by CIO Staff

Common Sense Leadership Makes Great Leaders

May 05, 20065 mins
IT Leadership

“The common man marvels at the uncommon,” said Confucius. “The wise man marvels at the common.” The first part of this statement explains the wild popularity of the reality television shows in which ordinary people do extraordinary (and dumb) things from marooning themselves on remote islands to eating writhing worms on stage in front of a live audience. Gross, yes, but in keeping with what Confucius wrote 2,500 years ago. The second part of his statement contains an insight that accounts for the phenomenal rise and continuing popularity of eBay. People have been auctioning goods for eons, likely even in the time of Confucius, but what is relatively new is twofold: doing it virtually and in the process creating a community of buyers and sellers linked not only for their search for the best price, but also for the best value. eBay has become a marketplace for a virtual community and in the process has revolutionized the manner in which we exchange goods. No stores. No salespeople. No distributors. Just pure exchange. Pierre Omidyar created the concept; Meg Whitman built the business. Millions of people patronize it as buyers, sellers or both. And that’s uncommon in the Confucian sense.

Know where to look

A lesson of eBay is that opportunity awaits people willing to look for it. The lesson of Confucius is that people must have the wisdom to know what they are looking for and be wise enough to capitalize on it when they find it. Such discernment is not commonplace; it is quite uncommon, but it can be something that people can acquire if they are taught. It therefore falls to leaders to teach their followers not only where to look but also how to look. Here are some suggestions.

Open your mind. Creative people are forever open to new ideas. Take Robin Williams. He can turn a single word, or a single gesture into a comic riff. Steven Spielberg created his first anthology television series in the mid 1980s, Amazing Stories, to channel some of his ideas–as well as those of many other writers and directors–into small productions. Williams and Spielberg are examples of entrepreneurs of ideas–Williams as an actor and Spielberg as a producer director.

Bend the idea. Today Google is the pre eminent search engine. It was not the first, as John Battelle tells us in this fine book, Search, that focuses on the development of Google; Alta Vista was. Neither was Google the first to offer advertising in the mode of pay for clicks. That distinction belongs to The genius of Sergei Brin and Larry Page at Google was in channeling their brilliance into developing ever more powerful and comprehensive search systems. Eric Schmidt the CEO sought ways to make money. The Google team understood its virtue was in searching, not community as sites like Yahoo do. Click ’n go is its operative driver, and if we make our search capabilities so powerful people will come to our site first. And some will pay to advertise. Google bent the idea of searching in order to create a powerful resource as well as generous profit maker.

Exploit the idea. Most of us consider Starbucks a good place to go for a good cup of coffee. While there are many millions of places that sell coffee, Starbucks has created a brand built on friendly service, good quality roasted coffee, and a pleasant environment to order your latte or hang around for a while. Its vision encompasses all three; it wants to become the “third place” consumers go when they are not at home or at work. Ambitious, you betcha! But it is a vision that people inside and outside the company can readily understand. Such a vision underscores the reason its cafes not only sell newspapers and offer Internet access but are investing in the music business as packagers and distributors.

Reopen your mind. Ever met a serial entrepreneur? That’s someone who starts new businesses, often successfully, one after the other. They have the wide eyed enthusiasm of kids in a theme park but the keen eyed savvy of experienced business professionals. They love to create and build businesses. Many focus on a single industry, be it restaurants, cleaning services, trucking or service based. They are open to possibilities from anywhere, and like Confucius, they see virtue and opportunity in the commonplace- that is, making something simpler, easier or more convenient.

Making time for ideas

Managers may not have time to look for anything but the next roadblock. That is the reality of our management landscape. For example, a manager who is short staffed, under budgeted and time constrained (sound familiar?) will pooh pooh the idea of seeking wisdom in the commonplace. Pragmatic managers just want to get on with things, and while that will get things done, it means that they will always be doing things the same way. As a result, they slip further behind; they fail to keep up.

Yet by looking for wisdom in what is common-for example, the collective talents and skills and brainpower of people-managers under the gun can learn to breathe a sigh of relief. How? By asking for ideas from their own greatest resources–the people who work for them. That is the lesson that Peter Drucker taught us and which successful knowledge based companies from General Electric to Toyota build upon. Yes, it requires a degree of humility to ask, but again Confucius has an answer for that. “Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.”

Sources: 1 John Battelle, Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture New York: Portfolio 2005