The Real Challenge of Leadership

innovate or die

I’m writing this post for my friend Julio, who I hope takes the leadership challenge head on…

Innovative leaders are cut from a different cloth from traditional ones. It’s why you just can’t assume that giving leaders a set of tools to help their organization innovate will work; it goes deeper than that.

All businesses at some point become addicted to stability, and the people leading the organization become “maintainers of the status quo”; don’t break it or you’ll get fired.

It’s all about avoiding difficult times and enjoying stability.

On the other hand, innovative leaders who push their organization to achieve breakthrough performance know that tough times are inevitable, they just come with the territory.

Holding on to outdated assumptions

Success breeds failure, and successful companies fail because they hold on to outdated assumptions. They fail to understand that what got you here won’t get you there.

Every business is built and run on a set of assumptions about their business, industry and the world. When a startup reaches maturity it is because their assumptions have been validated by the market, while an incumbents assumptions are proven outdated.

For incumbents, a crisis results when those assumptions are challenged by outside forces. They go into reaction mode, maneuver to match the force from the challengers to their business.

Leaders should not wait until those assumptions are no longer relevant.

Keep the pressure on

Leading an organization when times are tough is easy, it’s the good times that challenge leaders the most.


Because rather than coast during the times that the business is flying high, the company should continue asking hard questions about where its going, digging more aggressively for ways to tap its latent potential. While companies should certainly celebrate periods of success, breakthrough leaders understand that they need to build some paranoia into these periods as well, keeping the company alert for signs that its key assumptions may be becoming outdated. The cost of questioning these assumptions ahead of time is far less than trying to unravel them after the tough times have already steamrolled in.

It is during the good times that a company is most at risk. When times are tough, people tend to focus. But without outside pressure, organizations can become complacent and lazy.

Innovative leaders understand that complacency is the silent killer of organizations. They manage for bravery to keep the pressure on, creating internal paranoia to keep the organization on it heels driving it to find the revolution before it finds them.

Innovate or evaporate

Innovative leaders ask themselves the following questions:

  • Are we hiring for comfort or potential?
  • Are we playing to win or not to lose?

Every company in every industry will need to transform itself at some point, the question is “why wait until you have to?” Sitting still is not an option.

Bottom line: The real challenge of leadership is teaching the organization to keep the pressure on, even when times are good. If it isn’t broke, break it.