More than ever, CEOs must develop their peripheral vision, scanning for faint — but vital — signals that will help them give their companies an edge.
Vigilant leaders are those who make a practice of being abundantly alert and deeply curious so that they can detect, and act on, the earliest signs of threat or opportunity. They seek to nurture equally vigilant employees by modeling such behavior and by providing incentives for managers to look for — and interpret — weak signals.
While such icons as Andy Grove and Jack Welch exemplify vigilant CEOs, the trait remains in short supply. That is a conclusion the coauthors reached after surveying 119 global companies about their overall capacity for diligence. Among their findings: Just 23% of the businesses were run by CEOs who tried to pick up weak signals from the periphery. Most leaders, they theorize, rise to the top by demonstrating superior operational skills.
To help leaders recognize and develop the habit of vigilance, the researchers examine in detail the three traits that characterize vigilant executives: focusing externally, applying strategic foresight and encouraging exploration by others. They also capture such leaders in action and provide examples in which a distinct lack of vigilance has led companies such as The Coca-Cola Co. to “miss the boat” by overlooking big opportunities. Companies like General Electric Co. and Johnson & Johnson have instituted systematic programs to instill employees with the qualities of vigilant leaders. The CEO of Denmark-based Novozymes A/S is curious, fast and enterprising, an attitude he nurtures in his workers. Organizations may encourage vigilant leadership by hiring specifically for it or by openly rewarding displays of it.
Whatever strategy CEOs choose, the authors find that it is critical for them to set an example. After all, it is only through vigilance that companies can avoid hidden dangers — and discover opportunities ripe for innovation.