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12 ideas to start leading


by Chuck Swoboda

Are you a leader or a manager? Despite what some people think, they are not the same thing. Management is getting someone to do what you want to deliver a predictable outcome. Leadership is getting people to work together to do something that might not be possible.

In sports, there are game managers who stick to the coach’s plan and try to limit mistakes. And there are leaders that adapt the plan as circumstances change and inspire their teammates to take risks in an attempt to make a big play. One is not necessarily better than the other, but they achieve very different outcomes.

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve likely spent most of your life being trained to think like a manager. As a student, you are taught to follow specific steps to solve a problem and get the right answer. But what happens if the problem has never been solved before and you’re looking for new solutions? In business, you are rewarded for reducing risk and meeting the plan. But what happens when you want to pursue an idea that others think is impossible? The management mindset is helpful for certain things in life, but it gets in the way of the behaviors required to innovate.

I spent 25 years building a company and disrupting industries through the power of innovation. Whether you’re trying to invent a new product to change the world, or want to find a new way to solve an old problem, leading innovation requires you to embrace a different mindset that drives you to find a better way.

So how do you find this mindset? I’ve met a lot of great leaders, and it’s not magic. It starts with a desire to lead and make a difference in the world around you. Leadership also takes a lot of hard work. It’s not good enough to say you did what was expected; you have to be willing to do what it takes to get to the goal.

I believe most people have a desire to lead, but they don’t know how to get started. If you’re looking to become a better leader in the year ahead, I’ve compiled a list of the 12 best leadership ideas from Marquette’s Innovators on Tap podcast. I’ve talked with leaders from all walks of life that have seen first-hand what it takes to challenge the status quo. Leaders who’ve learned that failure isn’t the end of the road — it’s often just the beginning. And leaders who’ve done what others said couldn’t be done. These ideas are not some theory from a book, but things they learned first-hand in industries from brewing to basketball to bicycles.

Keep in mind that life is short. If you don’t lead, who will?

1. Start with the Person in the Mirror

I worked with a lot of talented people over the years, helping them develop as leaders. Often they would come to me complaining that some of the members of their team didn’t seem to care enough about doing a great job. My advice was to remember that leadership starts with the person you see in the mirror each morning. You have to give them a reason to care.

“You cannot change other people. You can only change yourself. So if you want other people to care, you have to show them how much you care.” — Paula van Camp (Episode 12)

2. Give People a Reason to Follow

Young leaders are often frustrated by getting their team to do what they want, especially in the face of a new challenge or uncertainty. They expect their team to just get it, but as the leader, you have to give them a reason to follow you. Leadership is not done through force, but by creating followership.

“As a leader, they have to want to follow you. You can’t just by your position say this is how it’s going to be” — Dick Leinenkugel (Episode 16)

3. See Something Bigger than the Barn

It’s human nature to focus on the things that are right in front of you; to let yourself be limited by conventional wisdom. You even hear people give the advice to “stay in your lane” or “keep your head down.” But leadership is not about waiting for the future to happen; it’s about creating the future you want to see. You have to go beyond your comfort zone and imagine something much bigger.

“We call it seeing something bigger than the barn. And that is — you can do much more than you think you can” — John Burke (Episode 7)

4. Maximize the Talent for the Team

A great leader creates the best team by finding the best person for each role on the team. There are many examples from sports where a group of stars loses to a less skilled but better team, where each person’s talent is used in a way that makes the team more successful. This concept has been around since Aristotle, who said that “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This same analogy applies in business, where you often see small startups disrupting the much bigger and better-funded companies.

“The game always has and will always be about people. And getting people to maximize their individual talents and then bringing them together to maximize the group’s ability.” — Steve Wojciechowski (Episode 2)

5. Create a Sense of Urgency

Leadership is about creating an environment where success is the only path forward, even when it seems like your actions aren’t critical to the ultimate success of the company. What drives some people to keep pushing ahead when things get difficult? To go beyond the idea that you tried, but it didn’t work and keep trying. There is a saying that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. So how do you do it? You have to create a sense of urgency. A feeling that if you don’t figure it out, the company will go out of business.

