Breakthrough Leadership: From Ideas to Impact

Steve Zaffron, CEO of Vanto Group

Throughout our lives, each of us has come across people who are remarkable leaders—people with passion, commitment, courage—people who stand for a particular result while it is still a possibility, empower themselves to act, and make their vision real. Somewhere we know that those qualities of leadership are available to us as well, but the way we usually think of leaders builds in a certain distance. We think that leaders are somehow different—that they’re born with some special gift that sets them apart, that has them be extraordinary.

To assume that leaders just started out as extraordinary, however, is to overlook what it took along the way. More importantly, those views about leadership limit our own access to being a leader. When we think of ourselves as being a particular way, with characteristics and traits that are “set” or “fixed,” we block that access. If asked, we might explain these fixed notions of ourselves based on whatever opportunities and experiences we did or didn’t have, decisions we did or didn’t make, the luck of the draw. However it is that we do describe or define our fixed ways of being, we are not stuck there. We have a say about who we are and who we can be. Should we choose to be a leader, to take a stand, to fulfill a vision, we have full access to doing so.

Leadership is not just what’s required on the international stage, or in particular crisis situations—it’s about a future that we’re out to create, not based on any actuality, or clear-cut pathways to get there, but rather on the stand we take for having that future happen. It is something each of us can bring to that with which we’re involved—our day-to-day lives, our families, our communities, our nations. Leaders are ordinary men and women who dare to be related to possibilities bigger than themselves, attracted by the world that’s opened up by their vision and their commitment. When we create a future and invest ourselves in it, that future starts to open up new territory. And what it gives birth to, what it attracts, and what we can make happen is not predictable.

Creating a future exists in language—it starts with articulating a vision, and comes to life in conversation. The lifeblood of leadership in one sense is the capacity for dialogue, for connection, for conversation. A leader or leadership team points to a different sense of what’s possible, in the same way that a painter or sculptor or poet can give people a different way of seeing. It requires courage, taking a stand—not as a position against contrary forces, but as a commitment which becomes the chute down which a particular vision is realized. When we generate those kinds of futures, it’s almost always beyond what anyone can fulfill individually. Its fulfillment requires and relies on the committed and coordinated action of others. Coordinated action is the foundation for an expanded possibility, for the accomplishment of something we can’t achieve on our own. This is where the phenomenon of “occurring” comes into the picture.

How people act, the choices they make and actions they take, their motivations or lack thereof are directly correlated to how they view the world—or to say it another way, to how the world occurs to them. Think about playing a game of catch. We see a ball coming toward us at a certain angle, and run toward where we think the ball is headed. If the angle drops, we speed up; if it rises, we slow down. We act in direct correlation to the arc, the speed, the size of the ball. In other words, our actions are correlated to our view, or the context we have of playing catch. The way a situation “occurs” for us is colored and shaped by our context for that situation, not the situation itself. If the context was bowling, instead of playing a game of catch, the ball and our correlated actions would occur in a totally different way.

A great example of this “occurring” dynamic took place when we were doing some consulting work with a mining company in Peru. There was a clear-cut hierarchical system in place among the workforce—at the top were the direct descendents of the Spaniards, at the bottom, the Indians. The context was that “you knew your place” and that context defined the roles, how workers related to other workers, and their expression and contribution could only occur within those parameters. To make these delineations clear, the workers wore different color hats to reflect their status. A gold hat meant the upper class, a yellow or green hat, lower. With that kind of system in place, tension was always present. The manager we were working with saw how the day-to-day job, the politics of the situation, the future for the workforce “occurred” for them. He was willing to see and act on a possibility beyond what was predictable, beyond what the circumstances and rationalizations would allow. He saw clearly that the context they held shaped people’s actions and performance, and what might be possible if things were different.

The manager decided the colored hats weren’t consistent with the vision for the future they had all started to create together as a company. His intention was that everyone have an equal chance to contribute to the success of that future. He ordered white hats for everyone and let the workers know that “it’s going to take another month before they get here, and until then, I suggest, we just change hats. And nobody will know which hat means what.” They changed hats. Everyone cheered. With that one change, the future shifted. The workers began to see their future and their role within the company completely differently—performance altered dramatically. The workers were able to see themselves as an integral, vital part of the mine’s future. They were able to step outside their separate roles and experience themselves as part of a team. Few forces are as powerful in elevating a company’s performance as a vision shared and owned at every level. When people take on their company’s vision as their own, it becomes the generative force of the organization.

Being a leader takes courage—not just the kind of courage that is called for in a moment of crisis, but the courage called for on a day-to-day basis. Nine times out of 10, leaders face being thwarted or think they may be inadequate for the task. Taking a stand for a future when it’s only a possibility is a purely existential act and exists only in language—in our saying.

We often think of language as if there’s a world out there and our words function primarily to describe, refer to, talk about that world. But the relationship between language and our selves is far more intimate, creative, and generative. Every word brings with it its meaning, but meanings are not inherently there, in the world, waiting to be represented by language. Language gives the world its meaning. From this stand, things shift—our speaking impacts the world to match our words.

The reality, conditions, and circumstances of the future do not exist as “facts.” They exist only as a product of the conversations we are—making language and communication the most important and fundamental access to fulfilling what matters, what’s important, what’s possible.

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