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Before You Leap:
• Prepare to ignore industry borders.
• Be willing to take risks. Even when someone else seems to have locked up the market.
• Be willing to make mistakes. Big ones.
• If you passionately believe in an idea, pay no heed to the naysayers. It is their job to squelch the song and dance. Do not let them.
Selling a Persona
And what about the use of traditional media? To promote Virgin, Branson has relied very little on traditional advertising. Rather than purchase airtime and print pages, Branson has used his outsized personality to sell and publicize the airline (as well as his other brands). For the first flight of Virgin Atlantic Airways, Branson filled the plane with Virgin employees, friends, and journalists. It was a
Do You Sing and Dance?
huge publicity spectacle, complete with the irreverent stunt of a false video of the pilots lighting up a joint after takeoff. Since that time, Branson has continued to fuel the hype by putting himself out there in the public eye—whether by trying to set a speed record across the Atlantic in a racing boat, by attempting to be first to fly a hot air balloon across the same ocean, or by donning a bridal gown to open his shop in downtown London. Subtle, he is not.
Branson’s decision to take on the “upper classes”—that is, British Airways—paid great dividends. Not only did he gain a big slice of BA’s business, he built himself as a brand. In 1994, a BBC poll asked 1,200 British respondents ages 15 to 35 who should be charged with the task of rewriting the Ten Commandments. Branson was the fourth most popular answer, tied with Oprah, after Mother Teresa, the Pope, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.12
Do You Sing and Dance?
Richard Branson, Akio Morita, Walt Disney, Gunnar Engel-lau—all are individuals who had really big visions, really big ideas. They are among that rare breed of visionary CEO entrepreneurs who have the ability to invent or reinvent a category of business, start a company, and, because they are such charismatic leaders, mobilize throngs of people around them. They have the ability to make great leaps, to think creatively about their businesses, and to come up with CBIs that transform entire industries.
Virgin Atlantic Airways
Creativity at the Top
It is about the right group of talent, including the leadership. Leadership in a CBI-focused environment is about coaching. It is not about the dictatorial style of an orchestra conductor producing his or her desired version of a set written piece, but about the qualities of a great jazz musician guiding a jam session, where harmony and structure have to be there, but the brilliancy of everybody has to come through for a result that is new and unique. —Juan Rocamora, Euro RSCG Southern Europe, Madrid
They are effective, but theirs is not the only way to be effective. There are also leaders who get to the top and find themselves not just reinventing categories, but reinventing an entire company. They are not visionary entrepreneurs. They do not sing. They do not dance. They are the visionary catalysts, the ones with the ability to transform an organization—oftentimes by breaking down the walls of bureaucracy and tradition. It is their job to create an environment in which singers and dancers—and ideas—can flourish. It’s their job to get others to think creatively about their business and to help them make the leaps they can’t make on their own.
What is the role of a leader in instigating or enabling creative thinking?
Fast Company’s Bill Taylor has some interesting insights into the question. In his experience, the senior executives who create a positive and welcoming environment for innovation share a number of attributes. The most significant is enough self-confidence and security to admit to the rank and file, “I do not have all the answers. It is not my job to think for this company.”13
As Taylor sees it, the mythology at so many companies is that the big boss does the strategizing and the heavy thinking, and it is the job of the troops to execute the ideas. But at really innovative companies, senior executives get up all the time and say, “The world is way too complicated; it is changing too fast for me as an individual or for this small number of people around me to come up with all of the answers.” The group brain triumphs over the individual brain all the time.
This argument flies in the face of CEO mythology. For most CEOs, the assumption is that they are, by definition, the smartest people in the room. It makes sense, then, that they be the thinkers, the men and women who make decisions across the board.
At innovative companies, however, that is not how it works. The CEOs are smart, all right. Smart enough to know that they must focus their thinking on very particular aspects of the company, not on the minutiae of everyday business. As Bill Taylor puts it, “CEOs are
Do You Sing and Dance?
responsible for painting a compelling picture or portrait of the future. They are the ones who must determine, in general terms, where the organization is going. They are responsible for creating an environment where they can honestly say, ‘We have the best talent in the world in our industry working here.’ But then it is up to everybody else to do the thinking. And what the leader is responsible for is to create the conditions whereby the best creative thinking can happen.” Easier said than done.