October 11, 2012

Leaders Push Reality

Leaders Push

The Wall of Reality

In the last two posts “The Reality Principle” and “Focus On The Winning Idea” I wrote about the importance of seeing reality clearly.

This post is about how leaders can push reality to achieve great things.

Remember that as a leader you achieve results through the people your team.  In other words, your achievement as a leader is exactly the same as your team’s achievement.

Great leaders understand that to achieve great things they must push people outside of their current reality to do things they thought they could not do.  Great leaders don’t settle for merely “ok.”  Great leaders have standards.  They demand “great.”

Steve Jobs was legendary for pushing people beyond their reality to achieve things they thought they could not do.

When the first Macintosh was under development Jobs was frustrated by the machine’s slow boot time.  He asked the engineer, Larry Kenyon, to rewrite the code to cut boot time.  Kenyon said that shortening the boot time was impossible.

Jobs pushed.  “You know, I’ve been thinking about it,” Jobs said.  “How many people are going to be using the Macintosh? A million?  No, more than that.  In a few years, I bet five million people will be booting up their Macintoshes at least once a day.”

“Well, let’s say you can shave 10 seconds off of the boot time. Multiply that by five million users and that’s 50 million seconds, every single day.  Over a year, that’s probably dozens of lifetimes.  So if you make it boot ten seconds faster, you’ve saved a dozen lives.  That’s really worth it, don’t you think?”

Kenyon agreed and said he’d try.  A few sleepless weeks later he gone beyond his reality and shaved 28 seconds off the boot time.

Great leaders don’t settle.  They push.

My favorite way to teach this lesson was to bring new managers to a 15 meter (45 foot) climbing wall.  Before beginning I asked each person to pledge that they would not give up until they had nothing left.  I always got a firm handshake and an enthusiastic “yes!!”

Once they were on the wall it was another story.

Some people got to the top easily.  That always disappointed me because there’s no learning in easy achievement.  The best was when someone had a lot of trouble and wanted to give up before reaching the top.

One manager, Linh, got about 3 meters high when she began to lose strength.  “I can’t go any higher!” she cried.  She let go of the wall and leaned back against the rope.

I climbed up next to her.  “Just a little higher Linh.   See that red handhold one meter above us?  That’s the goal.  I know you can do it!  Reach up with your right hand here…”

Linh summoned her strength and grabbed the wall again.  With great effort she inched up to grasp the red handhold .  Just before reaching it she fell back off the wall.  She dangled from her safety harness, twisting in empty space.

“I can’t do it!  I’m too weak.”

“No Linh.  You can do it.  I know you can.  You promised me to not to give up until you had nothing left.  I know you have something left.  Let’s go!”  Linh climbed.  And fell.  And climbed again.

I pushed Linh until she cried.  I pushed her until she had nothing left to give.  She gave up, but not before she had achieved what she thought she could not do.  She had climbed a meter beyond the red handhold.   She was so proud and happy, she cried tears of joy when she reached the ground and looked up at her achievement.

Afterwards everyone understood the lesson — leaders push reality.

Have standards.  Don’t settle.  Push your people to achieve what they think they cannot do.  And be with them every step of the way.