UK: HOW TO GIVE REALITY TO THE VISION. - Divide and rule may have been a useful maxim for the court of the Borgias, but it would be a suicidal one for those of us who are trying to cause and manage change today. Change will happen if you have the will -

by Steve Shirley.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Divide and rule may have been a useful maxim for the court of the Borgias, but it would be a suicidal one for those of us who are trying to cause and manage change today. Change will happen if you have the will - though it may take a lifetime. People usually achieve more than they think they can. Power certainly belongs to those who use it. But do budding leaders have power innately, which makes them into leaders, or do they inherit power once they become leaders? Whatever the balance of truth, with power, you have influence. You can cause change. You can make things happen.

No matter how inspiring leaders are, it is teamwork which carries forward the vision. All my life I have delegated the execution of my vision to others - and gained personal strength by embracing the concept of empowerment. As with love, it is more about giving than taking. People you lead have to recognise that they, too, have power. The aim is for people to say: 'The leader did nothing; we did it all ourselves.'

Indeed, in democratic societies, leaders also follow - they follow the democratic will. It was the French statesman, Talleyrand, who put this most succinctly: 'They are my people,' he said. 'I must follow them because I am their leader.'

Good leaders are not always leaders for good. From my own experience, as a survivor of Hitler's holocaust, I know that power can also be negative. I passionately hold ethics high on my list because ethics moderates power and directs it for good. Leaders become accustomed to people disagreeing with them, sometimes violently. This was summed up by the American journalist and broadcaster Ed Murrow in a 1950 speech on democracy and change: 'Where there is imperfection there must be change. And to produce change, unless it is imposed by tyranny, there must be a difference of opinion; there must be opposition; there must be pioneer thinking; there must be freedom to criticise; there must be the unremitting conflict and testing of ideas.'

Along with ethics, we have to obey the law in spirit as in fact. You perhaps know the kind of situation - a hint that personal favours will be given in return for turning a blind eye or putting a word in the right ear. Even when you are not sure what is for the best, by acting in good faith, you can take the wrong steps yet progress in the right direction. But you cannot be a leader unless you act. Thinking is not enough.

There never was a truer saying than the following: 'All that is necessary for evil to thrive is for good people to do nothing.' I believe that the more you use your moral courage on small issues, the easier it becomes to use it on big things. The less you use it on little things, the more difficult it becomes to use it on big issues. A hero of mine taught me that 'of course' physical courage is just the reverse. It is more like a bank account: the more you use it, the more likely it is to become overdrawn. The more you are stressed, the less you are able to cope.

Acting on what is right means being strong and determined to stick to principles even when faced with inordinate temptation. The human failings of greed and sex are particular culprits which have put paid to the careers of many leaders. As each scandal breaks, I get the feeling that the people involved thought 'No one will ever find out'. But, of course, it is not so. As a leader you become public property because gossip and rumour are powerful currency in palaces or prisons, parliaments or parade grounds.

In the early part of our lives, we have to learn a broad range of subjects before starting the specialisation that is necessary in order to achieve. Most people remain on a narrow track whereas leadership demands a broadening of outlook.

Business lends itself to strong leadership because of the simplicity of authority. As an enterprise grows in complexity, the independent power bases and the differing perspectives make it political - what you see depends on where you stand.

I was not constrained in founding my company, and was able to come up with new ways of marketing the products, new ways of staffing and financing the business, and new ways of serving the customers better. But the freedom to innovate also allows the freedom to make a lot of mistakes. Every leader has to have the gut qualities to cope with failure.

And no matter how brilliant the ideas one has, they come to nothing without application and persistence. One way of stoking up the fires when they dwindle is to bring to mind leaders you admire. I am not thinking only of famous people such as Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela but in particular of a woman who is in a wheelchair but who has so much get-up-and-go that she inspires me to do likewise.

The constant need to rethink and relearn makes leadership a heavy strain, not least on one's natural inclination to be selfish. I've found that you need to be selfish, but to go beyond self. Healthy selfishness is about investing in your mind, body and spirit to ensure your own self-preservation and development.

Sometimes you really do have to dredge up reserves from the depths, when it is an 'off' day but there's a major task that your team has worked for months to put together and it has to be completed; or when your group has suffered a major setback. And then what frequently happens is that you just seem to be getting over the worst, when a new set of problems conspire to test you again. It's rather like climbing triumphantly to the peak of a hill only to find it isn't the top after all and that there is another, higher summit still ahead.

In industry, having a long-term vision is becoming commonplace, with such thinking being distilled into business plans or strategy documents. Use this concept as an example and write down your personal vision for the millennium. What contributions do you need to make to give reality to the vision? Success comes from knowing where you want to go.

The greatest waste of our natural resources is when people don't achieve their potential. If you think you can't, you won't. If, however, you think you can, there's every chance that you will.

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