The Surprisingly Powerful Force that Keeps Leaders Successful and Relevant

CEO Insider

One of the hardest parts to being a leader is freshness. It’s not a term we typically use when talking about effective leadership, but it’s always there. We tend to focus instead on the many forms it takes, the freshness of ideas, for example. It’s there in other forms too, as in the ability to keep one’s perspective or objectivity fresh. Good strategy, shear tenacity, even market share can add support to a leader’s ability to succeed, but none of those things have lasting impact without freshness.

When leaders forget the fresh factor they get stale. That’s when leaders tend to lean more towards control – control being another way of saying, “How can I just force fit what has long worked, even when the signals of the changing world around me say I need something fresh?” And the data around too much control isn’t encouraging.

Study after study has found that leaders tend to exert control at all the wrong times. When greater risk and uncertainty enter the environment, leaders often look for ways to baton down the hatches and shore up ‘what is,’ often losing sight at those glimmers of ‘what might yet be’ that come with change and shifting landscapes. It’s openness, the research proves, diversity of thought, sharing of power – things some leaders feel threatened by, that prove to be the best ingredients for weathering change, seeding innovation, and allowing an organization to adapt.

What can leaders do? The first thing they can do, of course, is to acknowledge that what makes something necessary, useful, or otherwise “right” – an idea, a product line, customers, even leaders – is inevitably a matter of timing and circumstances. Things change. Always. Intellectually, most leaders know it’s true. It’s in practice, when are heads are down doing what we do that we forget that change is a powerful force for good, and growth, and all the things leaders seek in the first place.

But beyond this, leaders need to allow their thinking to be bolder. In early 2020, as the Covid pandemic soared towards its peak, McKinsey & Company published an article that argued that the more uncertain the times, the more leaders needed to “Go big or go home.” It may sound brash and reckless, but McKinsey was arguing just the opposite. Listing it among the top 5 recommendations they had for leaders in turbulent times, they made the case that “unprecedented crises demand unprecedented actions,” and that past crises made clear that leaders tend to ‘underact’ when change is great and volatile.” One leader suggested to me a bolder move still: Thinking seriously about shutting the entire business down.

The suggestion wasn’t flippant. The idea comes from an act of entrepreneurial perspective taking that innovator, noted chef, and author Alice Waters took annually. Speaking about her world-renowned Northern California restaurant Chez Panisse, Waters once told me, “Every year I threaten to close the doors.” Far from an idle threat, she seriously contemplates it. As she does, she goes through a process of deep thinking. She strips back to the nuts and bolts of how they do what they do and, more importantly, why and in what conditions. It’s a challenging, often cathartic process of reevaluating why Chez Panisse should keep its doors open, and a way to confirm that the value it produces now and over time is both there to be produced and within the team’s ability and desire to produce it. These are the kind of things Waters considers each time she does this:

  • Why is the way we are doing things the best way to meet our larger mission and goals?
  • Why is this the best use of precious resources we are lucky enough to have access to?
  • Why is another version of the vision and how to achieve it not a better answer, and a better use of our time?

Note that the questions are more fundamental than, say, what proportion of the budget should go to sales and marketing this year. There’s something more worth noticing: Waters doesn’t do it alone. She engages those around her – the ones who in every way make Chez Panisse possible, to ask themselves the very same questions. After all, the answers to such queries are never uniform. And the only reason for Waters and her team to be together ongoing is if they all believe their answers to these questions justify their continued collaboration to create something valuable. This is what freshness is all about, and an excellent example of how to ensure it.

Beyond the counterintuitive boldness of her act, what Alice Waters does in thinking seriously about shutting down a venture she deeply loves and has devoted much of her life to, is give her passion new life and reaffirm its purpose – for her, to be sure, but also for every single person who joins her in defining that purpose and pursuing it. Neither joke nor sacrifice, Waters’ unconventional soul-searching is a conscious choice to stay fresh, relevant, and adaptable as the world around her organization keeps on changing. The real sacrifice comes when you fail to pause, deliberately, as Waters does, and keep the doors open just because you assume that’s what your there to do. She may be in the food business, but the fact is freshness counts in every business – at least, that is, every successful one.


Written by Larry Robertson.

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