How to inspire long-term thinking

By Robert D. Atkinson | CNN

I like to tell business students and working professionals that effective leadership isn’t getting 100% done and getting out of the office. Effective leadership demands focused attention to the big picture and delivering results that can impact both employees and stakeholders.

When I visited the UPS network recently, I found huge strides being made in areas where efficiency and productivity were an issue. These included staff training and reducing mail using technology such as automated sorting equipment, that delivers no overnight parcels.

I was moved to great emotional satisfaction by a UPS colleague who said if the company were to stop investing in technology today, it would just be “making a funeral pyre,” and their cost would rise faster than in 30 years. But to inspire true long-term thinking, he noted that more investment now would ultimately result in more productivity tomorrow. He was right. The most successful leaders I have ever worked with make it their job to focus their people on the bigger picture. They know how to set the right agenda, create the culture that gets people to work hard and rewarded when it’s time to work hard, and encourage and reward all those leaders in the middle who keep everyone motivated and out of trouble.

In many ways, today’s business leaders are like Gen. George S. Patton — at 100 years of age. Patton had no pity or worry that his choices might reduce morale. He simply believed his troops were all mighty powerful and he could dominate the rest of the world.

His philosophy proved to be quite effective in World War II. He shaped a military doctrine called D-Day (the June 6, 1944, “D-Day” amphibious landing on French shores), which served as a playbook for subsequent U.S. landings. He applied it to drive the Nazis from France and Italy. He built World War II by motivating the troops. In World War II, he used his absence to see and defeat the enemy. In today’s context, he’s certainly not too busy — in fact, he had several objectives in his toolkit at work.

While people may be more compassionate with today’s paratroopers, however, working effectively is a discipline and leadership style on par with being behind the wheel of a self-propelled vehicle, except you’re all on board, and sometimes you’re helping haul cargo. Like any tool, powerful leadership gives you the opportunity to drive change.

Although as a small business owner I have little control over many of the forces that drive change, I still feel the need to learn from CEOs’ success stories. CEOs are always writing down ideas and policy revisions as they go. Unfortunately, many of those ideas never find their way to their executive teams.

I know my ownership of the business is temporary. When I am done here, my people will be as well.

But in preparing my exit, my team should know that my replacement will be using the corporate playbook; he or she will be setting a similar agenda. That way, the new team will understand what I was trying to accomplish — how I overcame different conditions, and my methods are still the right ones for them today.

On World AIDS Day last year, I donated the proceeds from my wife’s 2008 wedding dress to the global fight against AIDS. Since 1978, more than 38 million lives have been saved from the devastating AIDS epidemic. I hope that same spirit of generous philanthropy endures as I drive change into the future.

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