The greatest need we face in business today is leadership that makes real, positive change in the long term.
Because of the financial market's short-term focus on results, the media's need to fill columns with stories linked to current events, and a culture that fetes celebrity, we reward the new, the counter-intuitive and the loud.
And yet the most important challenges we face are none of these things.
Our greatest challenge is to to build companies that grow and are profitable in the long term, which provide valuable and rewarding employment, and which contribute to a just and fair society.
Achieving this requires leaders who are prepared to do more than simply rush to the next opportunity and extract the maximum short-term gain. Leaders who think, act and value the long-term. Leaders who change lives, and who leave a legacy.
I get to spend every day with leaders from businesses of all sizes and types, and over the years I've come to believe that most want to do just this, but find it hard to break free from the insistent demands of the urgent, to focus on the quieter needs of what is important and lasting.
I've also watched as many have achieved true greatness--those who have become leaders who changed industries, cities, lives. Here are the four steps I've seen all of them take, in becoming a leader who makes a difference:
1. Find a place of solitude.
Every great leader needs a place where they can think. Somewhere away from the constant clatter of incoming information, somewhere quiet, somewhere contemplative. A blessed few leaders have the mental strength to achieve this state of abstraction anywhere--in a crowded office, or anytime during the hurly-burly of a busy day.
The rest of us need to work at it.
For me, walking my dogs twice a day gives me the time I need to think consciously, unpolluted by the dopamine-inducing ping of incoming email or the lure of conversation (tip: leave the cell phone behind or switch it off). Other leaders I know use a visit to the gym, the act of making a meal, or have a favorite chair in a quiet room.
Where's your place of solitude?
2. Discover your contemplation trigger.
Solitude is a worthwhile state in and of itself, but we're considering it here as a vehicle--a means to think clearly and deeply about matters of importance. But with all the manifold possibilities, with the myriad of issues that press in on us every day, what should we spend time thinking about in more detail?
It's alarmingly easy to emerge from an hour of solitude to discover that our lizard brain has hopscotched from topic to topic, or dwelt on matters of (merely) tactical importance. Here's what I use as my "contemplation trigger": "What is the single greatest challenge I face today that will profoundly affect the success of my enterprise one year from now?"
The one-year horizon works for me in most cases because of the nature of my business. However, at least once a year, I set aside a week's contemplation to dwell on a three-year horizon. (Your mileage may vary.)
3. Get beyond instant gratification.
We live in a time of instant gratification. Read something semi-interesting? Post it on Twitter. Saw something funny? Share a photo on Instagram. Cute cat trick? Hop on Facebook. Formed an opinion about something? Write a blog post.
Leadership, especially leadership in the long term, requires us to forgo instant gratification. Not simply as a repudiation of a banal, I-share-therefore-I-am zeitgeist, but because reflection and contemplation are the compost of great ideas and the genesis of deep commitment.
Time is the most precious resource you can give to your leadership. The sacrifice of time--choosing to pause, and investing in reflection--is the price we pay to build the depth of leadership that leaves behind a legacy, and not just a fast-vanishing footprint.
I like the "rule of 90": Wait 90 seconds before sharing the brilliant idea that just struck you in mid-discussion; take 90 minutes before sending that email with your no-brainer tactical instruction; allow 90 hours (four days) for strategic thoughts to percolate; give the gift of 90 days for truly game-changing ideas to take root.
Does this mean abandoning your intuition and forgoing on-the-spot improvisation? Of course not, but like any great sports team, your no-huddle offense will deliver long-term success only with the discipline and solid foundation of well-planned, well-rehearsed, well-executed plays.
4. Model more than you share.
In the over-sharing culture we live in, we're in danger of forgetting that leadership comes through leading, not by telling.
Seeing it isn't doing it. Sharing it isn't doing it. Only doing it is doing it.
Try this: Next time you see a leadership need in your organization--whether it's about how people should be treated (customers, clients or employees); how you communicate internally or externally; or what your long-term mission, vision or values are--try modeling the change you want to see without the use of emails, memos or powerpoint presentations.
See how long it takes your people to recognize and understand what you want from them, without merely telling them. To revitalize a much-cheapened saying: Be the change you desire.
Don't have time to model change? Thinking, "Great idea, but it's easier and quicker to send a memo."? That's fine. No one will die and the sun will come up tomorrow. But remember, you're leaving behind footprints on a beach when you could be changing lives.