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In 2009, become a ‘Head-Up’ leader, not a ‘Head-Down’ one

Jan 05, 2009 Business Daily, Leadership

“Each morning you start with a clean sheet of paper, the hours ahead of you are opportunities to grow – to do something better, to develop your ideas further, to improve your own capabilities, or to grow your business faster. Every activity, every meeting, every decision is an exciting opportunity.
Somehow, it doesn’t often feel like that. Most people in most businesses head straight for the coffee machine, then to their e-mail laden inboxes, or start a sequence of hour-long review meetings, or click open their hundred-page documents.
Why do we do this? We spend most of our business lives with our heads down. Doing what we do, reviewing what we have done, doing more of what we have always done…
We have little time to think.”

Business Genius, by Peter Fisk (2008)

Peter Fisk, a renowned business advisor, raises an important question in his new book. It is one I have often asked business leaders here in Kenya: when do you step back from the action to think?

Most business leaders I have come across spend their days in exactly the way Fisk describes. They get lost in their e-mail in-trays, because they mistakenly believe their job is to engage in puerile communications. They spend days on end in review meetings, because they mistakenly believe their job is to evaluate the work of others and keep them on a tight leash. They read and write hefty reports, because they mistakenly believe their job is to create great documents. And they drink a lot of narcotic beverages, because spending all your time in this mind-numbing world requires a lot of artificial stimulation!

So, in response to the question, “When do you think?”, they will reply: “In Naivasha, at our annual retreat, of course! Can you facilitate?” I won’t write out my usual reply here, because children may be reading this…

Great business leadership is more about intuition than analysis, more imagination than planning, more insight than research, more listening than talking. Excellent leaders do not let endless meetings, research papers and competitor analyses kill all their creative juices. They allow themselves time and space in which to reconsider, to reflect, to reimagine.

Fisk writes: “When was the last time you listened to a truly inspiring person? Spent time talking to individual customers about their ambitions, not just their needs? Learnt from a completely different business or environment? Sat down with a team and talked about the future, not the past? Had a truly original idea that you actually made happen? Left work so energized that you were desperate to get back next morning?”

To which I would add: When was the last time you spent time listening to artists, teenagers, activists, novelists, mavericks? Or anyone at all who isn’t a suited-booted corporate type like yourself? The future of your business is going to come from understanding people who are nothing like you – not from wasting it in endless discussions with people who think in exactly the same way.

Who said corporate life has to be this dull, anyway? Who issued the commandments that said thou shalt answer all e-mails, take all calls, read all documents, analyse all research? Come on, there’s more to it than that. Business leadership can be great fun. You can meet interesting people, observe important phenomena, read stimulating stuff, and think deeply about your company, what it stands for, and where it’s heading.

So, in 2009, take the initiative. Do as little of the ‘head down’ stuff as you can get away with it, and as much of the ‘head up’ stuff that you can pack into the day. You’re a leader, not a functionary. Keep your head up, your eyes and ears open, and your strategic antenna raised. Who knows, you may even be desperate to get back every morning…

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