Real Leaders

Are You Leading in the Lost City of Atlantis?

This summer I visited the ancient ruins of Akrotiri on the Greek Island of Santorini. Akrotiri had been a wealthy, flourishing city enjoying a booming commerce because it was on an important trade route between Cyprus and Crete.

I witnessed very advanced building construction including indoor toilets on the second floor of homes, complete with sophisticated waste management systems.  Carvings and paintings reflected artisans who were extremely talented. Their form of government was enlightened and progressive. Life was good in the city of Akrotiri in 1627 B.C.

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But, there were periodic earthquakes that signaled an impending volcanic eruption nearby. Since earthquakes were not that unique, the people of Akrotiri believed they had plenty of time to prepare should they need to escape catastrophe. Finally, the leaders of the town thought it was time to leave. Every single citizen boarded large boats and departed the island of Santorini for a safer domicile. 

When the Theran eruption occurred, the blast was massive. Scientists estimate that 40,000 people were likely killed in just a few hours. Volcanic ash was blown as far away as Asia and Africa. It caused a drop in global temperatures and created strangely colored sunsets that lasted for at least three years. The blast was heard 3,000 miles away. 

And, the citizens of Akrotiri? Archeologists believe they waited too late to leave. The estimated forty-foot tsunami created by the eruption would have swallowed up any boat of that time. The entire population of Akrotiri disappeared without a trace. The city was not discovered until 1967—over 3500 years after it was deeply buried (and preserved) by volcanic ash. Some believe Akrotiri is the lost City of Atlantis that Homer wrote about in the Odyssey—the city that has remained a mystery to seagoing adventurers! 

It is popular to talk about disruptors of business enterprise today. Business leaders in demand are those who lead bold, innovative companies—Tesla, Google, Amazon, even Uber. They not only disrupt their industry; they influence all industries. They are like the rumble of earthquakes stirring up the “way we’ve always done it.” We laud their outcomes, marvel at the methods, but find mimicking their pioneering spirit uniquely challenging. Fear of failure can keep too many leaders tied to the “tired and true,” despite evidence they need to early abandon their hesitation and board the ship to new frontiers.

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin in boldness.  Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

The pursuit of correctness often drives an aversion to the messy, unpredictable necessity to fail forward. Being “right” trumps being “effective.”  Too many leaders reward short term results and look with skepticism upon a novel approach, a revolutionary direction, or an experimental course. Calculation is king; experimentation is deemed hazardous. Some opt for the guaranteed certainty of mediocre over the uncertain prospect of distinction.  Their organizational metrics are anchored exclusively in the scientific method of proof rather than balanced with the creative arithmetic of adventure. Success today requires a deep commitment to being bold, not just looking good.

W. H. Murray, in his book, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, wrote: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.” Goethe called that unbridled commitment “boldness” and wrote: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin in boldness. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

We point to countless famous brands that were competitively drowned. Blockbuster had a chance in 2000 to buy Netflix for $50 million dollars. Borders outsourced all online purchases to Amazon because they saw little market for online books. Encyclopedia Britannica turned down an offer from Microsoft to put their product online.  We all know the stories of Kodak, Blackberry, Saturn, Motorola and Sony. And, we watch the current precariousness of Sears, Macy’s, Dell, Toys ‘R Us and Yahoo. Leading in times of change takes leaders willing to create and sustain a resilient, daring culture that gets on the boat of innovation.

In a recent article in by Chris Peterson entitled “Does Walmart really have a shot against the Amazon juggernaut?” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was quoted as saying: “I’ve made billions of dollars of failures at Amazon. None of those things are fun. But they also don’t matter. What really matters is companies that don’t continue to experiment, companies that don’t embrace failure eventually get in a desperate position where the only thing they can do is a Hail Mary bet at the very end of their corporate existence.” 

Bottom line, if you too long ignore the warning of the earthquakes of change, you will not be able to outrun the tidal wave of competition that will wash over you. We have reached the limits of incremental improvement. Corporate survival going forward depends on a bold commitment to be a pioneer, not an also-ran.

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