I hear the term “we need to be realistic” all the time. But nothing big ever happened as a result of someone being realistic. The best innovations are the result of someone having an unrealistic or ridiculous idea. But social convention would have us believe we should be realistic when it comes to ideas. Today’s advice is all about why you should get the term “realistic” out of your vocabulary. And what better way to help us understand this idea than through the stories of a few leaders who brought about great change because of an unrealistic idea. Enjoy!
Martin Luther King, Jr – Equality for All People: Can you think of anything more unrealistic than going against the crowd in the 1960s, a time when everything mainstream was “separate but equal”? Can you imagine the courage and passion it took to step up and lead a movement so grand and so confrontational that you could almost guarantee your life would be on the line? How many people do you think told King along the journey that he wasn’t being realistic? If you study the events and timeline of the civil rights movement you’ll learn that MLK overcame roadblock after roadblock (some were literal) to eventually stand in Washington DC and deliver what is widely accepted as the greatest speech of all time. And here’s the kicker. Early on, he questioned whether the movement would ever catch on. If Martin Luther King, Jr had doubts about how effective he could be at bringing massive change, what’s stopping you from being unrealistic?
Steve Jobs – Tools for the Mind That Advance Humankind: The story of Steve Jobs starts way before he came back to Apple and revived a dying company. But since that’s the part that helps me make my point here, that’s where his story of greatness really begins in my mind. With the company on the verge of bankruptcy, Jobs rejoins Apple, and I can just hear all the suits in the boardroom trying to tell him what needed to happen to save the company. Then he delivers this statement – “The cure for Apple is not cost-cutting; the cure for Apple is innovating its way out of its current predicament.” It takes bold leadership and an unrealistic mindset to walk into that situation and tell everyone in leadership that it’s going to take spending more money to save the company. He went on to lead Apple in creating devices that were easy to use and becoming one of the most valuable companies in the world.
Bill Gates – A Computer on Every Desk and in Every Home: You’re looking into a room full of computers. Actually, one computer may have taken up the whole room. And Bill Gates is standing beside you and says “I’m going to put one of those in every home.” We all would think he was crazy. We definitely would have told him he wasn’t realistic. What is unrealistic to most is the new frontier to others. Gates is known for having a crystal clear vision for what he wanted to accomplish, and being able to clearly articulate that vision is likely a huge reason he essentially accomplished it.
These three stories each provide a different lesson. MLK leaned into doubt and fear to lead a movement which changed the civil rights landscape. Jobs bucked conventional wisdom in order to innovate rather than cost-cut, which ultimately saved Apple. Gates had a bold vision and was able to get those under his leadership to buy in and make the personal computer a staple in homes and offices around the world. But combine all three and these stories teach us the power of being unrealistic. So few are willing to think this way, and it’s so easy, after 20 years of leadership, for me to see examples of people separating themselves because they can and do.
Now, all this is great and these are people who brought massive change. But as a new leader, it’s easy to think “I could never accomplish something like that” or “I don’t even know where to start”. So here’s the take away for you. Hopefully, if nothing else, this article helps you be intentional about changing your mindset around the word realistic. I promise you, even though you might not know where to start, simply rejecting the idea of being realistic will set you apart from the general population. Because thinking big and being unrealistic brings you to the front lines of change, and that’s just not comfortable for most people. Since most people won’t push themselves beyond their comfort zone, the mere fact that you can consistently do this will broaden your relevance as a leader and boost your credibility as an innovator within your organization. That’s where each of the three legends above started out. And speaking for executives across the world, give me someone who will stretch themselves and innovate, and I can teach them the rest.