Leaders inspire people, performance and progress.

Inspiration comes from a positive outlook on a confusing and uncertain world. It comes from being able to make sense of often-bewildering change, and to have a clarity and confidence about what the future holds. It is not just about great words, it must be real – authentic, human and desirable.

Leaders enrich, engage and enable their people, and their businesses, to go further.

Too often we see leadership revert to its classic pyramidal model, where the leader stands at the top of the organisation, encouraging his (hopefully, just as frequently, her) people forwards. They have learnt not to command in the old way, but they still see themselves as coordinators from on high, and controllers of the organisation machine.

But leadership is more than that today, and increasingly not that. The leader gives the organisation energy and purpose, sets a style that becomes a culture, and the hands-on impetus to continually think different and do better. As a business we could do anything, enter any market or sector. So organisations requires a more active style of ongoing leadership – better choices, clarity of navigation, and momentum.

Leaders catalyse, connect, communicate and coach.

Most importantly, they amplify potential.

Today there is much to be anxious about when we get up each day. Uncertainty reigns as rapid change disrupts expectations and social norms. The old institutions are fractured and economic conditions fluctuate widely. Threats abound, from climate change to cyberterrorism. The relentless pace can make you want to curl up in a corner, wary of what might come next.

Or you look ahead, through the chaos and complexity, ready to build a better tomorrow.

Here are a few inspirations:

Fast Company magazine recently summarised 10 attributes for leaders of today, seeking more courage and confidence, to see the future with more optimism.

1. Move quick

When Ford CEO Jim Hackett talks about leading the 115-year-old company that he took over in 2017, he acknowledges the need to speed up its metabolism—to try more new things. It’s one reason he’s endorsed fast prototyping at Ford’s new Greenfield Labs in Palo Alto. If Ford wants to withstand the revolutions of autonomous driving and next-generation engines, Hackett knows, its culture has to move beyond methodical and reliable. But Hackett also isn’t saying what Ford’s precise business model will be after these revolutions play out. And he’s okay with that uncertainty. He’s too impatient to stand still, yet deeply patient about selecting an ultimate course of action.

2. Take time to think

Someone once told me, “Before you say something in anger, count backward from 100.” Keeping calm is one of the hardest challenges in times of stress. It is also the route to gaining perspective. When Questlove talks about his love of silence—and how it serves as a creative engine for him—he’s definitely onto something. The sound of silence is the sound of someone thinking.

3. Have a point of view

One of my favorite verses from the musical Hamilton is the lead character’s admonition of Aaron Burr early in the play: “If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for?” As leaders and as businesses, we are defined by the positions we take on the most difficult issues. To Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, that means pledging to hire 100,000 “opportunity youth.” To soccer star Abby Wambach, that means support for both U.S. patriotism and Colin Kaep­er­nick. As Nike’s Hannah Jones puts it, “A brand that doesn’t stand for something is no longer a brand worth working for.” This is not a moment to be shy.

4. Be a force for change

Government officials may claim to be stewards of our social contract, but other institutions provide their own leadership as well. “Think about the sustainability movement,” says Nike’s Jones. “You fly across the world and you see windmill farms everywhere. It doesn’t matter what the U.S. administration is doing; we are all moving to renewable energy.” From education to gender identity norms, businesses play a central role in advancing global culture. Forward-thinking leaders embrace that responsibility with conviction.

5. Don’t forget, you’re human

In our tech-filled world of always-on connectivity, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence, direct interaction provides the ultimate competitive advantage. As Ideo’s Fred Dust argues, face-to-face engagement is a dwindling art. Yet it is empathy that unlocks so much capacity and creativity. Whether in a one-on-one situation or a one-to-many forum, listening is an essential skill. As Brandless CEO Tina Sharkey says, “People are craving human interaction. That’s going to move the needle more than any technology you could ever dream up.”

6. Cross the line

Traditional demarcations of “generations”—what differentiates one age cohort from another—are becoming muddy, as experience takes precedence over age. While seasoned executives still have wisdom to share with young talents—Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood calls the training of young people “probably the most important mark I hope to leave”—modern mentorship is a two-way street. West Elm’s Doug Guiley admits to leaning on his 12-year-old daughter for perspective on his brand. He’s hardly alone in appreciating the fresh eyes and intuition of digital natives.

7. Respect complexity

Even as businesses work to project confidence in a competitive world, we all have to get comfortable with a higher-than-usual degree of messiness if we want to iterate at the pace of global change. “We can’t think about being perfect, we just have to keep moving forward,” says Dell Technologies’ Elizabeth Gore. Whether the topic is bitcoin or AI, we have to accept that our knowledge is incomplete, that lifelong learning is required. Actor Kate Hudson, who cofounded athleisure brand Fabletics, groans at the prospect of robots invading the retail experience—yet she acknowledges that her company will inevitably need to reckon with them.

