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Visionary Leadership to High Performance: Avoiding the Great Disconnect

Visionary Leadership to High Performance

11 hostile opponents. Ear splitting noise exacerbated by the fishbowl acoustics of an imposing stadium. 200,000 unblinking eyes focused on you across 360 degrees of vision. 2 billion passionate souls demanding perfection through a billion LCD screens. You - the leader, the magician, the visionary.

The 21st century is a time when instant gratification has become both a norm and a reviled term in business and society. But in sports arenas around the world, it has long been a reality. There is indeed good reason why high performance as a business goal has such close links with sports, for on these gladiatorial arenas, performance has always been starkly quantified and transparent. 

Unsurprisingly, the leaders of teams that win consistently and sustainably, are often held up as visionaries. The reality is however that the number of visionary leaders, far outstrips that of truly high performing teams they lead. Indeed, the awe with which visionary leadership is held, is all too often belied by the performance of their teams. It is nothing but intriguing to delve into the why.

The path to high performance indubitably starts from the leader's vision to achieve the unconsidered, unattempted, and inevitably, untouched. The first hurdle it often falters at, is communication. 

A vision provides the raison d'etre for individuals to grow and achieve on a grand scale; a vision so big that even the most confident team member cannot feel sure of achieving it; so big that even the most cynical cannot shoot it down. Over time, that struggle to achieve the unachievable becomes a rational goal. But if the leader fails to communicate that vision adequately to the team, she or he remains merely a dreamer, no matter how revolutionary the vision may have been. 

In an earlier episode of #OutsideInsights we looked at why #Bazball is revolutionising Test Cricket and the messages #BrendonMcCullum passed on to the #England team when he took over as Head Coach. Now imagine McCullum having this vision of changing how Test Cricket is played, and not communicating it to #BenStokes and the team. It would not matter how good Stokes and his mates are at execution, for if they didn't understand, and didn't buy into the vision, it would have remained a good idea, nothing more.

Once the communication is done, the next hurdle is ensuring that every member of the team shows ability, and commitment to the team vision and purpose, in equal measure. 

The New Zealand All Blacks, the Brazilian football team, and the Australian Test Cricket team, have something in common. Over many decades, across sports, they have been the most consistently successful national teams, winning well over 70% of all international matches they have played. That is a remarkable achievement. 

There has indeed been a consistency of vision - to be the best in the world. But it is inconceivable, and indeed improbable, that over so many decades, they have each always had the best players in the world. What they have excelled at instead, is to ensure that in every single team, the ability of the players has been married with complementarity of their skill sets. Combined with that is the leader's conviction that each member of his team can generate an energy and synergy that makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

The third major element is the much maligned and ill-understood concept of team culture. Indeed, the nature of a culture that works consistently for high performance teams varies widely not just across teams, but straddles geographies and leadership styles. 

There are however some commonalities that are non-negotiable: 

  • The first is the ability to manage intra-team conflict and disagreements. World-class teams are almost inevitably composed of people with well-developed egos. They have a lot at stake and much to lose if things go wrong. The leader therefore needs to ensure that there exists a culture of recognising, facing and tackling interpersonal issues promptly. 

  • The second is discipline that is ingrained in the DNA of the team. This is to ensure there are a set of boundaries that define what is acceptable and unacceptable. Flamboyant personalities are sometimes core to the success of teams just because of that 'X factor' that they bring to proceedings and their ability to think out of the box disregarding any blinkers that may be offered them. But there is place for that flamboyance - in their personal space and time, and while executing on the job. Between those two, the norms that govern them must be common with the rest of the team and the processes they follow. If this is not enforced, then the team will splinter and move in different directions. 

  • The final common element is a healthy attitude of discontent. This may seem counter-intuitive, but what it really means is fostering and promoting a team culture that embraces an attitude of continual learning and improvement. It allows the team to pause and celebrate success, but never rest on past laurels. And always actively seek the next challenge. 

This secret of success in moving from vision to high performance and avoiding the great disconnect between the two, may be most obvious in gladiatorial arenas around the world, but is in reality far from being confined to sports. 

As a former banker, the one financial institution that never failed to draw my admiration, was American banking giant, J.P. Morgan. From the time of its founding, it has successfully weathered the tens of financial crises that have overtaken the world. Not just that, it has come in to save several other institutions from going under, often at the invitation of the regulator. And all through its history, it has found a way to not just manage the crises, but also integrate its acquisitions in a way that has made it larger and stronger, financially. 

As the Financial Times pointed out last week, 'JPMorgan is now the largest bank in the US by assets, deposits and market capitalisation, with Chase bank branches in 48 states. It also earns more from investment banking fees than any other Wall Street bank, consistently outranking Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America.'

Morgan's leadership and employee base has changed over the past century and more. But the way its leaders have communicated their vision, chosen their teams to be fit for purpose, and helped them execute to a high level of performance, has ensured that as a bank it has soared over all the hurdles along its vision to high performance journey. 

If you are a visionary leader, don't stop at the vision. Ask yourself in the mirror - who would you like to see staring back at you - Richie McCaw leading the Haka for the All Blacks, Steve Waugh adorning the Baggy Green, Pele holding up the FIFA World Cup for the Canarinho, or Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan, dapper in his blue tie and suit? 

Whichever you pick, remember, that to stamp your legacy and ensure that vision translates to high performance, the onus is on you to avoid the great disconnect. May the force (of high performance) be with you.

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