“There is a different mindset you have when your company is running out of money, and you have a certain amount of time to prove yourself… I don’t think that type of urgency exists in large companies” — John Zeratsky (Episode 3)

6. Don’t Be Afraid of Failure

Great leaders understand that failure is the fuel of innovation. Unfortunately, most of us are taught to avoid failure — that we should focus on trying to get the correct answer rather than embrace a situation where the right answer is unknown. But when it comes to innovation — doing something that has never been done before — you can’t be afraid to try something that might not work. That’s how you learn and discover something new.

“You can’t be afraid to fail. Because that is actually the key to being innovative. You fail, you evolve, you grow. That is how you become innovative. You learn more from your failures from your successes.” — Mike Lovell (Episode 4)

7. Leadership is Like Chess

Building and leading a team is like playing chess. Managers focus on the trees, but leaders can see the entire forest. You don’t start with the next move, but instead, start with the ultimate goal and then work backward to best use the different pieces on your team to achieve the desired outcome. Different pieces have different capabilities, and you have to understand their strengths and weaknesses if you’re going to succeed.

“If you think of leadership like chess, you have different talents and different pieces that you use at different times for different things, and often we don’t take the big enough perspective of the whole game board to try and figure that out.” — Kate Trevey (Episode 6)

8. Check Your Ego at the Door

People are often given leadership opportunities because they have success in their previous roles. This reward system tends to build a leader’s ego and convince them over time that they have all the answers. But if you’re going to do something completely new, you can’t rely on your past successes; you have to check your ego at the door and let the best ideas win — no matter where they come from.

“Those things that make a CEO successful are the very things that will bring a CEO down.” — Darren Jackson (Episode 9)

9. Imagine There is No Box

We live in a world filled with rules and boundary conditions. We’re taught that there is a right way to do things, starting as young children when we’re told to color within the lines. While this feedback is well intended, it limits our ability to see what is possible and to imagine a different and better future. Best practices can only achieve what has already been done. To lead, you have to discover the next practice.

“Affect change and don’t be an audience. Instead of thinking outside the box, imagine ‘what if there was no box?’” — Sumit Vohra (Episode 11)

10. What you Don’t Know Can’t Limit You

The world is filled with experts. People who have been there and done that. People who’ve spent years understanding a topic. But the problem with experts is that they know what is not possible. And when you’re in pursuit of the impossible, what you don’t know can’t limit you.

“Our naivety was our strength because we did not know because it couldn’t be done…And that’s the only way you get the un-doable done.” — John Palmour (Episode 14)

11. Reward Requires Risk

Innovation is fundamentally about taking risk, yet people still try to approach it with the idea to minimize risk in an attempt to maximize the result. It sounds nice, but it doesn’t work. The potential return on any idea is directly related to the amount of risk that you’re willing to take. The more you try to limit risk, the more you limit the thinking needed to do something great.

“There’s no reward if you don’t take risk… It’s ok to fall down. It’s more about what you do to get up than what made you fall down.” — Anne Zizzo (Episode 15)

12. Keep Listening; Keep Learning

The best leaders learn from everyone. We often put people into buckets: those with good ideas, and those with bad ideas. Our natural inclination is to tune out those with bad ideas. But if you keep listening, you can learn from both.

“You really can learn from the smartest and dumbest people you’ve ever met. You just need to be clever enough to understand which is which.” — Larry Miller (Episode 16)

This article is reproduced with the permission of Chuck Swoboda. Chuck is the author of The Innovator’s Spirit, host of the Innovators on Tap podcast, and a Forbes contributor. He is the Innovator-in-Residence at Marquette University, president of Cape Point Advisors, and the retired Chairman and CEO of Cree, Inc. You can access his latest content through his website or follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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