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leadership lab

Welcome to the first column of our new Leadership Lab series. We've asked executives, managers and leadership experts to write insightful articles giving their advice and views about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday.

Canada is a tough, rugged, resilient country that always seems to do especially well when the chips are down, whether on the battlefields of Europe or ice rinks around the world. We have a history of attracting hard working pioneers who were willing to venture out into undiscovered territory, make do with what they had at their disposal and not whine about hardships.

We are also a country populated by a diverse collection of immigrants who saw new and better opportunities in Canada and risked venturing out on their own to make a home in a new land that offered more for them and their families than what they left behind. We are a country that has come together from elsewhere over time or in recent years, and we understand we will be stronger because of our diversity if we can only find a way to release our collective potential.

Our diversity places added responsibilities and demands on us in terms of ensuring we can accommodate where we need to and remain aligned and consistent where we must. We need to be able to read the shifting environment, understand the future implications and adjust in the business world, as we would in music.

There is a difference between the right time for the precise form, elaborate content and soothing cadence of the classical masters, such as Beethoven, and the time for the more passionate, chaotic and invigorating jazz of an Oscar Peterson or Jean Derome. Our diversity, the Canadian mosaic, makes this a challenge at times, but it suggests a sense of chaos is inevitable because of who we are and how we have come together.

These times are different, and we need to understand in what way. These times demand a certain melody to be played in order for the leader to be in sync. As much as we might prefer it, we don't live in the calm, orderly, dignified and refined times of the grand salons and elaborate music halls. Instead, it is our fate to live in the crowded, overheated and frenetic jazz bars of the global marketplace. These are fluid and chaotic times. There is no script or score to help guide us, only the same skills and attributes employed by the great jazz musicians – imagination and improvisation.

In the current context, the future is optimized when core organizational strategies are framed by a mindset of exploration and discovery, rather than one of exploitation and defence. A strategy based on the old model of exploiting a particular product, market segment, customer group or type of technology is fatally flawed in the world we now live in. Strategies based on the old model have a half-life that is shrinking and are a sure path to competitive disadvantage when events unfold in the unpredictable, non-linear and even irrational fashion in which they almost assuredly will.

On the other hand, a strategic mindset fuelled by curiosity, exploration and discovery will produce a higher rate of opportunity creation than would ever be possible through the old methods. It is the more nimble, fleet of foot approach that is better suited to the times in which we live and the competitive marketplaces in which we do business. The choice has effectively been made for us by the context in which we have been asked to operate.

In the face of the new world order and the emergence of new players on the world stage who view things differently, we are at a point where Canada needs to rebuild its national business franchise and global brand. The old game will not allow us to be successful going forward. The truth is, Canada has been relatively successful up to this point not because of our intellect or our innovative capacity, but because we had things that would have been the envy of any developing nation.

Unfortunately, we were so busy enjoying the benefits and lifestyle that our natural endowments provided that we failed to notice the fundamental shift in the ground beneath our lakes, farms, mines and forests. We should have known better, but while we sat comfortably on our bounty, and in a position of relative advantage, our lead over others began to shrink. We have seen other non-traditional national franchises come to play and, they somehow seem fitter, faster and better trained than we are.

Leadership has always been wrapped in the uncertainty that comes from exploring new domains, whether they are geographic, technological or social. The greater the uncertainty the more we need leaders who are not paralyzed by potential risks but rather invigorated by hidden possibilities. The biggest risk we face as a nation is in allowing ourselves to be too cautious in an environment that demands courage. The benefits we reap will be directly proportional to the risks we take and the risks are small in relation to our potential.

Doug Williamson is CEO of The Beacon Group and author of the book Straight Talk on Leadership. He specializes in organizational and leadership transformation, working with senior executives, their teams and their organizations around the world.