8. Embrace differences

Diversity is not just a social issue; it is a business requirement. Having “a lot of different people in the room,” says Morgan Stanley’s Carla Harris, unlocks broader ideas and opportunities. What’s more, says Professor Michael Kimmel, diversity must be aligned with inclusion, breaking down silos and freeing voices. Whether it’s TV writer Lena Waithe discussing her emotional, Emmy-winning coming-out episode of Master of None, or drag queens Sasha Velour, Milk, and BibleGirl sparking dialogue around how we talk about gender with our kids, uncomfortable topics help us all to grow.

9. Raise your expectations

Millennials “are getting into positions of leadership faster than we did,” says Morgan Stanley’s Harris. “That is going to cause companies that have been around a long time to change.” A parallel transformation is under way in the consumer marketplace. Sundial’s Bonin Bough uses the term “promiscuous” to describe consumers, not in a derogatory sense, but to underscore how fluid our relationships with products and brands—and employers—have become. That sets the bar higher for everyone, to be more consistent, more responsive, more essential. Yesterday’s achievements just don’t hold the same weight; today’s best practices are tomorrow’s table stakes.

10. Do it, don’t just talk about it

To hear Kimbal Musk and Dan Barber argue about the future of food is like glimpsing two parallel visions of the future. Will we grow produce in vertical farms within cities, as Musk would have it? Or will we return to family farming that balances ecology, sustainability, and health, as Barber prefers? Neither course would be considered likely by most analysts, and yet that skepticism bothers the two of them not at all. The fact that their visions are difficult to execute is part of what drives them. They take nothing for granted—and they put everything they have into remaking this vital sector. In the process, they open the door to a better way for all of us.

What is innovation?

Sounds like an easy question. Or should be. But we still stumble over phrases like making ideas happen, solving problems, doing it profitably, or at least with a positive impact.

And of course its easy to resort to Apple, or more specifically, Steve Jobs. Whilst you’ve heard everything about him already, there is one moment worth recalling from that magical Stanford commencement speech he made in 2005. Whilst he talked about life, and making the most of your time, he captured the spirit of innovation in three sentences:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Leonardo da Vinci was a great one for making new connections. His greatest breakthroughs came from connecting the unconnected, and in particular, the insights gained by bringing different perspectives together. His expertise in anatomy helped him to create better portraits and sculptures, and also helped him make sense of mechanics and engineering. He himself defined innovation as connecting the unconnected.

Another great disruptor, Albert Einstein was often challenged for making what seemed like absurd connections. Like the connection between energy and mass. Of course, there was no existing logic which suggested such a connection, it needed to be shaped through imagination. Almost every great scientific breakthrough has come about through hypothesis and then making sense through practical demonstration.

Back in the business world, I explored innovation with Sir Richard Branson, and the culture which he seeks to create across his Virgin companies, he reached for a pencil and paper and jotted down his equation of life … A+B+C+D (Always Be Connecting the Dots). Its not about creating newness, but making sense of what you have, maybe in fragments and different places, but can be shaped in new and interesting ways.

We spend much of our time collecting dots – seeking new insights, reading more books, generating more ideas – but too little time connecting dots. This requires confidence and creativity, to think bigger and laterally.

“The magic of connecting dots is that once you learn the techniques, the dots can change but you’ll still be good at connecting them.”

Indeed we live in an incredible world with so many great sources of ideas, insights and inspirations. I spend my exploring the world’s most innovative companies, the new markets which they shape, the business models which they develop, the new experiences they deliver to customers. There are so many ideas out there.

So many dots to connect …

  • Connecting ideas with different ideas to create new and unusual concepts
  • Connecting diverse people to combine talents, experience and perspectives
  • Connecting customers with business to gain insight and engagement
  • Connecting partners with business to gain capability and reach
  • Connecting customer needs and wants, to solve bigger problems
  • Connecting ideas from different places, across geographies and sectors
  • Connecting products and services, into richer customer experiences
  • Connecting markets in new ways, to operate different and better
  • Connecting business with new business models to be more profitable
  • Connecting media, channels and market networks to amplify the impact
  • Connecting customers with customers to build richer communities

The real skill is to see the bigger picture, the bigger space in which you can make the new connections – and then to make new connections – interesting, unusual, distinctive, better. Even if at first you question how will it work, how will it make money, don’t be disheartened. By adding more connections you will soon find ways to implement and sell your uniqueness, often in ways you never imagined.

And so innovation in every aspect of what you do.

And as I googled for more clarity (as you do), I came across this video:

It finishes with a great few lines, worth remembering for when you’re asked that question about what really is innovation:

So what is innovation?

Those other dots. The ones others miss.
And having the certainty to know that the dots you see are not only valid, but necessary if the world is to move forward.


Explore more from Peter Fisk about innovation: