Samuel Langley should have been the first man to fly.

He was highly-educated, amply funded, and widely supported. He had all the right ingredients for success. But on December 1903, when the first successful manned flight took off, it was not Langley at the controls. It was two brothers with no college education, no public support, and no fanfare.

The Wright Brothers eventually went down in history synonymous with innovation, while Langley became the destiny that could have been.

The difference between Langley and the Wright Brothers -- as Simon Sinek explained -- was that Orville and Wilbur were driven by a purpose. "They believed that if they could figure out this flying machine, it'll change the course of the world." They inspired those working for them to chase that dream with just as much ferocity.

Fast forward to today, and you'll find a poignant a lesson in here for all business leaders.

Whether you lead a small two-person team or a large company, the difference between success and "what could have been" will not depend on the resources at your disposal. It'll likely hinge on your ability to lead.

Here are three leadership principles I've learned over the past 24 years:

1. Make sure employees understand your vision.

According to Gallup's often-cited research, only 33 percent of U.S. employees are engaged on the job. Worldwide, that number plummets to 13 percent. Broken down a different way: Most of your employees are not invested in what you're trying to do. So either you've hired the wrong people altogether, or you haven't done a great job of communicating your vision. It's likely the latter.

The thing that many leaders don't grasp is that it's not enough to entice employees with a paycheck. Your employees should understand the "why" of what they're doing. They should believe in your vision, and understand their role within that vision.

Once they connect their day-to-day to the goals of the business -- they'll treat your company with the same delicate care. And they'll go out of their way to share that vision with others.

2. Never underestimate the power of a positive attitude.

My father moved us to the United States in 1962. He left a whole life behind in order to chase the dream of a better one. 

At the age of 40, he had to learn a new language, adapt to a new culture, go from being the boss to being bossed around, and help his family live with much less than what they before. These challenges could have deterred him or, worse yet, defeated him. But he embraced every obstacle with grit and gratitude.

Whatever your entrepreneurial goals, adversity is guaranteed. You can't prevent things from going wrong -- but you have full control over how you respond. You can treat these situations like a burden, or you can turn them into learning opportunities. 

2a. Help your employees stay positive.

As a leader, you also have the responsibility of shaping how employees respond to adversity. Be transparent and talk through the difficult times. Communicate any changes you are asking them to make, and why the changes are good. Will it add value to their job? Will it make them more marketable? 

Let it be known what challenges are part of the equation, and work with your employees to turn obstacles into personal growth.

3. Move away from the traditional power hierarchy.

A biologist once bred two groups of chickens -- one of the regular variety; one with the most individually productive chickens (the super chickens). He watched their development over time. After six generations, the average chickens turned out fine. The super chickens, however, had basically pecked themselves to death.

Company culture is a lot like chicken breeding, according to Margaret Heffernan, author and management expert. "For the past 50 years, we've [followed] the super-chicken model. We've thought that success is achieved by picking the superstars, the brightest men, or occasionally women, in the room, and giving them all the resources and all the power." As a result, the most influential people sit at the top, with many layers in between them and the rest of the coop.

The problem is that many transformative ideas happen the ground floor. By following a traditional power pyramid, innovation is stunted.

At Cisco, we disrupted that pyramid through reverse mentoring. It was a way to help senior executives learn from millennial employees. It also set an important precedent -- breaking down the barrier between executives and employees.

Final Thoughts

Super chickens and well funded innovators aren't necessarily the ones who go down in history.

Leaders who succeed against the odds are those who can inspires others. Who can rally a culture that's able to embrace change, take risks, and move forward through vision rather than power.

Published on: Nov 29, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.