggling with your business partner, you might find helpful advice in resources originally targeted towards troubled couples.

Relationship expert Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein has explored how to share “toxic thoughts” with your partner. In a linked article, Bernstein describes toxic thoughts as distortions of the truth that cause us to overemphasize the negative attributes of our partner.

Some examples of toxic thoughts include blaming your partner for larger problems that aren’t really their fault, inaccurately assuming your partners intentions, or resenting your partner for not intuiting your needs, even if you haven’t expressed them. The defining characteristic of these toxic thoughts is that, although they may be based in the truth, they are generally exaggerations of reality, reflecting our own stresses and insecurities.

Just as much as in a love relationship, these toxic thoughts could easily strain a business partnership. If you find yourself having toxic thoughts about your business partner, you will need to decide whether to hold your tongue, or have a potentially difficult conversation. Even when we remain quiet about our frustrations, they are easily felt in the awkward atmosphere of interpersonal tension and passive aggressive slights that results.

Dr. Bernstein points out that being honest about your toxic thoughts with your partner can help increase understanding and intimacy. It also gives your partner a chance to share their toxic thoughts with you, so you’d better be ready to take what you dish out. It might be hard to talk about our frustrations with each other so candidly, but it might also be the most straightforward way to resolve them.

Then again, Bernstein points out, some people prefer to work through their toxic thoughts alone. By his own definition, toxic thoughts are unfair exaggerations of and assumptions about our partner’s behavior. If you find yourself jumping to conclusions, assuming the worst, or blaming your partner for imagined catastrophes, perhaps you’d better take a few minutes to calm down and consider whether or not it’s worth picking a fight about. Then again, if you’re self-aware enough to realize that you are exaggerating the truth, you can probably also tease out the real roots of any tension you’ve been experiencing with your business partner.

If you are going to get personal, shoulder your own emotional baggage and try to approach your partner with equal parts honesty and diplomacy. Avoid insults, stay optimistic, and focus on solutions. State your own feelings and ask questions, rather than airing your assumptions about their intentions or behaviors. Keep your toxic thoughts to yourself, and work towards adjusting the behaviors that are making you feel negatively towards each other. Your business might depend on it.

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Business Entrepreneur

Zen, please: Demand for mental health services surges during pandemic

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) 2020 has been an exceptionally hard year for many on a mental front. How has COVID-19 changed the mental health landscape?

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Man leaning against tree, affected by mental health.

As the pandemic stretches on, it continues to affect everything from jobs to plastic bags, but one major shift has come with mental health. According to the National Council for Mental Health, while demand for mental health services is up 52%, the capacity of mental health organizations have actually diminished. So…what does this mean?

Mental health startups get a boost

From tele-health to mindfulness apps, venture capital investments for mental health startups have already surpassed what was earned in 2019. And it makes sense; as more people are isolated for long stretches of time, there has become a greater demand for digital mental wellness services.

With COVID-19 predicted to spike again in the coming months, combined with shorter spans of daylight and less welcoming weather, the desire for these sorts of businesses isn’t likely to fade. If you have an idea for a neat app or website to help with mental well-being in some way, now is prime time to release it.

Companies increase mental health options

As the pandemic rages on, many companies have started to partner with mental health solutions for their employees. For instance, Starbucks has started offering free therapy sessions to employees through the mental wellness provider Lyra, and Zoom began to offer mental health seminars.

Of course, while smaller companies might not have the means to provide specific therapy, many companies have gotten creative with how they’re looking out for employees’ mental and emotional well-being. From providing virtual meditation sessions, to increasing self-managed leave, to connecting employees through book clubs or happy hours, there are a variety of ways that any company can help employees manage their psyche during these difficult times.

Resources are more accessible

Although therapy and similar apps do cost money (many apps include a monthly fee for the services provided), there are plenty of low cost alternatives available for those having a hard time. For example, many sites are offering free trials to services. There are also plenty of free or low-cost apps available to help you do anything from track your moods to manage your breathing. Or check out YouTube for videos to help with yoga or meditation.

While these resources are not a replacement for medication or talk therapy, they can help mediate some of the increased strain on our mental state that many of us are feeling right now.

In case of an emergency, there is also the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is available by phone call or chat 24 hours a day. If you or someone you know is struggling, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

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Business Entrepreneur

The success of your business could be tied to your succession plan

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) You can’t spell ‘successor’ without success. In the age of COVID-19, are the two mutually exclusive to your ventures?

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Women at desk with laptop discussion succession.

“Heir” is a weighty term. A fun pun, to be sure, through the beauty of English homophones. But seriously, unless you’re already 10% and up rich, talk of heirs and succession does connote a certain heaviness you may not be used to.

For those choosing successors, it’s the heaviness of accepting mortality. For the potential promotees, it’s the heaviness of accepting a multitude of responsibilities. Or buying ear poison. Either way.

We expect to deal with familial succession. As eldest (assuming he doesn’t outlive me), I’m in charge of flinging Dad’s ashes into a nicer section of the ocean and distributing all of his Cosby sweaters amongst the sibs, and I take the role very seriously.

As a serial-small-business employee though, I’ve only just started wondering what would happen if my boss died. Of all the ‘lose your job’ scenarios I’ve had waking nightmares about, that one in particular only cropped up for me a year ago. And now, with the coronavirus taking up our attention, more business owners than usual might be wondering the same thing from the other side of the desk.

What’s going to happen to my employees if I’m too sick to work? Have I set things up so that this company can survive past me? Does at least one other person know the combination to the safes?

If your business is big enough to have employees and advisors on deck, these are questions you need to have answered… Preferably in written, notarized form to ensure smooth succession.

So where should you start? Probably with a good talk.

If you have a next-in-command standing ready, but don’t have a plan yet, let them know that if the inevitable happens sooner rather than later, that you’d like them to step in. A frank conversation about their future with your brand, and actually asking them if they feel up to taking the reins is a great place to start. Otherwise, consider your network— who you might sell the business to, and who might know someone who knows someone.

P.S. If your VP says they’d rather run off and sail the world if you got hit by an asteroid next week, please don’t hold it against them.

We all know that ghosts stick around because they’ve got unfinished business, right? Don’t let your literal business be the shade that haunts your team! Take a deep breath and get the ball rolling on THIS side of the dirt… Ouija boards can only do so much.

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