Igniting Your Entrepreneurial Fire

Key Concept ~ While the cacophony of social media,  cloud technology, mobile apps, etc., continues the dominate the business landscape, the core fundamentals for success remain the same.  Over the next three blogs, I’d like to share the fundamentals I learned over my 25 year career in both corporate leadership roles and in entrepreneurial settings.  Your success will greatly be determined by three critical elements.  These next three blogs are an excerpt from my book, “The Transformational Entrepreneur ~ Engaging The Mind, Heart & Spirit For Breakthrough Business Success”which was cited in the March edition of the academic Journal For Economic Literature for its contribution to thought leadership and the field of business management.

Creating transformational performance is like igniting a fire; it requires three fundamental elements.  A fire requires a source of heat, fuel, and oxygen in order to burn.  Transformational performance requires authentic, conscious leadership (the heat), a visionary strategic plan (the fuel), and a creative culture that fully engages the entire workforce (the oxygen).

While transformational performance cannot occur without all three elements, the quality of leadership will greatly enhance or diminish both the ascendance and long-term success of a business.  The intensity of its energy and the clarity of its intention can emulate that of a paper match or an acetylene torch.

The quality of the strategic plan will influence sustainability and growth; it can take the form of seasoned hardwood or half-rotted pulp.  The final element, culture, can fan or extinguish the brightest leadership and the most thoughtful strategies.  Like oxygen, we cannot literally see culture, yet it is the air we all breathe.

~ Authentic Leadership

Leading a business requires a strong and unflinching sense of responsibility for the associates who depend upon your wisdom, integrity, and stewardship.  Their livelihoods, dreams, and aspirations are invested in your guidance.  This is a sacred trust.  Associates trust that you will do your best to ensure the health and vitality of the business.  The stronger their level of trust in your leadership, the more willing they will be to fully invest their time, energy, and enthusiasm in the success of the endeavor.  The level of authenticity a leader expresses in their daily interactions with people and in how they address challenging situations will have an enormous impact on execution.

Authenticity may sound like an unusual word to describe leadership, but its meaning reflects several key characteristics that are critical to successfully leading human beings.  There are three primary definitions of authenticity in the dictionary; the quality of being authentic, trustworthy or genuine, and the displaying of undisputed credibility.

The quality of being authentic begins with being true to one’s self.  This quality emerges through self reflection and inner exploration and infers an active awareness of one’s consciousness.  The complete spectrum of who we are physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.  This includes being in touch with, and trusting in, one’s own intuition.  We’ll explore the role of intuition further in Chapter Four.

At times, being true to one’s self isn’t easy.  It can test our moral courage.  In the late 1990’s while serving as the vice president of sales and marketing for a highly acquisitive life science company I experienced this conflict.  I found myself confronted with having to decide whether I would lead with authenticity or “go along to get along”.

Shortly after our company purchased a small manufacturing concern we found ourselves with two mid-level executives with overlapping responsibilities for managing our European sales business.  One was from our organization and one arrived with the acquired company.  The president of our company had sidestepped a decision on realigning responsibilities for two months.  The new executive was very political and focused much of his efforts and energy to develop a social relationship with the president, inviting him to play golf and entertaining him at his home.    After more than a year of diligent work on the part of our director to build our business in Europe the ambiguity began wearing on his emotions and productivity.

The situation left me uneasy at what I felt was inherently unfair.  At the very least, our director deserved a word of clarification on the issue.  Finally, on a Friday afternoon preceding our director leaving on a scheduled trip to meet with our European partners (who would be looking for direction and clarification as well) I felt compelled to address the situation with the president.  My inquiry infuriated the president who proceeded to lash out verbally.  I took some lumps and expended significant political capital, but my authentic concern for my direct report resonated throughout the sales and marketing organization, building trust and resulting in measurably marked improvements in sales performance.

As the years progressed, I began to realize my sensibilities of leadership didn’t correlate with what I was consistently experiencing in Corporate America.  While my performance was frequently lauded by my superiors, I would eventually find myself at odds with the status quo.  Somehow, my presence made my fellow executives uncomfortable.  Our intentions didn’t match.  I eventually came to the realization I didn’t belong in this environment and made the decision to strike out on my own and start a business focusing on coaching entrepreneurs on leadership, strategy, and business process.  In discovering and following my authentic self I now work from a position of service that has created the greatest joy and satisfaction I have ever experienced in my life!

