Written by contributing writer, Tom Williams, Principal, Innovation Consult.
If you want to move past the business stage gates and bust through your growth ceilings, it could be said
that you have one job: to be a leader. But what does that mean? Leadership is one of those things we
probably all recognise when we see it, or more commonly, when it’s needed, yet absent. It’s rather hard
to define or figure out how to build it in ourselves and others.
If we turn to the Oxford Dictionary, says to be a leader is to lead other people in an activity or a project in
an organisation. So, a leader leads (which is rather circular and unhelpful).
If you look at the literature on what leadership was considered to be, going back 100 years or so, leaders
were thought to be just a few individuals with some mysterious qualities of being a leader. This was the
‘great man’ model of leadership. They were often talked of as being great communicators, with some
kind of natural charisma and the ability to inspire people and make tough decisions.
Then people started asking, ‘Could we train leaders? What are the innate skills and abilities that they
have? Can we reproduce these in other people?’
Theories of different kinds of leadership popped up on an ever-accelerating list. There were situational
leaders, transformative leaders, authentic leaders, servant leaders and stage 5 leaders, who were
individually humble but doggedly committed to their cause.
As interesting as these all are, do they give you a path to being a better leader yourself? Can you change
yourself to be transformative, humble, or take on any other prescribed characteristic? Does that really
make you a leader?
The question I ask myself is not what leaders are like, but what do they do? What do leaders do that
anyone could do, if they wanted or needed to be a leader at work, or elsewhere?
My working definition of what leaders do is this: Leaders see a change that’s needed and engage people
to make it happen. Things that wouldn’t otherwise happen.
The tasks of a leader
Leaders notice what others often don’t. They see what’s happening and call it out. Winston Churchill
spoke up about the gathering strength and dangers of Nazi Germany at a time when most European and
British leaders just didn’t see it.
When you are immersed in a situation that develops slowly or has always been there, it’s hard to
imagine something else, or even notice what’s odd about it. When you first walk into a room, you can
smell if there are fresh flowers or if someone’s been smoking, but after a few minutes, you don’t notice
it. Your sensory receptors have become saturated, and the distinction between the presence and
absence of the smell no longer exists.
Have you ever been to a foreign country and seen things that stood out to you as unusual that the locals
were so used to they were hardly aware of? Take a fresh look at your business, your industry, with the
eyes of a foreigner. What is really going on? What is the state of the nation?
Leaders declare what’s missing and describe how things could be better.
President John F. Kennedy borrowed a line from George Bernard Shaw when he said, ‘Some men see
things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were and say, why not?’
Bill Gates realised that the mainstream pharmaceutical industry wasn’t tackling third-world diseases like
malaria and directed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation towards filling that gap.
Look objectively at your business as if running it through an audit. What’s needed that’s missing now?
How could your business look if it was the way you really wanted it to be?
Leaders take a stand and won’t be shifted from it. President Zelensky of Ukraine, when offered an airlift
escape by the Americans at the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022, said, ‘I don’t need a lift; I
What is going on in your organisation that you can take a stand on and refuse to tolerate anything else?
What unmovable principles does your company stand for?
Leaders declare a mission and sketch a vision of a better future. Martin Luther King declared, ‘I have a
dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the
colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.’
What vision of how your company can operate in the future will inspire a mission to get there?
Leaders enrol and align a team to take on a mission to achieve a common vision.
Who do you need on your team? What will inspire them to engage and commit wholeheartedly? What
values and operating principles must be embedded?
6. Game plan
Leaders, together with key team members, develop a strategy to achieve their mission.
The founder of Ikea and his team developed flatpack furniture to make Scandinavian design cheap
enough to appeal to a mass of younger home builders willing to spend their time assembling the
furniture. What approach could you take to overcome obstacles, like perceptions or cost, to capture a
significant share of your market?
What project management approach are you going to take? Does your mission require a series of short
sprints with adaptation as you go, or does it need a more traditional critical path, longer-term Gantt
chart type of management, to track, allocate responsibilities and update progress?
Leaders get the resources they need to get the job done. What resources do you need to break through
in your market? What left-field ways could you use to get them?
8. Adjust and persevere
Leaders make adjustments on the fly to get back on course and keep going to complete their mission.
Under Reed Hastings, Netflix shifted from mail-order DVDs to streaming TV to making its own TV
programmes, all in the name of providing great entertainment in a convenient form.
Do you need to adjust, pivot or reinvent your products, services or manner of execution to stay on your
mission? Fundamentally, leaders step up when they see a change they believe has to happen. It’s not
their personality or style so much as what they do that determines if they can succeed in creating the
outcome they seek.
About the Author
Tom Williams is a principal at Innovation Consult and a business growth coach. He is the founder and
co-founder of five diverse businesses and has managed various exits, from the likes of selling an
investment management company to HSBC and growing a bio-tech company from a startup to a public
listing on the Australian Stock Exchange.
Tom’s other innovations include introducing video marketing to the pharmaceutical industry, creating the
first mathematical model of the Australian stock market, and the conception of Qantas business class
travel, which was the world’s first airline Business Class.
Tom’s new book, Startup, Scaleup or Screwup explores the various challenges many businesses face
when trying to scale, common growth ceilings and how to overcome them.