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GREAT LEADERS

Why Every Leader Needs a 4-Year Goal

If a lone Olympic athlete can achieve something extraordinary by setting his or her sights four years ahead, why can't you?
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For many athletes, this year's Winter Olympics is the apex of a four-year investment in achieving just one goal: Olympic gold. For some, it will be the apex of their entire career.

Intense preparation, precise dietary and exercise regimens, highs, lows, tears, exhaustion, perseverance, wagons (for falling off of and getting back on to), and every possible shade of mundane--these and a thousand other grueling practices will be funneled together into one unforgettable experience in Sochi.

Will it be worth it? Only the outcome will decide. One thing's for sure: Few of those competing will leave much, if anything, on the table in their quest to take home a medal.

Preparation: The Quadrennial Effect

One of the reasons Olympic medals mean so much to the competitors is that with the Summer and Winter Olympics alternating biannually, they're only handed out every four years. That's a long enough time span for participants to have little excuse for lack of preparation, and for an athlete to have only a handful of opportunities in his or her lifetime to compete, let alone win a medal. And, with more than 200 countries competing, for a medal winner, there's little room for argument about the crowing rights for the next four years.

That four-year period between events bears closer inspection: In sports and politics, quadrennial events are, if not common, at least frequent--in addition to the Olympics, soccer's World Cup is held every four years (and together, these are the two most-watched sporting events in the world), as is the case with international basketball and hockey. National elections are held every four years in many countries, and heck, even nature chips in with leap year. So pronounced is the four-year cycle that marketers talk of the Quadrennial Effect.

Unfortunately, coining that phrase (and using quadrennial events as major money-spinning exercises) is about as far as the four-year cycle gets in the world of business. Thanks to the short-term focus of public-company reporting, and the media's insistence on insta- as the default prefix to just about everything, few business leaders I meet feel comfortable with planning four years ahead.

Which, in terms of setting detailed strategic plans, is undoubtedly correct--only a misguided optimist (or apparently, people who run governmental organizations) would construct a detailed strategic plan and expect it to hold water for such a period.

But what about an overall goal? What about a BHAG?

If a lone Olympic athlete can achieve something extraordinary by setting her sights four years ahead, focusing on one clear, compelling objective, and doing all in her power to achieve it, why can't you?

Want to bring home the gold for your organization? Download a free chapter from the author's WSJ bestseller Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization on the Growth Track--and Keeping It There to learn more about building a world-class culture that will rapidly accelerate the growth of your business.

Last updated: Feb 4, 2014

LES MCKEOWN | Columnist

Les McKeown is the president and CEO of Predictable Success, a leading adviser on accelerated business growth. He has started more than 40 companies and was the founding partner of an incubation consulting company.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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