Blog » Thinking the Unthinkable: The New Leadership Imperative

Thinking the Unthinkable: The New Leadership Imperative

People ask me all the time what I consider to be the biggest challenge facing today’s business leaders.

I don’t even hesitate on this one. It’s the automatic assumption by most business leaders that we still live in a fairly predictable world.

Think about it. Six months ago, who would have thought that Toyota would be in the position it is today?

Here we have one of the largest, most successful, most respected companies in the world. And now it faces a crisis that is not just destroying its hard-earned reputation, but could well put it out of business.

That’s unthinkable! And yet it’s happening right before our eyes.

Sales of Toyotas are plummeting. The U.S. government is launching a full-scale investigation into the company’s business practices. And a tidal wave of lawsuits around the faulty floor mat/throttle issue is about to be unleashed.

If Toyota is found to be at fault, and if it turns out they had knowledge of the defective design and did nothing about it, punitive damages could run into billions of dollars. Not even Toyota could withstand that kind of a financial hit and still survive.

I’m not saying the unthinkable will happen. But the possibility that Toyota could go out of business in the near term is very real. And that’s the kind of world we now live in.

Leading a business in this kind of environment requires a new way of thinking. Considering that most business leaders still view the world as fairly predictable, the question becomes how do we train ourselves to think differently?

The answer is simple — pause, think, focus, run.

  • Pause. Make it a habit to back away from the day-to-day and evaluate what is happening outside your industry as well as inside.
  • Think. Constantly challenge your beliefs and assumptions about what you know to be true about your customers, your markets, your industry and the way you do things inside your organization. Take nothing for granted.
  • Focus. Identify opportunities to add value to your customers in ways that nobody else is doing. Identify significant initiatives that support leveraging those opportunities, and get and keep everyone in your organization clear on achieving them.
  • Run. Implement quickly, with focus and flexibility, knowing in advance that your new initiatives will not unfold exactly as planned.

Then repeat this process.

During the think phase, develop the habit of engaging in scenario planning. Ask questions like. “What would happen if our biggest competitor suddenly went out of business? What is taking place in other industries or other parts of the world that we could use to transform our industry?”

Many companies do this once a year during the strategic planning process. In today’s world, that will no longer suffice. When a company as large and seemingly invincible as Toyota can have the rug pulled out from under them so quickly, it’s clear the old rules no longer apply.

Pondering the imponderable should become an everyday occurrence in organizations. To be a successful leader today, thinking the unthinkable must become a way of life.

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