Pioneering leadership: the secret to a relevant and thriving business

| April 12, 2016

Almost every leadership, strategy and motivation book on the planet advocates the importance of having a crystal clear goal or vision for the future.

But, intuitively, you know this is an incredibly flawed position to take.

Sure, this outlook may serve in the short term. And of course an enterprise needs goals. If you want to galvanise a group of people towards achieving a particular outcome, a clear goal or vision is essential. People like goals—they remove the angst of uncertainty, and give them something to focus their efforts towards.

Clear goals can also be reverse-engineered and broken down to create a roadmap, with clear milestones and executable steps. Past experience can be leveraged to improve performance, and systems can be optimised to improve efficiencies.

Goals are easy to implement and incentivise, and a raft of precedents that prove their efficacy.

But what happens if you don’t have perfect knowledge of what the future has in store for your enterprise?

What if you don’t have a clear goal? What if you’ve only got a vague hunch, or a fuzzy sense that something needs to change? What then? Do you simply wait for clarity? Or do you manufacture a sense of certainty? Or worse: what happens if you wake up after a long ‘winning streak’ only to discover that your enterprise it is no longer relevant?

This is the major challenge enterprise leaders face, and the fundamental flaw with leadership focused only on clear goals and operational wins. Naturally, this is quite a predicament. We cannot afford to simply wait for clarity. But at the same time, we cannot set forth a single, clear vision for the future while knowing that the future is infinitely complex and uncertain. What to do?

Ahoy Pioneering Leadership

Pioneering leadership means leaning into the challenge of progressing through new and unchartered territory. This form of leadership enables the exploration, development, learning and progress through the complexity and paradox of an uncertain future. It’s thanks to pioneering leadership that businesses stay relevant and grow.

However, for businesses in growth and enjoying the fruits of success—or for those experiencing the shrinking margins and decline through maturity—it’s easy to default to operationally-driven leadership and maximise efficiencies where possible.

Operationally driven leaders may believe they are protecting a company’s ability to grow. But their bias towards efficiency and predictability, combined with a low tolerance for uncertainty and risk, means that they’ll very likely choose not to capitalise on anything but the default things that served them well in the past. And so, dutifully they’ll persist with reasonable decisions—seeking incremental wins at the expense of breakthrough opportunities. It’s a safe and sound course along a well-traversed path.

And it’s also the most efficient way to achieve irrelevance.

“We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost.”—Jorma Jaakko Ollila, CEO of Nokia

The number one objective of a pioneering leader is relevance. And to find relevance, they seek out the possibilities inherent within incoherence.

Toward Enduring Relevance

Think about your business model right now. If things are humming along, it could be said that all of the elements of your enterprise—the value proposition, the channels you use to reach your customers, the resources and partnerships you have and the key activities you undertake—are optimised for your current context. They are coherent, that is, they make sense. If you were still delivering goods via horse and cart, such an activity would naturally be incoherent. It’s nonsensical. It might have been coherent within a historical context—but it makes no sense now. And so the question is: what can we do today, to optimise the coherency of our business model into the future? How can we ensure that we continue to deliver new and relevant value to the market? Herein lies the key distinction between good leadership, and brilliant pioneering leadership.

Good leaders know that we must continue to explore. And so they look toward the emerging needs in their market. They seek out probable futures—the ones most likely to occur—and make investments in their business model to ensure their enterprise continues to avoid incoherence and remain relevant into the future.

This is entirely reasonable: but it shies away from the inherent complexity of an uncertain future.

By seeking the safety of familiar, evidence-based approaches and solid numbers to assess probability, they simply reduce the range of possible future contexts they are willing to explore. Such an approach does not produce any distinct strategic advantage—it merely produces the same set of options your competitors have. Brilliant pioneering leaders invest significant effort into the exploration of both probable and possible futures. They build and lead rich, anti-fragile work cultures that value curiosity, empathy and imagination. And—by venturing beyond the realms of probability—such leaders unlock the potential for unique, game-changing strategic advantage.

Ahoy the paradox

Embracing this type of pioneering leadership means embracing several paradoxical notions. These may seem to be absurd and seemingly contradictory propositions, but each harbours progressive wisdom.

To gain certainty, we must embrace uncertainty. Where the operationally-driven leader manufactures an artificial sense of certainty, often in the form of clear targets and goals, the pioneering leader feels no such need.

As such a leader, you’re comfortable making progress while only having a fuzzy sense of the potential destination. You don’t wait for clarity or perfect plans before acting. Rather, you progress into uncertainty with adaptability and risk mastery, learning along the way.

To build conviction, we must embrace doubt. German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said that ‘doubt grows with knowledge’. And Aristotle is said to have once quipped, ‘the more you know, the more you know you don’t know’. Whereas some might claim to have all of the right answers, pioneering leaders instead value asking the right questions (which, in turn, makes us less ignorant of our own ignorance).

To make progress, we must avoid success. It’s tempting to declare victory, and to feel as though we have ‘made it’. But pioneering leaders know this is an infinite game we’re playing—one with no finish line. You always have more opportunities to learn, grow and develop to stay relevant. Yes, you’ll have small wins along the way. But constructive discontent is a constant companion. There’s always more to do, and more to explore.

The future is infinitely complex and uncertain. And we’re all busy. But it won’t be incremental improvements and time-saving efficiencies that secure our future. It’ll be the ones willing to quest beyond the default, to find and unlock new pathways to value and relevance. It’ll be the pioneering leaders that build tomorrow.

Jason Fox
Dr Jason Fox is a speaker, advisor, bestselling author of The Game Changer, and the author of the newly released book: How to Lead a Quest – a Handbook for Pioneering Executives. With deep expertise in motivation design, Jason’s work unlocks pioneering leadership amongst high performing teams. His clients include the adventurous senior executives of Fortune 500 and ASX 200 companies. Visit www.drjasonfox.com