Rocking the boat Featured

8:01pm EDT November 30, 2011
Rocking the boat

Leadership is about taking risks and overcoming obstacles. When Jeff Bezos learned Internet usage was increasing 2,300 percent annually, he decided to leave a high-paying job to start selling books online. There were a lot of obstacles in his way, including a massive brick-and-mortar system of selling books and a publishing industry that wasn’t looking to include a start-up. But he left his safe job and founded, changing forever the way books are sold.

His key to assessing big decisions and overcoming obstacles? Imagine yourself being 80 years old and asking if you would regret not doing it. In this case, he would have regretted not trying to join the Internet revolution.

He had a clear vision of what he wanted to do, knew the obstacles involved, then set out to overcome them, knowing the whole time that there was a high failure risk. But he didn’t want to be 80 and look back with regret and what could have been.

Will you look back with regret at what could have been in your organization? Maybe you’ve owned your business for a long time or been in an executive position for a few years, but are you leading or managing?

Leadership is about making hard choices and living with the outcomes, good or bad. Managing is more about not rocking the boat and making sure employees, vendors and customers are all happy. But sometimes the path to a greater success requires you to rock the boat to the point of tipping it over.

Like Bezos demonstrated, the first key is simply knowing where you are going. Too many companies today are just surviving. They aren’t plotting a growth plan; they are just doing what they’ve always done, hoping that it’s enough to get by for another day. If you are a leader, you won’t tolerate that.

Once you know where you are going, it becomes much easier to map out how you are going to get there and what obstacles stand in your way. By listing out the obstacles, you can then start going around them, through them, over them or simply get rid of them.

Most obstacles are going to fall into the categories of people, product or structure. Maybe you don’t have the right management team to get you to where you want to go. Maybe your product is no longer relevant or has been outclassed by new competitors. Maybe your company isn’t structured to handle the challenges that lie ahead on your path for growth.

But this is where true leadership comes into play. Changing people, product or structure can create a great deal of stress in an organization. Do you have the courage to admit that you don’t have the right leadership in place? Perhaps you’re the problem — can you admit that? Do you have the ability to revamp or completely change out your product line? Are you willing to shed positions to restructure your company?

None of these decisions are easy. But that’s the difference between a leader and a manager. A manager would accept the status quo and not rock the boat. Why risk changing things when what you have is good enough? A leader says, “We are going in a different direction and that means things are going to have to change. It’s the only way.”

Your other option is to leave things alone and play it safe. But you have to be OK with looking back when you are 80 and saying, “I could have done so much more.”

Fred Koury is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or