This article was written by Michał Paprocki, CTO at Euroclear with more than 17 years of experience in creating and managing IT centres as well as transforming financial companies into digital business models. Michał is recognised for leading successful agile transformations, for bringing a friendly ease to complexity and for his eagerness to challenge the status quo with out-of-the-galaxy thinking.
The title comes from another of master Yoda’s key teachings to Luke Skywalker on Dagobah. In the process of becoming a Jedi himself, Luke unleashed the full potential of his strengths and this was the moment when his mentor reminded him that a powerful leader should use his strengths wisely. And yes, Jedis often prove themselves fearless, but their bravery is always triggered by necessity. What’s in it for nowadays business leaders?
These days we are exposed to many phenomena that require bold moves and decisiveness. It is a “just do it” culture that seems to be part of everyday life and relentlessly calls for action. The usual suspects from big consultancy houses coined the relevant terminology for the XXI century with the “burning platform”, “business momentum”, “perfect storm” and “pivotal moment” since we are “on the verge of disruption”. By any means, we need to act boldly and to run fast to capture the opportunity and seize the market.
In the platform economy, the technological advances favour early entrants as the winner-takes-it-all approach pays off with massive scale effects and customer stickiness. Just think about business strategies that are very customer centric and assume that if you win the primary customer relationship and establish a platform (being the IT portal, loyalty program, partner ecosystem), then convenience of usage and marginal cost effect will allow to boost market share rapidly. In the platform economy, it means that massive market growth will soon turn into profit maximising by deep selling, cross selling or smart usage of entry barriers. That’s what we get with customer loyalty of Starbucks, supply chain stickiness of Foxconn or value-added services of Bloomberg. And again, the IT platform economy just elevated this to another level, where you can start with a simple email account and end up with an entire ecosystem of smart devices and applications that makes it next to impossible to abandon Google. Or perhaps you just discovered this nice app to stay close with your friends and on the spur of the moment you turn into a die-hard Facebook fan that physically suffers from any system outage that may occur.
On the other hand, the future is far from being predictable and markets are changing so rapidly that it takes a prophet to foresee the upcoming events and plan flawless steps to business nirvana. A more self-aware leader would rather realise his own limitations and experience a very uncomfortable feeling of being expected to act fearlessly yet not recklessly. So very often one becomes confused and sleepless nights might well be lurking on the horizon. It seems right and even tempting to ride on the market trend, while aware of the need to behave in a prudent way instead of betting on too many horses. Winston Churchill once said -
courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
Following this thought, we conclude that being courageous is a mindset, but the very way to exhibit your formal power depends on the company needs.
One extreme of this attitude could be Alan Mulally, the iconic CEO of Ford that was brought from Boeing in 2006 with a clear rescue mission. The depleted organisation was losing 18bn dollars a year and struggled tremendously and it deteriorated further with the upcoming financial crisis of 2008. During his eight years at the helm and unlike its Detroit competitors, Ford avoided bankruptcy, regained market share and returned to profitability. Mulally acted courageously with unprecedented decisions to sell off Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin in order to focus on key competences and totally reinvent the way Ford operated. He was so bold and brave that these decisions earned him numerous business awards as well as a Wall Street Journey bestseller book documenting these actions.
While Mulally would often say “no regrets” and act swiftly, let’s look into a similar CEO rescue mission of an equally, if not worse, struggling company which happened 13 years before. That is the story of IBM that overslept through the personal computers era and was literally on the verge of irrelevance. We were in the advent of Microsoft and far superior technologies brought by rapidly developing software solutions, when the concerned board hired Lou Gerstner, a seasoned executive with proven track record of success. To everyone’s immense surprise, Gerstner started the job and … did nothing. He famously said “the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision” and refrained from taking any decisions for some long six months. It’s not that we was standing idle or sitting on his hands, but, in reality, he kept himself very busy by talking to the employees and listening. Just think about the courage required to hold your horses and devote yourself entirely to a strategic setback. What happened afterwards was an amazing revival from a near-death experience that Gerstner pictured in a book “Who says elephants can’t dance”.
Having learned about these two extreme approaches, we may wonder what the key takeaways for brave Jedi leaders of the current era could be. Buddhist guru Thich Nhat Hanh is credited for having said that courage is the eighteen inches journey from the head to the heart. And it could be that this journey is the most difficult one. It implies business leaders should remain cold blooded, while driving the change by taking personal risks to make their companies successful.
First of all, a leader has to possess the inner strength to accept the challenge, to forge a plan and drive it. It surely requires the guts to speak up and open various well-hidden pandora boxes to discover and call out the root causes of current issues. It awakens the sleeping dogs and creates many tensions as well as keeps your working hours very long. Therefore, what helps significantly is to keep the process very inclusive. It also takes ultimate courage to be exposed to criticism, pushbacks and challenges.
It is always good to build on top of the company’s previous achievements and appeal to professional pride as well, as it is fair to acknowledge the various previous contributions and efforts. Next to that, brave leaders do break the rules, especially in the case of self-imposed psychological constraints and the company status quo. These leaders are also very candid and care about people. You strategise with your head, but lead with your heart as experience shows. And again, while courageous leaders are known for being decisive amid ambiguity, there is equal courage in creating an environment for their troops to take the risks and provide them with the ultimate air cover. Acting in a brave way is one dimension, but perhaps a harder one is to create such a trust level and safety net that we unleash the courage of our employees. We should strive for teamwork and collaboration, but at the same time not shy away from conflicts and drive meritocracy. We do allow for risk taking, but in a way that matches the company’s risk appetite and allows for the best use of its energy and resources. Therefore, it is very important to set a clear vision and communicate on all levels of the organisation to ensure trust, consistency and buy-in.
And yes, in order to take your company to a new horizon of growth, you do expose yourself, as this is the Jedi way.
Stay tuned for the next episode of this saga!
While it is a clear sign of bravery to publish this article in the middle of holiday season, it comes only natural to devote the next episode to humility as another Jedi leader value.