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The Focused Leader
One BIG idea + One BIG Crisis

By: Brian Ward

Brian Ward is a principal in Affinity Consulting. He helps leaders, teams and individuals acquire new knowledge and wisdom through their consulting and educational work. He can be reached at t info@affinitymc.com.

In a previous article (see The Five Key Facets of Quality Leadership), we discussed various facets of leadership that lead to breakthrough performance. In this article, we will take a closer look at leadership FOCUS. In future articles we will cover the remaining facets.


One BIG Idea + One BIG Crisis

President John F. Kennedy entered office with a thin margin of support over Richard Nixon. His popularity rose dramatically when when he had the Cuban missile crisis to deal with. It rose even more dramatically when he was able to focus his county’s attention on his one BIG idea: “We will have a man on the moon before the end of this decade”, even though he wasn’t around to see it come through.

Successful leaders have BIG ideas as well as having big crises to deal with. Most leaders who have gone into the annals of history, whether it be politics, sports or business have led in this fashion: they have had at least one BIG idea to pursue plus one BIG crisis to manage, and they pursued the former as tenaciously as they fought the latter.

In a business context, Jack Welch, recently retired Chair and CEO of GE, rose to prominence because he had more than one BIG idea, and more than his share of BIG crises to deal with. In the early 1980’s when he took the helm at GE, inflation was running at an all time high, GE’s traditional business lines (e.g. home appliances) were showing lackluster performance, and by all accounts (other than Welch’s), the future looked dim. But Welch had different ideas…BIG ideas, and he had the courage and energy to pursue them. His first BIG idea was to focus his managers’ attention on being the number one or number two in their respective business sectors. And he and his team have never let go of that idea. If they could not be number one or two, then they were forced to make tough decisions…which they did.

His one BIG crisis was to overcome complacency, bureaucracy and a bloated organizational hierarchy. Initially, not everyone shared his view that this was a crisis. After all, GE was an established, successful, ‘mature’ company. He nevertheless showed relentless determination and courage in removing layers of bureaucracy and overcoming complacency. During the 1980’s, he reduced the workforce from 404,000 to 229,000(1)…he became known as ‘Neutron Jack’. If anyone thought that there wasn’t a crisis, they were soon relieved of that illusion. And he wasn’t an outside manager parachuted in to ‘do a turnaround’. He was a twenty-year ‘veteran’, having joined GE in 1960. For those that remained, the BIG idea, being number one or number two in their respective sector, took on a whole new importance.

Since then his other BIG ideas, all being successfully pursued, include a major move towards Globalization, a substantial increase in High Tech Services and of course the now famous bottom line approach to Six Sigma Quality. GE grew from $25 billion in sales, and $1.5 billion profits in 1980 to $110 billion revenues and close to $10 billion in profits in 1999. That’s what a clear focus did for them.

There are many other examples of successful leaders who had BIG ideas AND had to manage through BIG crises, e.g. Bill Gates (love him or hate him!). But think also of those leaders who were successful when a BIG crisis loomed, only to falter afterwards because they did not have or could not execute a BIG idea, e.g. Winston Churchill, George Bush, Snr., Jimmy Carter.


What’s Your BIG idea?

Do you have a BIG idea? Are you facing a BIG crisis? Here are some questions to help get you focused:
  • As you lead your organization, what is your BIG idea? How compelling is it? How simple is it to communicate?

  • What potentially BIG crisis will you need to overcome? How will you handle it? How will you get people’s attention?

  • Do you have the courage and energy to see things through? Can you energize others?
  • Some people have a ‘towards’ motivation, i.e. they are naturally drawn towards BIG ideas. These are the visionaries and risk takers. Can you identify them?

  • Some people have an ‘away from’ motivation, i.e. they move only when a problem or crisis arises. These are the problem solvers. Can you identify them?

  • Are the visionaries, risk takers and problem solvers in the right positions to implement BIG ideas and deal with BIG crises? Do they have the capacity to pull it off? If not now, how can you build that capacity?

  • For those who are not drawn to BIG ideas or who will not recognize a BIG crisis, no matter what you do, what do you do?

  • For those who cannot grow their capacity sufficiently, what do you do with them?

  • For those who cause the BIG ideas to happen and the BIG crises to be overcome, how do you reward them?
Leadership is simple, but it’s not easy. One of the determining factors that separate high quality leadership from all other caliber of leadership is the ability of the leader to focus attention, their own and others, not just on dealing effectively with BIG crises, but on creating and executing BIG ideas that will move their organizations forward.

John P. Kotter, an expert on managing change, includes in his eight-step change process the need to establish a ‘sense of urgency’, which includes examining market and competitive realities as well as identifying and discussing crises, potential crises and major opportunities(2). The latter is what eventually stirs people to action, or as Jack Welch(3) so aptly put it:

"With leadership the question at the beginning and at the end of the day is, ‘How far can we take this…how big can we grow it…and how fast can we get there?’ "

© Copyright 2003 Affinity Consulting. All rights reserved.

Other Articles by Brian Ward

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