Nothing can stop an organization of people who believe in one another and who also mutually agree to aspire to the things that ought to be.
H ome furnishings has never been a better value. Americans have never been more interested in creating a more beautiful home environment. The economy is set for a slow but sure turn-around… and business is picking up. It’s time to rev up. But hubris and arrogance is a recipe for disaster. The leaders, even those with great vision, know we didn’t get in this tough market overnight. America’s best and brightest are preparing strategies for the most challenging period ever to confront retailers. Visionary leaders are taking an inventory of their organizational souls. They are looking for new ways to tell their stories to the community. Customers who walk through their doors are precious commodities, and they don’t leave without being told the story of the organization. No customer is overlooked, not any more. The old days of easy pickings are gone, its time to get lean and mean.
Seth Godin of Fast Company magazine points out: “The newspapers report that half of all Americans are overweight. I can tell you how they got that way: one French fry at a time… no company sets out to be average, but far too many let themselves get that way… it happens — gradually. Day by day, bit by bit, we get stuck.”
As Seth points out, Olympic medals are not won with a few weeks of training, and there is no such thing as an overnight opera sensation. Great leaders, great companies, great brands are created with great patience, slowly and with fanatic resolution. If every area of a company improves just a bit every day, the company will become a mighty market force. By the same token, great companies didn’t become mediocre overnight, they succumb inch by inch.
The Soul Of Great Furniture Companies
I am aware that “soul” is an unusual word to use in a business article. It may appear old-fashioned. And, this is not a Sunday go-to-meeting article. It is based upon solid research by a renowned and hard-nosed psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This Hungarian-born man with the unpronounceable last name is a professor at the Drucker School of Business, and has written several best-selling books, including the acclaimed: Flow. His latest book, Good Business, should be required reading for every aspiring entrepreneur.
Mihaly C. set out to discover what makes the great visionary leaders of today tick. Among other things, he discovered: “Visionary leaders have a common dedication to three fundamental principles: a goal that benefits society as a whole and inspires a workforce to do its best. Second is a commitment to the organization, which means gaining the trust and respect of employees by fostering on-the-job growth in self-knowledge, wisdom, and relationships. Finally, they are engaged in creating a product that benefits humankind and not just one that generates revenue.”
By interviewing a few dozen of America’s best and brightest business people Csikszentmihalyi learned that they all had a vision. This is no surprise, but they had a vision of a very unique kind. The vision they lift up is one that gives meaning to the work of associates, so that they can lose themselves in the flow and experience of their jobs and not be nagged by doubts or regrets. Mr. C. declared that the most important component of such a vision is soul. He was referring to the soul of an organization.
What does he mean by the soul of an organization? He means its essence, its core values, its reason for being. So the articulation of an organizational soul, in his definition, includes the vision of the company. Vision is an expression of what ought to be. It is a definition of a way of being that does not exist yet; it is an anticipation of the future state of the organization. The forty or so world-class visionary leaders who Csikszentmihalyi interviewed all had visions with soul. They all had visions that stretched beyond the interests of the company and its stockholders to broader goals.
None of this information is particularly new, however, Csikszentmihalyi discovered a single quality in these leaders and their visions that needs to be emphasized more than it has been to date. All of these vision statements gave evidence that they were crafted by individuals who possessed what one of them described as a Quixote-like, almost “pathological optimism.” This same quality is seen in the best furniture entrepreneurs. It is reminiscent of the short speech Don Quixote gave about his optimism in the play, “Man of La Mancha,” when told he had to quit chasing dreams and come to terms with “life as it is,” Quixote replied:
“I have lived nearly fifty years, and I have seen life as it is. Misery, pain, hunger — cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns, and the moans from bundles of filth in the streets. I have been a soldier, and seen my comrades fall in battle, or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I have held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing… no brave last words, no gallant sayings. Only in their eyes a confusion, and whimpering the question: “Why?” I do not think they were asking why they were dying, but why they had lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Too much sanity may be madness. To surrender dreams, this may be madness. But, maddest of all, to see life as it is — and not as it ought to be!”
Of course, all of these visionary leaders did not describe their philosophies of optimism in such colorful terms. But they all believed that life itself is a gift that brings with it both opportunities and responsibilities. They all expressed optimism that psychologists have found to be a characteristic common to remarkably successful political leaders and business people who brought their personal interests to an uncommon level. In fact, for entrepreneurs optimism is a requisite: it infuses the self-confidence they need to get their arms around — and sustain their engagement with — tough issues.
