Leaders to Leader

Lessons from the Great American Leaders & How They Apply Now

You Keep Innovating if You Want to Keep Leading

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“You keep innovating if you want to keep leading… Exceptional leaders cultivate the Merlin-like habit of acting in the present moment as ambassadors of a radically different future, in order to imbue their organizations with a breakthrough vision of what it is possible to achieve.” [1] Within the context of this chapter, the breadth and scope of innovations introduced in multiple areas demonstrates the great leaders’ ability to lead within their respective industries.

Bill Gates (Microsoft) asserted, “Research, I think, is the lifeblood of innovation in the economy. But big companies always have a problem taking their research and making sure it’s focused on the problems that count. And even if you make a breakthrough, do you really get that research into the products that you ship? In our industry, companies like Xerox or AT&T are famous not just for doing fairly good research, but in many cases not ever being able to bring it to the marketplace. So when we started Microsoft Research, we said, let’s make sure we’re the best case ever not only of great researchers, but getting that into products. And so events like this — where it’s almost like a festival — you come and see all the neat research advances. That’s one of the ways we make sure these groups are working like a team.” [2]

Innovation is a time-intensive process, which normally doesn’t fit into neat time blocks. Amazon is a noteworthy example. Jeff Bezos explains, “As far as time-frame is concerned, innovations at Amazon usually take 5-7 years before they make any meaningful impact on the company’s economic situation. This is a big risk and is offset in a number of ways. One is to minimize the costs of experiments. Amazon has a web lab just for that purpose, which undertakes these experiments on a massive scale, collects real usage data on what works best, and is constantly trying to push the costs of these experiments down. Again, taking a long-term view, it helps when building innovation on things that won’t change in the next 5-10 years. For Amazon, these are basic customer preferences, such as: choice, low prices, and fast.

There are three more core-attitudes, which I think have a big impact on the way innovation takes shape at Amazon. One is, to always ask the question ‘why not?’”… The biggest mistakes at Amazon come from not doing something, rather than taking the risk. And asking ‘why not?’ instead of ‘why should we do it?’ opens up a whole other universe of possibilities. Similarly, there are lot of difficult decisions that Amazon has had to make over the years, such as allowing reviews on their site. The vital question there was ’what is better for the customer?’ Last, but not least… ‘Be Stubborn on the vision, and flexible on the details.’ ” [3]

Andy Grove (Intel) made the following observations. “ ‘It is not something where you have a crystal ball to start with and you guess right,’ he emphasizes. ‘You constantly have to guide your efforts and add more ingredients – effort, money, people, undertakings, and alliances. It is partly anticipation, and partly turning that anticipation into a reality. When you have a three-to-four-year development cycle and factories that take three to four years to build and ramp up – and you add a year or two where you are making decisions about what the information technology world will want five years into the future, part of it is learned guesswork. You do your own guesswork – and then you work like hell to make your guesswork become reality… And you obviously need a whole industry to support some of this, so you turn to evangelism. And to make sure your evangelism carries weight, you invest in some [small start-up] companies to make sure you are taken seriously.” [4]

As the examples cited within this chapter clearly illustrate, innovation takes many forms. They include concept, product, process, practice and application. Each is succinctly fueled by the practice of “ruthless efficiency,” designed to improve the customer’s experience by increasing quality, efficiency and driving down costs. Most innovations were the direct result and consequence of a series of continuous improvements, sprinkled with several “Eureka!” moments. Leopold Mannes, co-developer of Kodak’s Kodachrome photographic film stated, “Invention is primarily the art of getting out of trouble.” [5] Fueled by necessity, the great leaders pioneered innovation to solve problems to leverage available opportunities, and to achieve a competitive advantage.

[1]  Meyers William, Conscience in a Cup of Coffee (U.S. News, October 31, 2005)

[2]  A One-on-One Interview with Bill Gates (CNN.com, March 1, 2002)

[3]  van Wyitck Vincent, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos on Strategy & Innovation (not Kindle-related!) (Tech IT Easy, November 20, 2007)

[4]  Sheridan John H., 1997 Technology Leader of the Year Andy Grove: Building an Information Age Legacy (Industry Week, April 19-21, 2010)

[5]  Brayer Elizabeth, George Eastman. A Biography (University of Rochester Press, Rochester, NY, 2006) p. 224

Excerpt: Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Majorium Business Press, 2011)

If you would like to learn more about the innovation and continuous improvement exhibited by the great American leaders through their own inspiring words and stories, refer to Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It. It illustrates how great leaders built great companies, and how you can apply the strategies, concepts and techniques that they pioneered to improve your own leadership skills. Click here to learn more.

Copyright © 2011 Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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