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Life or Death Leadership

For organizations, operational excellence is necessary for survival. Innovation is necessary for really living.

I was struck by that thought yesterday as I ran a new route, which took me past a cemetery. My thoughts were surprisingly not morbid. I saw the etched grave markers, the wreaths, the flowers, the flags, and the thought that occurred to me was that each of these people made a difference in someone’s life. Each of these people, though now passed, had moved beyond mere survival to truly live, at least at some points in their time here on Earth.

My thoughts then drifted, as thoughts often do during a run. My inspirational friend, Shelley, a cancer survivor, came to mind. When she learned that she had breast cancer, she did not stop at learning how to get through the painful treatment to eradicate the cancer. Ask her, and she will tell you that “Cancer Saved My Life.” She reinvented her life, treating every day as a gift. She has not kept that gift to herself, either. On top of her full-time work as an attorney, and being a mother of three, she added the physical training of others to live and be healthier.

That’s not just surviving. That’s living.

So what does that have to do with innovation?

As my running thoughts continued to drift, it occurred to me that organizations have the same choice of surviving or living … and way too many choose to merely survive. Focusing on operational excellence – maximizing efficiency to be a well-oiled machine – is surviving. And that’s great…you can’t live if you don’t survive.

But too many organizations stop at that point. Innovation is the opportunity for an organization to live, to grow, to amp up the difference it makes in the world. Why would anyone want to stop short of that?

You can tell if your organization is living or merely surviving by looking at the mission statement. If you don’t have a mission statement, you are just surviving. If you have a mission statement that contains the word to the effect of “providing products and services of high quality that our customers will value while our employees and business partners will share in our success and our shareholders will receive a high return on investment,” you are probably merely surviving. And if you look at the history of churn in the Fortune 500, you’ll see that focus on mere survival is the surest route to death.

If you are a leader, lead to live, not just survive. Whether you are a business or a nonprofit, make your mission to do something great, then stretch yourself to find innovative ways to achieve that greatness. Let yourself and your organization live.

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