Let me tell you about a practice of leadership I learned both from my grandfather and from one of my business mentors. It is a practice that has served me well.
First, the example of my grandfather. He was a soldier in World War II and, later, an advisor to General MacArthur in Japan. When he retired, he spent decades raising Samoyeds, the beautiful white lion-like dogs from Siberia.
I was with him once when a puppy jumped up on a chair. I thought my grandfather, a stern man, was going deal with the little guy harshly. Instead, he pushed the puppy off the chair and onto the floor. Then, he praised him. I asked why. My grandfather said, “When the puppy associates the floor with praise, he’ll stop getting on the chair.” He was right. A few more such lessons and the dog never got on the chair again.
Years later, I learned the same lesson again from a turnaround expert who is a friend of mine. He had led two universities through high-profile turn arounds and had consulted widely on turnaround strategies. We were having dinner one night when he taught me one of his secrets. He said that when he was trying to change the culture of a failing organization, he always tried to script an early victory.
He said that once when he was turning around a university that was in serious trouble, he engineered a situation in which the school built half a dorm. They wanted to build debt-free and initially they could only raise enough money to build half a dorm. So, they did, and it was a beautiful half a dorm.
Still, it was only half a dorm. Yet it didn’t matter. It was a victory. The new dorm’s presence signaled what was to come. It showed students, faculty, and parents what the possibilities were. Within years that school was re-made, but it all started with the signal victory of that half a dorm.
This is one of the vital arts of leadership. You want to lead from strength to strength, from victory to victory. You want each successful new step to radiate hope and promise into the whole organization. So, you have to script victories. You have to shoot for small successes, particularly in the early days. Then, your team starts to see what victories look like, which is all the more important if there haven’t been any for a while. They get used to it. They like it. They want more. Each victory embeds a vision of the future. This is how you change a culture of defeat into one of victory.
Now, ask yourself this: How can you put this principle into practice? Even if you’ve been leading an organization for years, how can small victories—in a department, in a new branch, in the life of an unsteady executive—instill confidence, change a culture, and create a drive for yet more victories?