I have been a fan of former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, retired Admiral James Stavridis since we met back in 2008.
At the time Stavridis was the commander of U.S. Southern Command (SouthComm) headquartered in Miami with responsibility for planning, operations and security cooperation for Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Areas of focus at the time included narco-terrorism, 21st century gangs, drug trafficking, money laundering and mass migration.
An innovation of the drug traffickers at that time was the building of semi-submersible vessels that were built in the Colombian jungle and transported down river to the ocean. These small submarines cost about $500,000 to manufacture and were extremely difficult to detect in open waters.
During his keynote presentation at the 2016 UnleashWD event, Stavridis put a picture of one of these drug-carrying submarines on the screen. This particular submarine had been caught while at sea with three tons of cocaine inside with a street value of $50 million. The unique aspect of the picture was that Admiral Stavridis had the submarine parked on the lawn in front of SouthComm’s headquarters.
His intent? He wanted to insure every one of the 2,000 people on his staff saw their enemy’s innovations every day they drove into work. As he said, “It was not put there as some military trophy. It was not there as a reminder of how powerful we were. I put it there as a tribute to our opponents. I wanted my team to understand, and drive by every day and recognize that our opponents are smart. They’re innovating. Every day they are waking up in the jungle of Columbia thinking, ‘How am I going to move that next load of dope to the United States. What’s our clever plan?’ On our side we need to understand that kind of innovation so that we can reverse engineer it and kill it.”
With this move, placing this symbol of the enemy’s innovativeness front and center, Admiral Stavridis reminds us of the responsibility leadership has to face reality and insure their team does the same. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, once described leadership in terms of facing reality “as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be,” and to act on it with as much speed as possible.
What are the realities that need more attention from you and your team? Over the last several months, as I’ve been in board rooms, think tanks, workshops and preparing for my presentations, I have heard realities such as:
62% of invoices distributors write lose money.
The emergence of disruptive technology with no digital transformation plan of our own.
Our business is not “sexy” and thus talent is not drawn to the industry.
Manufacturers are thinking right now about strategies to sell direct.
The business being at risk due to a lack of a succession plan.
Customers wanting to see outside salespeople less and less.
Amazon Business having created a $10 billion B2B business in just three years.
What does this list of reality look like for your business? Do you have such a list? Have you looked reality straight in the face, gathered your team and developed strategies to “reverse engineer it and kill it?” Or is the inherent inertia within the business too strong, too accepting of how things are and too comfortable with today’s results?
The point is, as Admiral Stavridis’ story illustrates, our environment is in a constant state of change. Our reality presents significant challenges … and opportunities. As leaders, we must bring this reality into our business rather than trying to redefine reality to fit our business.