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Avoiding Mediocrity: The Foundation of Being a World-Class Leader

Elon. Steve. Bill.

Even just reading their first names gives many people goosebumps.

Because they have done exceptional things.

But the question is: Did they really?

Building an operating system for computers is hard enough, but scaling it out to most personal computers on the planet is, you could say, quite difficult.

Changing how basically all of mankind connects with each other is both astonishing and it’s a real challenge that only the most daring entrepreneurs will take on.

Building a business case for space exploration and presenting investors with just enough crumbs so they keep funding the enterprise through decades of trial-and-error, while the company keeps burning through billions of dollars is not only unprecedented, but also a journey even Elon doesn’t recommend to anyone else.

All three stories have one thing in common: They cannot be achieved by a single human being (at least not yet, AI may change that in the near future).

So let’s get to the question of whether Elon, Steve and Bill really did, what “they” did.

The answer is: Yes an no.

Yes, because they were (and in the case of SpaceX still are) spearheading their people. And while there is plenty of discussion amongst leaders on what truly defines the level of performance of an organisation, one thing you’ll find most of them agree upon: That the leading figure plays one of the most fundamental roles.

To put it bluntly: The jockey makes the horse move. And an exceptional jockey makes its horse move exceptionally.

But, the jockey brings us straight to the “no” part of the answer:

A jockey needs a horse.

Leaders don’t personally write every line of code, scramble together every capacitive display and fuel every rocket prototype. They need a team to do things for them. In the cases of SpaceX, Apple and Microsoft, they actually needed pretty big teams. With tens of thousands of people.

The challenge with any system and organization is, that with increasing size comes mediocrity.

Complexity always bears the risk of complacency. Misunderstandings through miscommunication. Bureaucracy and general inefficiency.

That’s, amongst other things, because the actions that individuals take are further and further away from the final outcomes. With increasing organisational size, people quickly lose track of how their specific tasks contribute to the overall outcome of a process. And with that lack of clarity comes misjudgement.

And, of course, there are various other challenges that can impair the performance of individuals and entire organizations.

When you look at less successful enterprises and organizations in general, you’ll typically find that these companies work in cycles of ups and downs. In a down-cycle, the leadership takes charge and works to turn the tide. Once things are moving upwards, politics are back and dominate the day-to-day business. Complacency is increasingly taking a hold and somehow every new initiative seems to be dragged into an abyss of organizational quicksand. Until things begin to take a turn to the worse and the cycle begins anew.

At the core of the problem you’ll often find, that whenever people in the organization don’t know how to proceed, they default into a state inaction and wait for new instructions.

So what are Microsoft, Apple, SpaceX and other leading organizations doing to bring out the best in their people?

Of course, the answer to such a complex, generalized question is complex. But there are themes that are playing through virtually all leading organizations. In hidden champions. In global players. In start-ups.

One thing these three empires and virtually every single leading organization on the planet have in common is, that their leaders have a very specific goal that they are working towards. Not a quantitative target. An actual aspiration that their people can picture in their mind’s eye.

And behind this aspiration, there is always a thesis. An assumption about the world, about how the world works or about how people think and what they truly want.

  • SpaceX: Earth may somehow be destroyed. We must become an interplanetary species to survive.

  • Apple: People don’t want functional things. They want nice, visually appealing things.

  • Microsoft: If people have personal computers that they can easily use, everyones life will be better.

The thesis and the aspiration are always directly interlinked:

  • SpaceX: We must reach Mars. As soon as possible.

  • Apple: Make personal computing accessible to each and every individual and change the way we think, work, learn, and communicate.

  • Microsoft: Put a computer on every desk and in every home.

The third and final part of the puzzle is, that the leaders of tier-1-organizations rarely give instructions. Instead, they give guidelines. In other words, they leverage their aspiration and their thesis by deriving a strategy from them and giving their team that strategy instead of commanding tactics.

  • SpaceX: Develop a reusable rocket system. Fund this by providing space transport to governmental and private organizations.

  • Apple: Put design and functionality first, always strive to enhance customer experience

  • Microsoft: Build an operating system that acts as a platform to sell all kinds of other services

This purpose-driven approach fundamentally distinguishes how leading organizations work as compared to the average business. In the average business, when circumstances require action, the leadership comes up with a plan and they hand their people a tactic to execute and KPI targets to reach. The second a tactic doesn’t work out, the people turn to their leaders to ask for the next tactic.

In leading, purpose-driven organizatons, the leadership has an aspiration and defines with which strategy this aspiration is to be reached. Of course they also set targets. But they let the experts amongst their people decide which specific tactics are best suited to hit these targets while staying within the guardrails of the strategy.

This enables both employees and the leadership because people can quickly take decisions by judging whether they contribute to reaching the overall aspiration. And it moves the leaderships focus from compiling instructions to coaching their people. In other words, their role shifts from managing and controlling people to improving the team’s performance.

Of course, having a thesis, an aspiration and a strategy is not enough to build a market-leading organization. Far from it. It would be ridiculous to assume that in a complex organization of tens of thousands of people, there was a simple switch that flips the overall performance level to world-class.

But not having that bright north star that people can follow is an almost sure-fire way to leave people disoriented and to lead an organization into mediocrity.

“Why don’t more leaders just do this, then?” you may ask.

It’s a fair question and the answer is as profound as it is simple: Because the natural thinking process of humans entices them to do the opposite. People naturally give instructions rather than direction. The natural way of processing information in the human brain is to think in tactics and instructions rather than strategy. Because tactics and instructions are tangible. With instructions, it’s easier to hold people responsible if they didn’t do exactly what was asked of them.

On the other hand, strategy is abstract. It’s harder to hold people responsible for following a strategy but not generating results.

But there is also the upside!

Setting strategy instead of giving instructions helps your top performers to use their freedom to bring out their very best and achieve exceptional results.

This is true whether you visit a local coffee shop or a fortune 500 company.

The great thing is, that you don’t have to turn your organization upside down to implement this concept.

To get started, the next time you catch yourself giving a set of instructions or a specific tactic to someone, instead help them understand what you are envisioning to achieve and then let them figure out a way to achieve that.

Be there to help and give input.

And then marvel the hidden paths that they find and the solutions they come up with.

It’s worth trying. I promise ;).


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