One of the many vanquished opponents of that remarkable phenomenon, Manchester United, was asked after a match what his impressions were of the game. He summed up the reason why his team was beaten so convincingly as follows: “This was not a football team that we met. It was an unstoppable spirit.”
The Reds’ opposing team was, arguably, as skilled as the Manchester United team but was defeated by something more than skill: An indomitable combination of team culture, leadership, motivation and talent.
If your ambition is to lead, and be part of, an unstoppable organisation, then it would be wise to heed the advice of business guru, Jim Collins, who describes the secret of building great organisations as “think first about “who” and then about what.”
So, this checklist about “who” may come in handy:
1) A wonderful client of mine once defined for me the role of an effective leader: “The only responsibility of leadership is to create and manage culture”. All the great myths and stories of the world involve the hero going on an adventure. That’s what makes them enduringly interesting. Have you, as a leader, defined your organisation’s unique adventure – that seemingly impossible dream? What is the distinct and life-affirming role your organisation or brand will play in people’s lives? If your organisation were to disappear for any reason, would people march in the streets to mourn and remember it?
2) That done, have you enthused the people in your team about the adventure? So much so, that it has become their adventure too? The American poet, Mary Oliver, wrote a beautiful poem called “The Summer Day”. It ends with these lines: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Great organisations and great brands have their “one wild and precious life”. The leader’s role is to define it and then inspire people to bring it about. As well, as a leader, you have to ensure that, through being part of your organisation, each person who works for you can fulfil their “one, wild and precious life”.
3) Okay, now - what behaviours and actions will you demand and inspire from everyone in your organisation – starting with yourself? Words and mission statements on the wall are easy. It’s the doing that matters. Not once but every minute in every hour in every day. If you have answered “yes” to questions 1 -3, you have started to put in place that most fragile and most powerful thing: A culture. Your competitors can copy pretty well everything your organisation offers – except for one thing: The spirit and enthusiasm of your people. This is why culture is the most potent competitive advantage.
The warning light in terms of culture is rapidly blinking in the Australian work place. As many commentators tell us, our nation needs to lift its productivity. This is an urgent task – but a major change has to happen in our work places before we can achieve this. A recent study, carried out by Macquarie University, revealed that only 29% of Australian workers say they are happy in their jobs. 45% of Australian workers say they are unhappy. That means that 71% of Australia’s work force is unenthusiastic about going to work. This is a massive problem and only visionary leadership can solve it.
4) Are you generous enough to allow everyone to have a chance to be part of the adventure? And ruthless enough to remove those who won’t and can’t be part of it? This is not cruel – it is vitally necessary. For US submariners in WW2, it was drilled into them that the whole submarine can be placed in peril by a lazy or incompetent shipmate. It is the leader’s responsibility never to put his or her team in unnecessary danger by tolerating a person’s lack of ability or commitment.
5) Do you have the self-confidence to allow others to lead? To choose people in your team who are better than yourself and, because of circumstances and the necessary skill set, let them lead? In 1966, the New Zealand All Blacks defeated the British Lions 4-0 in the test series. The New Zealand forward pack was superb and unchanged in all four tests. Along with All Black captain Brian Lochore, there were seven provincial captains in the pack. It was a remarkable unit with every player playing to the best of their ability and stepping up to lead.
6) Do you have the discernment and big-heartedness to allow risk and forgive failure? Are you brave enough to encourage “competent failure” and distinguish that from “incompetent failure”?
7) Are you ready for that moment of truth which will determine, in your team’s eyes, whether you are looking out for them or looking out for yourself. That moment will make or break you as a leader. As that great leader, Ernest Shackleton, said: “The loyalty of your people is a sacred trust you carry. It is something which must never be betrayed, something you must live up to.”
Good luck with building and leading your unstoppable organisation. I can’t think of a more exciting adventure.