To come up with an integrated strategy, every effective leader must begin with the big questions: What world am I living in? What are the biggest trends in this world? How do I align my company’s activities so that my organization gets the most out of these trends and cushions the worst?
In my book, Leap I explore the two intertwining trends that propel all companies into the 21st century: the inexorable rise of intelligent machines and the emergence of ubiquitous connectivity. As new technologies are introduced, society is continuously transformed, and with it the way we will work in the future. We have observed that connectivity favors a decentralized mode of innovation, smart machines automate expert knowledge, and consequently, managerial activities that will still be ensconced in the human realm demand a higher level of creativity, social understanding, and empathy.
The inevitable is often quite apparent. Companies just need to leap while time is still on their side. Steve Jobs knew this. He said, “Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you’re going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely, it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.”
Jobs was referring to the time that he waited for broadband for two years, and then when it finally arrived, he jumped into the window of opportunity by releasing the iPod. Countless others jumped earlier than Apple by releasing their own MP3 players but failed miserably. Before the 2000s, music sharing was virtually illegal—on Napster—and it took hours to download an album. With poor connectivity, even the best-designed hardware made was hopelessly sluggish when downloading. Jobs waited for the inevitable improvement of broadband.
This is an important lesson. Successful executives often exhibit a bias for action. But it’s more important to separate the noise from the signal that really pinpoints the glacial movement around us. Carefully listening to the right signals requires patience and discipline. Seizing a window of opportunity, which means not necessarily being the first mover but rather being the first to get it right, takes courage and determination. It’s important to master these two seemingly contradictory abilities. A balanced combination of the discipline to wait and the determination to drive often pays off handsomely. Cultivating this paradoxical ability at the individual and organizational levels is what defines effective leadership.