Where have all the big ambitions gone?

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Oscar Wilde

In the Japanese city of Sapporo, one man towers above all others.

Shounen yo, taishi wo idake!” William S Clark told students as he departed in 1876. “Boys, be ambitious!”

A chemistry professor and colonel in America’s Civil War, Clark had been hired by the Japanese government to establish an agricultural college on Hokkaido. Although he spent just eight months on the island, his impact on Hokkaido’s economy and on Japanese society was significant.

That agricultural college is now Hokkaido University and Clark’s statue overlooks Sapporo from several vantage points. His admonition to aim high is now part of Japanese culture.

The late Apple founder, Steve Jobs, had similar lofty ambitions. “We’re here to put a dent in the universe,” he noted. “Otherwise, why even be here?”

Today, too few leaders seem to share Clark’s and Job’s visionary zeal. Despite the unmistakeable signs of a seismic economic shift as the industrial era gives way to a hyper-networked world, in most organisations it’s still largely business as usual.

“We grossly underestimate the extent to which the world has changed,” says Steve Vamos, former CEO of Microsoft Australia and now a director on several bluechip Australian boards. “We’re stuck in these old ways of thinking. Us boomers, we’re controlling know-it-alls. We hide mistakes. That’s no longer effective. We need to be brave, and willing to fail.”

Nowhere is the lack of courage and ambition more evident than in innovation performance.

A new survey by global IT services firm Accenture confirms the sense of stagnation. Despite a majority of CEOs saying innovation will drive their organisations’ long-term success, many companies are “disappointed” by  returns. Instead of the disruptive products, services and business models of yesteryear, today’s innovations are typically line extensions.

“A cautious approach to innovation is understandable, given the relatively disappointing results,” Accenture says. “However, it is a potentially perilous strategy. Enterprises that restrict themselves to incremental innovation, on the other hand, risk unknowingly entering a vicious cycle in which they lag ever farther behind.”

When it comes to innovation, crafting a vision requires a delicate balance, says innovation writer and adviser, Ralph-Christian Ohr. If the vision is too loose, not much is achieved; too tight and you risk missing emerging opportunities.

“Vision is future-oriented and reflects the ability to spot promising peaks in a changing landscape.” Ohr says. “It provides the motivation and a rough direction for this leap. Thinking too small leads to a short leap, resulting in an inability to leave the current hill (paradigm).”

Our yearning for vision runs deep, and not only in innovation. New Gallup research has found that 70 per cent of American workers are not engaged in or are actively disconnected from their work, with serious implications for company performance and America’s economy.

“The general consciousness about the importance of employee engagement seems to have increased in the past decade,” says Jim Harter, Gallup’s Chief Scientist, Workplace Management and Wellbeing. “But there is a gap between knowing about engagement and doing something about it in most American workplaces.”

For Mike Myatt, a leadership adviser to Fortune 500 CEOs and the author of Leadership Matters, only leaders can bridge that gap.

“Leaders who lack vision cannot inspire teams, motivate performance, or create sustainable value,” Myatt says. “Poor vision, tunnel vision, vision that is fickle, or a non-existent vision will cause leaders to fail. A leader’s job is to align the organisation around a clear and achievable vision. This cannot occur when the blind lead the blind. Leaders without vision will fail.”

Developing a vision is one thing; holding that vision under fire requires courage and persistence.

Effective leaders cultivate such qualities as part of bringing their visions to life, says John Ryan, head of the Centre for Creative Leadership in the US.

“Great leaders give real thought to the values, ideas and activities they’re most passionate about – and those are the things they pursue, rather than money or prestige or options forced on them by someone else,” Ryan says. “The visions these leaders have can be – and, in fact, should be – challenging to put into action.”

Adds Myatt: “If you really want to determine someone’s leadership prowess, give them some responsibility and see what they do with it. Leaders produce results.”

 

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