N S Rajan
Transformation journeys need a spark to ignite minds, a decisive action that can galvanise the masses. Leaders in all walks of life find ways to pick that special moment to make a simple, though larger than life, statement that flags off the vision, setting in motion the road to immense possibilities.
In the late fifteenth century, when the entire world still believed that the earth was flat, Christopher Columbus fearlessly set sail in 1492 towards the west from the coast of Spain across the uncharted Atlantic Ocean. Navigators till then would always travel east, hugging the coastline for safety.
Columbus, a courageous visionary, believed the earth was round and setting out to find India did the unthinkable: he set sail perpendicular to the shore. In that single gesture, his team on board knew that literally there was no looking back.
Stunning actions that challenge the status quo have the power to transcend rational doubting minds and can touch the collective consciousness of the team. Thomas Kuhn, author of ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ and who is known to have popularised the phrase ‘paradigm shift’, observed: “You don’t see something until you have the right metaphor to perceive it.”
When Roger Bannister broke the daunting four-minute-mile barrier clocking 3:59.4 in 1954, a feat never accomplished before, it was not just the greatest athletic achievement.
It was an epochal moment that signalled the overcoming of both a physical and psychological obstacle. Within the next three years, 17 athletes followed suit. What made it impossible for human athleticism to have failed in this quest before Bannister, and what unleashed the realm of belief thereafter?
A powerful thought, a visionary speech, a single action at the right time and place can catalyse teams, rally them together, fuelling a journey of self belief and enabling deep commitment to a deep value or purpose.
While launching the Nano, Ratan Tata recalled: “Today’s story started some years ago when I observed families riding on two wheelers, the father driving a scooter, his young kid standing in front of him, his wife sitting behind him holding a baby and I asked myself whether one could conceive of a safe, affordable, all-weather form of transport for such a family.” His clarion call to the team at Tata Motors, that blended social concern with an entrepreneurial challenge, achieved the unimaginable.
In 1934, at the culmination of the famous Dandi march, Mahatma Gandhi held up a fistful of salt, in defiance of the mighty British, heralding a peaceful revolution that fired up souls across the country, committing them to the compelling cause of free India.
Leaders need a visionary purpose, personal optimism, boundless energy, and the innate ability and courage to execute dreams. “Leaders,” as Napoleon observed, “are dealers in hope”. You can achieve a stirring start if you seize that transforming moment, a beau geste, to define the journey ahead. In that singular action, you can capture the imagination and spearhead the change.
The author is partner, national head and EMEIA leader, people & organisation, Ernst & Young