Building competitive advantage through uncommon leadership roles

To conclude we show how each of these uncommon themes points to an advantage to be gained from thinking differently.

But it’s not enough to just think differently, gaining competitive advantage means taking action.  So we finish the book by identifying five key leadership roles to help you turn our ideas into uncommon competitive advantages.

Our first three uncommon leadership themes were about challenging conventional wisdom, asking different questions and connecting the new common sense to opportunities.  These can give organizations:

  • An uncommon advantage - through pathfinders, who find the sense before it becomes common.
  • A transforming advantage – through game-changers, who make sense into common sense.
  • A value advantage – through rain-makers who do the common things uncommonly well.

But the real secret of uncommon leadership is to build a strong sense of togetherness within the organization, helping people to fulfil their potential.  That’s what we concentrate on in our last two themes:

  •  A customer advantage – through bridge-builders, who apply the common touch.
  • A collaborative advantage – through play-makers, who make leadership more common.

At the heart of uncommon leadership is the idea of realising a very powerful advantage.  That of finding the sense before it becomes common sense: an uncommon advantage. 

Balancing optimism and realism

But it’s not easy to gain advantage in an increasingly difficult business world.  It requires leaders who are prepared to challenge conventional wisdom, and that can be a difficult balancing act.  So to help you get that balance right, we introduce Uncommon Leadership with our first two insights.  The first asks whether leaders should spend their time on the “balcony” or on the “dance floor”.  The second considers the balance between optimism and realism.

 The balcony and the dance floor

One fresh approach to leadership, developed by Harvard professor Ronald Heifetz, is called adaptive leadership.  This is the kind of leadership needed when things are unpredictable and uncertain.

One of the more colourful insights from Heifetz’s work is the idea of the balcony and the dance floor.  This analogy is useful both as a way to think about your own approach to leadership, and as a way to use this book.  Heifetz, and his colleague Marty Linsky, put it this way:

“The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray…” but “… If you want to affect what is happening, you must return to the dance floor.” [i]

Balcony and dance floor leaders interchange between the two.  They balance the bigger picture, viewed from the balcony, with spending time on the dance floor.  Because it’s only there that you’ll really be in touch with the people in your organization, and with your customers.  And, of course, the dance floor is where the action is!

Warning: this costume does not enable flight or super-human powers!

In 2007, Forbes published an entertaining web article which listed some bizarre product warnings. [ii]  This included a U.S. costume company which warned that its Superman capes did not enable flight or super-human powers.  So before you read Uncommon Leadership in full, let’s pause for a reality check, based on another balancing act.  This time, the need to balance optimism and realism.

Shawn Achor [iii] uses a similar Superman cape example in his highly-readable book: “The Happiness Advantage”.  He does so to inject some words of caution into his advice on adopting a more positive approach to life.

“Whilst it’s important to shift our fulcrum to a more positive mindset, we don’t want to shift it too far – in other words, we have to be careful not to have unrealistic expectations about our potential.”

And in much the same way, we feel it’s important to be realistic about what we can achieve in our organizations.  We think optimism should be balanced with realism, but that’s not to say the balance needs to be equal.

So what you’ll find in this book is a clear focus on positive, thought-provoking approaches to leadership.  And you’ll also find some real insights into how thinking differently can help you build competitive advantage.

Perhaps it is time to shift the balance – to a focus on optimism tempered with realism.  And time to balance seeing the bigger picture from the balcony, with getting down to where the action is on the dance floor.  Perhaps it’s time for some uncommon leadership.

[i] Heifetz, R.  Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: staying alive through the dangers of leading. Harvard Business School Press


[iii] Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance and Work. London: Virgin Books

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