Picture this leadership challenge: Find three missing ancient artifacts, you have no idea where they are or how to employ them, and use them together to defeat all that is evil.
P.S. Your parents are dead.
My 12-year-old daughter recently purchased her very own set of the complete Harry Potter book series by J.K Rowling. It took me back about three years to when my family read the seven-book Harry Potter collection together. It took us 11 months to read a book, watch the movie, and move on to the next one, until we were through all seven. And let me tell you, for us it was magical (c’mon, you knew that was coming!).
In the bittersweet afterglow of the last movie’s closing credits, the cogs in my noggin started turning on various themes, and I distilled them down to a triad of nuggets that I see playing out with leaders in business all the time.
(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read or watched any Harry Potter, or are still working your way through them all, be forewarned that there are some reveals in this article.)
1. Tell a good story.
J.K. Rowling knows this well—over 400 million books sold worldwide has made her the first and thus far only billionaire author. What is your story? Facts are nice, but it’s the story that captivates. In between all the bare-bones “what” of who you are and what you’ve done is the “how” part. How did you decide on which college to attend? Which career to pursue? Person to marry? In the movie “City Hall,” the mayor character played by Al Pacino says, “A man’s life is not the bricks, it’s the mortar, pappy, it’s the stuff that lays between, the stuff… the stuff you can’t see.”
There’s richness in the mortar, and people want to hear it.
The same goes for organizations. People want to work at a place that has a story: A beginning, a reason for existing, a purpose larger than itself, a set of unique traditions, and an inspirational view about the future. High-performing organizations usually capture these things in the form of a mission, a vision, and a set of common values. Together these elements provide a succinct thumbnail sketch of the culture of the place.
Ask: What is our company’s story? Have we put it in writing and made it the DNA of the place? What is different about us that makes people want to work here? Stay here?
2. The power of peers is a game changer.
Who you surround yourself with matters. Harry Potter could never have defeated his archnemesis Voldemort without the help of Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley, and others in their circle. Throughout the books Harry often tries to take things on alone, and invariably he ends up asking for—and sometimes begrudgingly accepting—help from his friends and colleagues.
The lesson: Having a safe and confidential council of true peers, people you trust who have no other agenda but each other’s success, can be the difference between surviving and thriving during challenging times. In fact, during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, Vistage member companies grew their revenue at a rate of 5.8% on average, while U.S. SMBs overall, if they didn’t go belly up, suffered unprecedented declines (according to an analysis of Dun & Bradstreet data). The leaders of these successful companies relied on the advice and perspectives of their peers and other resources from their program to make better decisions.
3. Focus on the 80 for the 20.
In the final book of the series, the wizarding school’s headmaster Albus Dumbledore died and bequeathed to Harry and his two friends three seemingly pointless and mystifying gifts. The trio realized that these items were somehow connected to their larger quest, but in the absence of any further explanation or guidance from Dumbledore from beyond the grave, the team was literally clueless.
Nevertheless, Harry, Hermione, and Ron began to act on what they did know. They learned to have more confidence and trust in their own and each other’s instincts. And they bluffed their way through hairy situations without having all the information they wished they’d had.
The take-away: At some point leaders must decide, then act. Rarely will you have all the information you need, and in those times you must figure it out as you go. And sometimes you just may have to fake it until you make it. I’m not suggesting the use of deceptive tactics, but confidence and assertiveness in the face of uncertainty is often a potent leadership recipe.
Alas, there are no real-life leadership parallels to magic wands, potions, or spells that will get you out of the tricky and complicated situations that come with running a business. But if you take a little time to harness the power of your story, of peers, and of Pareto, you could become a leadership “wizard” in your own right.
A version of this article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Knox.Biz, a business publication of the Knoxville News Sentinel.