Radical Optimist … how the best leaders inspire people, enhance performance and accelerate progress

February 15, 2018

Leaders inspire people, performance and progress.

Inspiration comes from a positive outlook on a confusing and uncertain world. It comes from being able to make sense of often-bewildering change, and to have a clarity and confidence about what the future holds. It is not just about great words, it must be real – authentic, human and desirable.

Leaders enrich, engage and enable their people, and their businesses, to go further.

Too often we see leadership revert to its classic pyramidal model, where the leader stands at the top of the organisation, encouraging his (hopefully, just as frequently, her) people forwards. They have learnt not to command in the old way, but they still see themselves as coordinators from on high, and controllers of the organisation machine.

But leadership is more than that today, and increasingly not that. The leader gives the organisation energy and purpose, sets a style that becomes a culture, and the hands-on impetus to continually think different and do better. As a business we could do anything, enter any market or sector. So organisations requires a more active style of ongoing leadership – better choices, clarity of navigation, and momentum.

Leaders catalyse, connect, communicate and coach.

Most importantly, they amplify potential.

Today there is much to be anxious about when we get up each day. Uncertainty reigns as rapid change disrupts expectations and social norms. The old institutions are fractured and economic conditions fluctuate widely. Threats abound, from climate change to cyberterrorism. The relentless pace can make you want to curl up in a corner, wary of what might come next.

Or you look ahead, through the chaos and complexity, ready to build a better tomorrow.

Here are a few inspirations:

Fast Company magazine recently summarised 10 attributes for leaders of today, seeking more courage and confidence, to see the future with more optimism.

1. Move quick

When Ford CEO Jim Hackett talks about leading the 115-year-old company that he took over in 2017, he acknowledges the need to speed up its metabolism—to try more new things. It’s one reason he’s endorsed fast prototyping at Ford’s new Greenfield Labs in Palo Alto. If Ford wants to withstand the revolutions of autonomous driving and next-generation engines, Hackett knows, its culture has to move beyond methodical and reliable. But Hackett also isn’t saying what Ford’s precise business model will be after these revolutions play out. And he’s okay with that uncertainty. He’s too impatient to stand still, yet deeply patient about selecting an ultimate course of action.

2. Take time to think

Someone once told me, “Before you say something in anger, count backward from 100.” Keeping calm is one of the hardest challenges in times of stress. It is also the route to gaining perspective. When Questlove talks about his love of silence—and how it serves as a creative engine for him—he’s definitely onto something. The sound of silence is the sound of someone thinking.

3. Have a point of view

One of my favorite verses from the musical Hamilton is the lead character’s admonition of Aaron Burr early in the play: “If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for?” As leaders and as businesses, we are defined by the positions we take on the most difficult issues. To Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, that means pledging to hire 100,000 “opportunity youth.” To soccer star Abby Wambach, that means support for both U.S. patriotism and Colin Kaep­er­nick. As Nike’s Hannah Jones puts it, “A brand that doesn’t stand for something is no longer a brand worth working for.” This is not a moment to be shy.

4. Be a force for change

Government officials may claim to be stewards of our social contract, but other institutions provide their own leadership as well. “Think about the sustainability movement,” says Nike’s Jones. “You fly across the world and you see windmill farms everywhere. It doesn’t matter what the U.S. administration is doing; we are all moving to renewable energy.” From education to gender identity norms, businesses play a central role in advancing global culture. Forward-thinking leaders embrace that responsibility with conviction.

5. Don’t forget, you’re human

In our tech-filled world of always-on connectivity, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence, direct interaction provides the ultimate competitive advantage. As Ideo’s Fred Dust argues, face-to-face engagement is a dwindling art. Yet it is empathy that unlocks so much capacity and creativity. Whether in a one-on-one situation or a one-to-many forum, listening is an essential skill. As Brandless CEO Tina Sharkey says, “People are craving human interaction. That’s going to move the needle more than any technology you could ever dream up.”

6. Cross the line

Traditional demarcations of “generations”—what differentiates one age cohort from another—are becoming muddy, as experience takes precedence over age. While seasoned executives still have wisdom to share with young talents—Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood calls the training of young people “probably the most important mark I hope to leave”—modern mentorship is a two-way street. West Elm’s Doug Guiley admits to leaning on his 12-year-old daughter for perspective on his brand. He’s hardly alone in appreciating the fresh eyes and intuition of digital natives.

7. Respect complexity

Even as businesses work to project confidence in a competitive world, we all have to get comfortable with a higher-than-usual degree of messiness if we want to iterate at the pace of global change. “We can’t think about being perfect, we just have to keep moving forward,” says Dell Technologies’ Elizabeth Gore. Whether the topic is bitcoin or AI, we have to accept that our knowledge is incomplete, that lifelong learning is required. Actor Kate Hudson, who cofounded athleisure brand Fabletics, groans at the prospect of robots invading the retail experience—yet she acknowledges that her company will inevitably need to reckon with them.

8. Embrace differences

Diversity is not just a social issue; it is a business requirement. Having “a lot of different people in the room,” says Morgan Stanley’s Carla Harris, unlocks broader ideas and opportunities. What’s more, says Professor Michael Kimmel, diversity must be aligned with inclusion, breaking down silos and freeing voices. Whether it’s TV writer Lena Waithe discussing her emotional, Emmy-winning coming-out episode of Master of None, or drag queens Sasha Velour, Milk, and BibleGirl sparking dialogue around how we talk about gender with our kids, uncomfortable topics help us all to grow.

9. Raise your expectations

Millennials “are getting into positions of leadership faster than we did,” says Morgan Stanley’s Harris. “That is going to cause companies that have been around a long time to change.” A parallel transformation is under way in the consumer marketplace. Sundial’s Bonin Bough uses the term “promiscuous” to describe consumers, not in a derogatory sense, but to underscore how fluid our relationships with products and brands—and employers—have become. That sets the bar higher for everyone, to be more consistent, more responsive, more essential. Yesterday’s achievements just don’t hold the same weight; today’s best practices are tomorrow’s table stakes.

10. Do it, don’t just talk about it

To hear Kimbal Musk and Dan Barber argue about the future of food is like glimpsing two parallel visions of the future. Will we grow produce in vertical farms within cities, as Musk would have it? Or will we return to family farming that balances ecology, sustainability, and health, as Barber prefers? Neither course would be considered likely by most analysts, and yet that skepticism bothers the two of them not at all. The fact that their visions are difficult to execute is part of what drives them. They take nothing for granted—and they put everything they have into remaking this vital sector. In the process, they open the door to a better way for all of us.

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