Are You Selling Sugared Water?

Last week I was reflecting on the American Presidential race and the nature of leadership:

The title doesn’t make you a leader: neither does the biggest office or the reserved parking space. What makes a leader is the ability to bring your ideas to life – to paint a picture of the future your team can see and believe.

Let me continue that theme this week – and take a more detailed look at the one quality all great leaders have in common. Vision.

We live at a time when the future is more uncertain than ever, whether it’s economically (slowdown in China, Brexit), politically (US election, tension everywhere you can think of), socially (refugee crisis) – or the constant and ever-faster pace of change in technology.

Predicting the future is almost impossible.

And yet there are some astonishing success stories in business. The famous quote from Robert Kennedy is more relevant than ever:

There are those that look at things the way they are and ask why? I dream of things that never were and ask ‘why not?’

So did Mark Zuckerberg when he wondered if his Harvard dating app couldn’t go a step or two further.

So did Pierre Omidyar when he wondered if there wasn’t a better way of buying and selling and founded eBay.

So did Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp when they wondered if the traditional taxi business might be due for a shake-up and founded Uber.

Jonathan Swift – taking a break from Gulliver’s Travels – famously wrote that ‘vision is the art of seeing things invisible.’ That’s what Zuckerberg & Co did: they saw things that were invisible to everyone else.

And that’s what Steve Jobs did in 1983 when he asked John Sculley, then the President of Pepsi-Cola, his famous question: Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?


Let me pause, and look at the other side of the coin for a moment. Let’s take one example of leaders without vision. I’m prepared to wager that the vast majority of people reading this blog have owned a Nokia mobile phone. How many of us own Nokias now?

Ten years ago the word Nokia was synonymous with the mobile phone. Does anyone know what the company does today? Did the company’s leaders have a vision of the future? I seriously doubt it. As the Harvard Business Review said, “they were acting like leaders – reassuring, calm, confident, giving fine speeches – [but they] were not being leaders.” And they woke up one morning to find everyone holding an iPhone or the latest Samsung.

What are the implications of all this for our businesses in North Yorkshire? That in our changing world leadership and vision is more important than ever. That while you may well make money selling sugared water, real and lasting success comes from seeing – and realising – your vision. To quote the Business Review again, “a leader’s fundamental role isn’t merely to perform the same tasks as yesterday, just more efficiently: it is to re-define the idea of performance entirely.”

The role of the leaders isn’t to take power, it’s to give power. It’s to create a vision, a purpose, that’s so exciting that your team can’t help but buy into it – then you give them the power to achieve. And suddenly you’re no longer selling sugared water – you’re changing part of the world. As the old cliché goes, you’re not predicting your future, you’re creating it.

…And as another old cliché goes, ‘All work and no play makes Ed a dull boy.’ So with the half-term holidays looming the blog will be taking a break next week as we head for the ski slopes. I’ll be back on Friday 26th looking at a darker facet of leadership – coping emotionally when the ship is heading for the rocks…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.