Contemporary business develops at a rapid pace, with many uncertainties, internationally connected stakeholders, and little latitude to make mistakes. In such a dynamic environment companies need strong leadership to survive and build a long-term and sustainable reputation. But what does strong leadership mean?
Looking at companies with a clearly visible and strong leader present, the ability to focus and pursue this focus with a strong determination seems to be a crucial element. Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple, was known as a man who never lost sight of the ultimate goal. His reputation of setting priorities in almost any aspect of life is vividly remembered by those who worked together with him to make Apple the primary brand. Steve Jobs truly believed that a lack of focus can drag you down or at best will make you mediocre.
The main reason given why being a focussed executor makes for great leadership is because in the minds of people it makes you a wise leader. In a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, Ikujiro and Hirotaka Takeuchi argued that in a world with an ever increasing pace of change, business leaders struggle to reinvent their corporations rapidly enough to cope with new technologies. As a result, many companies fail in their leadership to develop truly global organisations that operate effortlessly across borders. The reason for this failure is that most business leaders are all over the place and as such lack focus in what makes their company great. And, it is exactly this kind of leadership that is regarded as wise leadership. If we take the example of Steve Jobs again then we can see that in addition to being very focused on a few priorities he has been named one the smartest leaders around. It is as if he was able to predict what was needed in an ever changing world – a mystic idea that is covered by the concept of wisdom.
Recent business trends in the management area are pointing out that focus-based leadership may well represent the type of wise leadership contemporary business is crying out for. In fact, a key characteristic of wise leaders is that they are able to grasp the essence of things and decide what to do. As Ben Stein, an American writer, so nicely puts it: “The indispensable first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: decide what you want.” This advice is also applicable to many business leaders as their crucial role should indeed be to devote their energy as a leader to reminding their organisation what they are about and what goals they ultimately should strive for. If they can do this then their presence will be felt and allow directing the attention of their employees on the innovative outcomes that need to be created.
A company that has made the concept of focus with a strong sense of determination a defining feature of their business strategies and leadership is the Chinese telecom giant Huawei founded by Ren Zhengfei in 1987 in Shenzhen. Since Huawei became the world leader in the telecommunication industry when it surpassed Ericsson in terms of sales revenue and net profit in 2012 they emerged as the world leader in the telecom industry. They employ more than 40,000 non-Chinese employees (out of 170,000) and are the only Chinese company that receives more sales revenue from markets outside (67%) than from inside China, making them truly a Chinese global company. Drawing from a combination of Chinese roots and Western perspectives, Huawei considers focus based leadership as their main driver for the innovative products they put on the market.
About the Authors
David De Cremer is the KPMG professor of management studies at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, UK, and a fellow of the Ruihua Innovative Management Research Institute at Zhejiang University, China. He has been named as one of the 2016 America’s Top Thought Leaders in Trust and the most influential economist in the Netherlands (2009-2010). He is the author of the book Pro-active Leadership: How to overcome procrastination and be a bold decision-maker.
Jess Zhang is an associate researcher at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge (UK) and a former Associate Director of Corporate Relations (Asia) at HULT International Business School and formerly the Centre Manager of Centre on China Innovation at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org