Childlike optimism, when applied pragmatically to business, was described by Walt Disney as Neoteny. A child will do things such as picking a bouquet of dandelions for her mother, but cut the stems so short that they can’t be put in a container. Disney said he wanted adult associates who retained the childlike quality that inspired them to pick the dandelions, but who had the maturity and wisdom to make sure the stems were long enough. This Disney call Neoteny… a quality of great value.
Along with optimism, visionary leaders have an intrinsic belief in self, and a certainty about a mission which they were destined to achieve. And this belief never fades… throughout all the pain and disillusionment of life, through all the mishaps and failures, these leaders maintain a faith that they have been called upon to do their best.
Of course, virtually everyone believes they are, in their relationship with all important issues, honest. When Enron collapsed, Jeff Shilling (one of its key executives) declared he was doing “God’s work.” And Kenneth Lay, his CEO, said: “I was, and am, a strong believer that one of the most satisfying things in life is to create a high moral and ethical environment in which every individual is allowed and encouraged to realize that God-given potential.” Hard to believe, but that is what Shilling and Kenneth Lay said. However, saying things of this kind is one thing, “walking the walk” is another.
So, we might say that integrity begins with being honest with oneself. Mr. C. discovered the second key trait in an authentic visionary leader is integrity, a rock-solid adherence to the principles upon which mutual trust can be based. Integrity is a reflection of the sense of mission and faith that drives these leaders. All of them made the claim that integrity was a given in their organizations … it simply was never an issue. The reason it was never an issue (unlike Enron) was that these leaders lived, breathed and modeled integrity in all their business activities.
Ambition, Perseverance and Excellence
Transcending the dichotomy between self-interest and the concerns of others seemed to be a key quality. All visionary leaders are ambitious, but their ambition is most often expressed in a selfless form. They may, for example, express their quest as a desire to make their company the best in the business. Or, they may aspire to produce the highest quality product. There is no denial that their personal ambitions impinged upon these high goals. At the same time, they identified their personal success with that of the organization, its associates, and its impact upon the community that they served.
Perseverance was another quality that was obvious among visionary leaders. Life became a kind of high-stakes game for them, in which it was easy to persevere, because it was so enjoyable. Visionary leaders are always absorbed and involved with the flow of their organizations. As John F. Kennedy once observed, the secret of happiness is “full use of one’s powers along the lines of excellence.” Today we might add the word integrity to excellence.
The feelings of ease and playfulness, loving what one does, these lead to creativity of the most effective kind. Visionary leaders are propelled by values that lead them to breach the boundaries of the known. They are entities in the mode of becoming, endlessly and profoundly curious, tolerant and open to other points of view.
Even so, there is another quality that these visionary leaders have; a quality that lifts them above the selfish, self-aggrandizing leaders of old. That is the quality of empathy, or caring. The most powerful vision driven by ambition can remain a selfish venture without the added ingredient of compassion. Repeatedly, Csikszentmihalyi heard from visionary leaders that they had to believe their actions were helping their associates, their customers, their vendors, their communities, and the environment in which we all live.
A key manifestation of this caring is respect. In my judgment, a principle mission of the visionary leader must be to create a Performance-Enhancing culture in which peers, customers, subordinates, and vendors are all treated with respect and consideration. What most sets visionary business leaders apart from all others is their unbounded optimism and trust in their fellow human beings, and their passionate commitment to caring and respect. Csikszentmihalyi even noted that these qualities were found less often in other leaders, such as scientists and even religious leaders. They seemed to be a distinguishing quality of visionary business leaders.
But, what of power? What of control and discipline? How can we operate a business without enforcing our wills upon our associates? Here are the thoughts of a noted historian, Gary Wills. He said that power, authentic power, must surrender in order to rule. Real power is gained by yielding one's own will in the persuasion of others. This formulation sounds like a paradox, yet we all have intimate experience of its truth. And as Tolstoy said, “The strongest, most indissoluble, most burdensome and constant bond with other men is what is called power over them, which in its real meaning is only the greatest dependence upon them.”
The truth is known by all of us. The leader depends upon his or her followers. We put our faith in our associates, the men and women who, in turn, put their trust in us. And in this trust resides power… authentic power. So, let’s rev up the engines, and prepare to make haste … slowly, but with extravagant optimism, self-confidence, and mutual trust. In fact, nothing can stop an organization of people who believe in one another, and who also mutually agree to aspire to the things that ought to be … those things that inspire and enrich the organization, and benefit the community as well.
Larry Mullins has 30+ years experience in the front lines of retail furniture marketing. He is President and CEO of UltraSales, Inc.. Larry's mainstream executive experience, his creative work for "promoter-specialists," and study of advertising principles has enabled him to continually develop new High-Impact business and advertising strategies for home furnishings retailers. Inquires can be sent to Larry care of FURNITURE WORLD at firstname.lastname@example.org.