The second definition of authenticity is “trustworthy or genuine”.  Trust is an energy that flows in a circular orbit.  It cannot move in one direction without returning to whence it came.  Some people allow themselves to trust more readily than others, but once trust has been broached it is often nearly impossible to mend.

Cultivating a trustworthy environment dispels people’s fears and calms insecurities.  It enables people to function in the moment without worrying about the repercussions of making an honest mistake.  The legendary salesman and early leader of IBM, Thomas J. Watson, was once quoted as saying, “Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?”

Sometimes we learn more from our mistakes and allowing for the occasional mistake without the anticipation or fear of punishment builds trust.  Trusting associates empowers people to work from their heart which draws upon the energy of positive intention.  It opens the door to passionate engagement and reveals the hidden workforce lying quietly just beneath the surface in many businesses.  Creating an environment that encourages mature, thoughtful risk-taking delivers returns that far exceed any potential losses.

In the context of our discussion, the definition of “genuine” refers to being from the original stock or lineage, of being a genuine human being.  This implies we see each other as universally and energetically connected as a single entity of creation.  In doing so, we are able to express empathy for one another as easily and openly as we are able to care about our selves.  The resonant power of empathy consistently expressed by leadership cannot be overestimated.  It conveys genuine concern and respect for an associate’s well-being.  In doing so, it lowers barriers and engages the heart as well as the mind.  It is something we all can relate to.  Ask yourself, how much more are you willing to do for someone that genuinely cares about you?

Several years ago I was engaged in a strategic planning project with an immersive learning company.  They focused on teaching empathy in health care environments in response to malpractice lawsuits.  The financial exposure the risk of malpractice introduces to insurance companies, hospitals, and physicians’ practices has resulted in extensive, scientific research into the reasons why people sue.  We tapped into this research as part of our planning process and what we discovered was very surprising.  It turns out people sue based upon how they feel they were treated after a medical error had occurred and not directly because of the error itself.  Patients and patients’ families that were treated with empathy were significantly less likely to sue.  That’s a powerful statement.  In the midst of experiencing one of the most severe health and emotional crisis humans may encounter, empathy was the balm that soothed the intensity of a catastrophic medical event.  Imagine the power empathy can have in an everyday business environment!

The third definition of authenticity is “undisputed credibility”, which emphasizes the importance of being impeccable with your word and ensuring the consistent alignment of your actions with your words.  Walking the walk and talking the talk.  In the noble words of St. Francis of Assisi, “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”

One of the fastest ways to disengage a workforce is for leadership to display behavior that is inconsistent with their words.  It conveys the existence of double standards; one for associates and a separate, privileged set of standards for executives.  If you want associates to perform at a high level then live, work, and consistently display that level in your own behavior.  Keep in mind it is human nature to remember the missteps.  You can be consistently credible 99% of the time but it will be the one time you are inconsistent with your word that associates will remember.

Another powerful, yet often overlooked attribute of authentic leadership is the ability to sense and respect people’s boundaries.  Hierarchical leadership has a tendency to create boundaries that run in one direction.  Actually, they are more like barriers than boundaries.  Barriers that create a set of expectations that govern behavior and one-directional communication that are meant to sustain authority and control.  Projecting a lack of respect for the boundaries of subordinates causes emotional barriers to be erected.  As emotional barriers come up associate engagement goes down.  Conversely, enabling the creation of healthy boundaries engages associates’ sense of worth and creativity.

People need to feel secure in their own space; this extends to emotional and intellectual space as well as physical space.  When people are able to create and maintain a container of self their creativity will blossom.  When physical space is constrained, such as when cubicles are used for workspace, fostering healthy emotional and mental boundaries is even more important to fully engage associates.  Authority figures that roll over these boundaries lead people to freeze up and withdraw, working while keeping their heads down to avoid further transgressions into their comfort zone.  Giving associates the space to think and, at the appropriate time, to simply be, engages the imagination and the heart.  The consistent expression of authentic leadership will rapidly reveal previously unseen opportunities for the organization.

© 2012, Terry Murray.

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Filed under Associate Engagement, Customer Engagement, Leadership, Productivity, Strategic Planning

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