It’s always surprising to discover how many leaders I work with have allowed the marketplace to pass them by. Leaders who allow that to happen can’t sustain any level of momentum and soon lose their impact and influence all because of one main reason: They are unclear about their subject matter expertise and what their leadership solves for and thus practice substitution over evolution.
Substitution is when you believe you are taking a different approach or changing your mindset, but in reality it’s similar to how you have led in the past — and not what you and your business need to grow and compete in the 21st century. When leaders merely substitute, they are unable to define new “templates” for success. They fail to evolve as individuals, making them incapable of evolving anything beyond themselves either. This type of leader then seeks recognition for maintaining the status quo, rather than seeking to earn respect by identifying ways to challenge the status quo. And too often, they get that recognition, especially if the bottom line is growing.
That’s because substitution activities often go unnoticed when the business is making money. Substitution hides underneath the act of “winning,” and then often only becomes glaringly noticeable to leaders when organizations begin to lose competitive advantage and lose their best people.
A generation ago, it could take years for these problems to emerge. But, at the speed of business today, it can be months. That’s why, in times of rapid change and great uncertainty, evolution is at a premium — not just when businesses lose ground and the need for change management becomes urgent but also businesses strive to recreate growth or manage the growth they have. Evolution should be constant regardless of whether you are growing or not.
Leaders who embrace evolution:
- Are the change agents that demand high-performance and critical thinking
- Understand success comes most to those who are surrounded by people who want their success to continue
- Embrace risk as the new normal
- Live with an entrepreneurial attitude, and unleash their passionate pursuits in search of endless possibilities to maximize the full potential of the people and organization they serve
- Are in constant survival, renewal and reinvention mode
- Have the sheer will to make things better, invest in relationships and cultivate an environment of transparency and reciprocity allows them to lead to leave a legacy
Leaders who do this find respect by casting a clear vision and working to ensure the organization is foundationally strong to withstand the demands of organic growth in the workplace and the marketplace.
It’s impossible to do any of this, however, if leaders are unclear about their subject matter expertise and what their leadership solves for. Do you? Put your leadership to the test and answer the following questions in two or three words:
- What is your subject matter expertise?
- What does your leadership solve for?
- What opportunity gaps does your subject matter expertise allow you to identify?
I’ve asked dozens of senior executives these questions and not one could clearly or succinctly answer all of them. Only 25 percent of these executives provided strong responses.
For example, here are the answers from one of the respondents, a marketing executive, and those I suggested to him:
What is your subject matter expertise?
Response: Defining a strong value proposition for our brands
Suggested response: Brand distinction
What does your leadership solve for?
Response: Brand loyalty
Suggested response: Creating differentiation
What opportunity gaps does your subject matter expertise allow you to identify?
Response: Competitive threats
Suggested response: Lack of innovation
Notice that this leader’s answers and my suggested responses each lead to different outcomes. While his responses lean towards a leadership approach where substitution and evolution can be inconsistently applied, my suggestions require a leadership approach that supports constant evolution with a strong end game in mind — where “the solve” is always clear.
Being clear about solving for the right things allows leaders and their teams to grow new opportunities and share their success along the way — which supports evolution and breeds environments of significance. Leaders who achieve this never get complacent and let the marketplace pass them by because they understand the difference between substitution and evolution. They have the wisdom to evolve themselves and understand their subject matter expertise and what their leadership solves for in support of their organizations’ evolution.