What is the most fundamental act of leadership? There are so many ways to answer this question. Yet, it is an incredibly relevant question to ask. Everyone is a leader. You may lead a team at work. You may be a leader in your community. You may be a leader within your family. And you’re certainly the CEO of yourself. So I believe everyone should have an answer to this question. Here’s mine.
The most fundamental act of leadership is to declare into existence a new, created future for people to live into.
Let’s break that down. First, you’ll notice that I used the word “declare.” Most people think of language as descriptive, which of course it is. But in its most powerful form, language is declarative or generative. If, at the start of a game, the coach says, “We are going to win today,” she has declared into existence a new possibility for the members of her team. Second, is the notion that people live into a future. What do I mean by that? Well, we are all taking actions consistent with a future we are subconsciously living into all of the time. Finally, I use the phrase “a new, created future” as opposed to a default, past-derived future into which we are typically living.
Let me use a famous example to illustrate all of this. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously declared before a joint session of Congress that we would put a man on the moon by the end of that decade. By doing so, he created a new future for people to live into, one that was distinctly different from the default future they had been living into up until that point. And one that transformed the actions people would take for the next several years. Create a new future for people and the actions they take will naturally transform to be consistent with that new future. In this case, the actions of an entire nation shifted to be consistent with a powerful new future created by a single declaration. That is leadership.
Here’s another example. For those of you unfamiliar with the story of Nike, the company was founded in the early 1960s as Blue Ribbon Sports and served as a North American distributor for the Japanese shoe company Onitsuka. In 1971, Onitsuka suddenly began to threaten that it might terminate its exclusive distribution agreement with Blue Ribbon. At that point, Blue Ribbon’s annual revenues were approaching $2 million, all from the distribution of Onitsuka running shoes. As a defensive measure, Blue Ribbon began to manufacture samples of its own running shoe. It chose the name Nike. In 1972, Blue Ribbon received the devastating news that Onitsuka had indeed decided to terminate its contract. Blue Ribbon’s entire business had now disappeared overnight. It couldn’t have come at a worse time. The nation’s economy was in the tank. A recession was underway. The nation faced long gas lines, record-high unemployment, the Nixon scandal, and the Vietnam war.
In his memoir Shoe Dog, co-founder and long-time CEO Phil Knight recounts how he broke the devastating news to his thirty or so employees.
I looked down at the table. Everyone was sinking, slumping forward. I looked at Johnson (Blue Ribbon full-time employee no. 1). He was staring at the papers before him, and there was something in his handsome face, some quality I’d never seen there before. Surrender. Like everyone else in the room, he was giving up.
At that moment, Knight had a choice. He could allow his team to live into a future that was automatically being determined by the events that were unfolding. Or he could declare into existence a new future, one that could potentially change the history of the company and save it from almost certain failure. He chose the latter. Here is what he said.
“What I’m trying to say is, we’ve got them right where we want them.” Johnson lifted his eyes. Everyone around the table lifted their eyes. They sat up straighter. “This is—the moment,” I said. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. Our moment. No more selling someone else’s brand. No more working for someone else. Onitsuka has been holding us down for years. Their late deliveries, their mixed-up orders, their refusal to hear and implement our design ideas—who among us isn’t sick of dealing with all that? It’s time we faced facts: If we’re going to succeed, or fail, we should do so on our own terms, with our own ideas—our own brand. We posted $2 million in sales last year…none of which had anything to do with Onitsuka. That number was a testament to our ingenuity and hard work. Let’s not look at this as a crisis. Let’s look at this as our liberation. Our Independence Day. Yes, it’s going to be rough. I won’t lie to you. We’re definitely going to war, people. But we know the terrain. We know our way around Japan now. And that’s one reason I feel in my heart this is a war we can win. And if we win it, when we win it, I see great things for us on the other side of victory. We are still alive, people. We are still. Alive.”
That too is leadership. Knight created a new future for people to live into, one that required a fundamentally different set of actions. Almost sixty years later, Nike today is valued at over $150 billion, has annual revenues exceeding $40 billion, employs over 75,000 people globally, and is one of the world’s most iconic brands.
You don’t need to be the CEO of a company to leverage the declarative power of language. You have a choice every day between living into a past-derived, default future where not much different seems to happen or living into a created future that will lead to an extraordinary life. As we head into this new decade, what future can you create for yourself and those you lead?
To a very prosperous and healthy new year and new decade…