Leadership – Seeing, Describing, and Pursuing What’s Possible

“We can be # 1 in our industry!”

Historians spend their lives dissecting the past; leaders focus their energies on the future. They see, describe, and pursue new possibilities with great vigor. Leaders are confident there is always something higher to achieve, a new level of excellence to attain.

The possibilities triangle includes the following:

  • Seeing what’s possible
  • Describing what’s possible
  • Pursuing what’s possible

Seeing What’s Possible

Leaders start by focusing on current reality. New presidents and CEOs often spend up to six months visiting company facilities meeting with employees at all levels. They probe, observe, and evaluate what people say, and how people think and behave. What’s being accomplished? What’s not getting done? In his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, author Jim Collins says that great leaders have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts about the current situation. They cut through the hype and spin to uncover the truth.

However, leaders aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They believe most people and organization are underperforming and capable of achieving and redefining their potential as new challenges are presented. A colleague states, “Leaders have bigger ideas and loftier goals in mind. They see opportunity while others only see – business as usual!” The major message in Tom Peters’ new book, Re-imagine is just the point I’m making – discover what’s possible. I encourage you to take this concept a step further by challenging yourself to see new possibilities everyday.

What is possible?

  • 100% customer satisfaction
  • Equal opportunities for all
  • Six sigma quality or zero defects
  • Being the world leader
  • Employees who love what they do

Non-leaders, bystanders stay focused on the status quo and obstacles that prohibit change. Their attitudes and assumptions paralyze them from exploring and uncovering new opportunities and possibilities. They often operate with one or more of the following mind-sets.

  • Stereotypes -“He’s a bean counter. He could never be in Sales.” “She’s only a secretary. She could never be a team leader.”
  • Theory X Assumptions – “Most people are lazy, irresponsible and don’t want to work.” “He’s incapable of directing his own behavior.”
  • Negative/Pessimistic – “We’ll never solve that problem.”

When people hold these assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes they aren’t able to see the potential in people and organizations. They have no vision of what can be.

How do leaders discover what’s possible? It starts with a fundamental belief in people: in their capacity to create new ideas, experiment, learn, adapt, grow, work as a unified team, and their will to create a better future. Some of the actions you can take to discover what’s possible include:

  • Study The Best – Every chance you get observe the best-the top tennis player, the most efficiently run zoo, the company that annually receives outstanding customer service awards, etc. There are always new ideas and lessons to be learned from studying the attitudes and actions of the best performers.
  • Change Your Mission – Restate your business purpose or mission. For example, if I change my business mission from “to make buggy whips” to “to design and produce unique leather products,” I’m opening my mind to consider a wide range of leather products such as belts, bags, pants, and wallets.
  • Be Curious – Ask Questions. “How can we cut cycle time by 50%?” My favorite questions are “why” and “what if.” “Why do we have that procedure?” “What if we outsource the HR function?” The right question forces you to truly evaluate how something is currently being done and how it might be done differently.
  • Start With a Clean Sheet of Paper – Ask the question if you were starting out today how would you set up and operate your business? What would you do differently?
  • Travel – I’m a big believer in international travel. See first hand how businesses operate in other countries. Experiencing a totally different culture always helps me see new possibilities and opportunities.
  • Leave Your Comfort Zone – Tom Russell, author, trainer and publisher states, “When I think about what’s possible I focus on what makes me uncomfortable. What lies just outside what I believe is possible. I find new opportunities and directions just beyond my comfort zone.”

Bottom line – leaders discover new possibilities in terms of both what can be accomplished and how it can be done. As a parent, husband, teacher, and coach I have frequently asked the question-what possibilities do I see? What can my children become? How can my marriage evolve to a new level? What can my students achieve? If I can’t see what’s possible I can’t lead. I have no direction to pursue without a vision.

What possibilities do you see for your team, department, and organization?

Describing What’s Possible

Leaders not only see what’s possible, but also describe what’s possible. They describe what’s possible in a clear, concise, and compelling manner. Leaders paint the picture of a better future in a way that people can visualize it, feel it, and connect with it.

How can you make your message stand out from the crowd? What makes Madonna stand out? She’s bold and daring. She’s provocative in her style, dress and delivery. What makes Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream “speech stand out as one of the best of all time? His message was simple – equal opportunity for all. However he packaged his message with colorful language, hit emotional cords and his presence was clearly felt.

Ho-hum messages go by unnoticed. Originality, boldness, daring, passion, and guts grab people’s attention. What you say – the message and how you say it – the delivery are both critical to getting people’s attention.

