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What Great Leaders Believe In

By Paul B. Thornton, Managing Partner, Be The Leader Associates

What's the difference between a cab driver and a leader? A cab driver simply takes you from point A to point B. A leader takes you to a place you hadn't envisioned or thought possible.

What drives a leader to pursue a better future? Leaders believe most people and organizations are under performing and capable of achieving much more. They believe there are hidden talents, underutilized resources, and people eager to make a bigger impact in every organization. Leaders believe people will rise to the occasion if they understand the challenge and know what's in it for them.

These beliefs propel leaders to do three things:
  1. See What's Possible – Leaders search for and discover new ideas/new possibilities regarding people, processes, and performance levels. They develop a vision, a clear picture in their mind of what the organization can become.
  2. Describe What's Possible – Leaders describe their vision in a way that gets people excited and energized. They communicate their message in a clear, concise, and convincing manner.
  3. Pursue What's Possible – Leaders take action. They execute!
Seeing What's Possible
I have a vision! I have a dream! How do leaders discover what's possible?

Leaders often start by focusing on what is – current reality. New presidents and CEOs often spend up too six months visiting company facilities to meet with employees at all levels. They find out what people think, how they behave and what they accomplish. 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.

Current reality is one thing; what is possible in the future is something quite different. After lots of discussion, debate, thinking, and reflection, leaders begin to focus in on what is possible – what the organization can become. Author and consultant Marcus Buckingham says that leaders are compelled by the future. The future calls to them in a voice they can't drown out. It becomes the focus by which they engage their world.

Some of the specific actions leaders 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. A new mission statement can focus your thinking in new directions.
  • Be curious. Ask questions. 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 people to truly evaluate how something is currently being done and how it might be done differently.
  • Start with a clean sheet of paper. If you were starting out today, how would you set up and operate your department or 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 opportunities and possibilities in terms of both what can be accomplished and how it can be achieved. 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 without a vision.

Describing What's Possible
What's the difference between visualizing a better future and describing it? Words – colorful, descriptive, and emotional words are needed to capture people's attention and imagination. Words that get people excited and energized to take action.

Everyday people are bombarded with hundreds of messages. How do leaders make their messages stand out? How do they cut through the clutter and get people to pay attention and fully consider their ideas? Leaders frame the discussion in a way that focuses people on the important principles, values, ideals, and opportunities needed to create a better future.

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