What’s the one thing a business leader must have?

Updated: Apr 2

A destination.

That’s one place, not a list.

The leader’s job is to inspire everyone to want to go there, and then set out along the route he or she has decided on.

It’s helpful to put all this in concrete terms. Leadership is often talked about in abstract, almost mystical ways, but if you think about a group of people on the move, wandering through possibly hostile terrain, it all becomes much clearer.

So – a single, clearly defined destination. You can call this your business vision if you like.

It can be far away, over the horizon, almost impossibly remote, as long as it’s desirable enough.

The NSPCC used to have as its destination ‘Cruelty to children must stop. Full stop.’

A brilliant, and unarguable destination. Nothing less would do. Even if we never get there, it’s the only worthwhile destination.

They’ve now replaced it with ‘Every childhood is worth fighting for,’ which isn’t a destination at all.

Their fundraising has fallen every year since.

Your destination – or vision – must, I said, be desirable. Not just to you, or your shareholders, but to everyone in your business. It should also impress your clients, who are essentially going to pay for the journey.

When I was at an agency called 141, we were asked to design the website for Cordiant, the network to which we belonged.

The chairman, who was wafted to and from the office in a chauffeur driven Mercedes S-Class, told us he thought the very best thing to put on the site, right there when you first arrived, would be a live feed of the Cordiant share price.

The staff and clients weren’t shareholders. Most had the usual level of interest or knowledge about share prices (almost none).

Cordiant went bust three years later.

A desirable destination is one that offers everyone something meaningful. Not money. You can get that anywhere.

A destination or vision that mentions money can’t help but also remind everyone that the eventual distribution will be fantastically unequal. Whereas the benefits to everyone of working in a brilliant company, in terms of satisfaction, career prospects and fun are much more evenly shared.

You must define your destination in as few words as possible, because people won’t remember it otherwise.

The next thing you need is a map, on which you can plan your route to your destination.

The route may be hard, and you need to be prepared. But an easy route to a close destination won’t inspire anyone, nor will it produce the best in your people.

Being prepared means having the right team, the right equipment, and plans for what to do when things go wrong, as they will.

This is hostile terrain, remember. You will have to fight bandits, wild animals, and organised enemies, traverse bogs and ravines, and deal with appalling weather. The leader will be at the front, always confident, never despairing. If you want to cry, go and do it in private. Never show fear, never show lack of faith in your people, never give up.

You need to have a schedule, but not be a slave to it. Set ambitious targets, but don’t despair if you don’t always hit the waypoints.

Navigating the route includes using financial data, but you can’t triangulate your position using only one data source. The clue’s in the word.

Decide on two other measures of success – non-financial, and thus of wider interest beyond the company walls. In my industry, awards, or at least brilliant creative work, could be one. PR about the business – wins, initiatives, innovation, opinions – could be another.

You may find yourself a long way off your route over time. Don’t change the destination. Remember there’s always more than one way to get where you’re going. It may take longer, or be harder, but keep heading where you said you were going.

Keep your people with you. A leader is always visible, always audible. Literally, in the flesh. Emails etc. won’t do. You’re only on the journey together if they can all see you at the front, striding forwards. Without hesitation.

Whenever you hit a waypoint, stop and tell everyone. Praise them for getting there. Celebrate with them. Honour them. Then show them the next one, far ahead.

When you fail, tell them why. Don’t blame them. Take responsibility. Then show them where the next waypoint is, and get up and go towards it. They’ll follow.

If you ever reach your destination, it wasn’t difficult enough. Set another, further off. Everyone who followed you this far will have such pride, such faith, and so much fun along the way, they’ll pick up their packs and start out for the new, far horizon.

Keep going, because sitting still is boring.

You can rest when you’re dead.

The actions:

1. Set your destination and make it ambitious

2. Throw it away and set another even more ambitious one

3. Tear up the first two and write the really audacious one

4. Plan your route

5. Establish who’s leading

6. Talk to your people a lot

7. Never show fear

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