Creating the Message

Leaders have to take their ideas regarding what’s possible and organize these abstract thoughts into a powerful concrete presentation. Sometimes you only have a few minutes to informally present your ideas; while in other instances it may mean giving a 40-minute formal speech. They use many of the following techniques to create their presentation.

  • The Right Balance – Leaders package their message with the right balance of realism and optimism. They keep hope alive.
  • Keep It Simple – Boil things down to the core nitty-gritty. Leaders use simple stories, examples and illustrations to make their point.
  • Contrast – They often compare or contrast “what is” versus what “can be.” Leaders talk about “good-bad,” “right-wrong,” “present-future.” They boil things down to two options so people have a clear choice of what needs to be done and why. For example, “Our choice is to embrace risk and uncertainty as a challenge, or stay in our comfort zone and lose market share.”
  • Stories – Nothing is more interesting than a good story. When leaders tell stories, they engage people both emotionally and intellectually. A senior executive told me, “The best stories are personal. They describe how someone faced difficulty, struggled, experienced fear and doubt, and eventually found a way to succeed. Memorable stories are simple but make a powerful point.”
  • Colorful Language – They paint pictures. “The red BMW convertible…” is easy to visualize. Former President Reagan once said, “a trillion bucks amounts to a stack of dough as high as the Empire State Building.”
  • Business Case – Present one-to-three reasons why change is needed. Most people want a clear definitive reason why they need to change and what’s in it for them.

 Delivering the Message

How do leaders deliver their message? They are:

Passionate
Energetic
Animated
Confident
Determined
Purposeful
Happy

Where do the passion, energy and fun come from? They’re excited about the possibilities they see. Leaders love to discuss their vision. It’s like an evangelist who wants to preach his message every chance he gets. In addition, they project confidence and certainty that they know where they are going and how to get there. Tricia Day, Chief Labor Relations Officer, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority states, “Having confidence in yourself and your beliefs provides the energy to be forceful and direct.”

Leaders create a clear, focused, powerful message. Their delivery is animated, enthusiastic, and purposeful. However leaders don’t create and deliver a “perfect speech” on their first try. It’s like writing a book. Making revisions, editing, and fine-tuning are needed to make it focused and powerful.

Describe one possibility you see for yourself, your team, and your organization. Get feedback on the content and delivery of the message. In what ways could it be improved?

Pursuing What’s Possible

Step one is seeing what’s possible. Step two is describing what’s possible. Step three is pursuing what’s possible.

Talk is one thing. Execution – taking action is something quite different. “Walking the talk” means your actions had better match your words. A senior executive states, “I must set the example. If I don’t take risks and show I’m willing to change how can I expect my direct reports to change? No one will stretch more than I do.”

In addition to “setting the example” pursuing what’s possible means helping people change. As people leave their comfort zone doubts and fears creep in. Fear of failure can become more pronounced as people move farther out of their comfort zone. Leaders help people find the courage, knowledge, and skills to make the needed changes. They provide the following support:

  • Psychological Support – Help people deal with their doubts and fears. Build people’s confidence. Affirm their talents and determination to succeed. Remind people of their previous successes.
  • Training Support – Help people learn the “how-to-do-it” part of the equation. Change usually requires new knowledge and skills. Provide the target audience with the appropriate education and training. Help people use and apply their new skills.
  • Cheerleading Support – Provide frequent recognition and rewards for people’s efforts and accomplishments. Plan and celebrate short-term wins. Momentum will increase if there are positive results early on.
  • Feedback Support – The best leaders give frequent and candid performance feedback. They let people know what they would like to see “more of,” “less of,” and what should continue unchanged. Performance feedback reinforces desired behavior and defines when new behavior is needed. Without feedback, employees are left to assume their performance is meeting or exceeding expectations.

Achieving what’s possible requires focus, hard work, and determination. Expect problems and frustrations especially during the initial implementation. When the “rubber meets the road,” it can be bumpy. There are always potholes and problems along the way. Some people will react with fears and doubts. “I don’t think I can learn the new software.” “I don’t know how I’m going to handle being on three teams.”

It’s easy to get distracted and lose your focus. It’s tempting to give up on your dream when problems and setbacks occur. However, leaders know the end result is worth the effort. They help everyone keep their eye on the “prize.”

To what extent are you pursuing the possibilities you see for yourself and others? To what extent are you implementing your plan to achieve your goals?

Summary

Some people can’t see beyond today. They have no vision. Other people see new possibilities but have trouble describing them clearly, concisely and convincingly. Still others see what’s possible, describe it, but never take the first steps to achieve their vision. To be an effective leader all three actions – seeing what’s possible, describing what’s possible, and pursuing what’s possible – are needed to lead and make a difference.

© 2005 – 2014, Paul B. Thornton. All rights reserved.