An Army Of One

Think about a legendary innovation initiative your company undertook. Now think of the person who drove it. At some point you may have described him as a hero or a jackass. We are certain you called him something: the project lead, the Idea Monkey, the (Ringleader), the champion, the dreamer, the idealist, the bully, the general.

Seems like everyone in the company knows who this person is and has an opinion about him. And while we’d be the first to tell you innovation must be a team sport, we also want to point out that whenever something actually launches, there is, without exception, a specific type of leader who made sure it happened.

Where there is innovation, there is a warrior; there is an army of one. There has to be, because without such a person, nothing meaningful gets done.

Regardless of whether you like them or not, these people have one thing in common: They are creators—people who focus on and take the action required to obtain the outcome they want. Often they can seem relentless—because they are.

The best creators respond to large obstacles with even more enthusiasm and resolve. In dealing with them, you either get on the bus or get out of the way.

Creators are often seen as the “crazy ones,” in the words of one of our favorite commercials, because they truly believe they can make a difference. Our experience tells us they are correct.

In some way or another, creators are responsible for every successful innovation engagement. These people take risks, make investments, and aggressively—sometimes brutally—fight for an idea until it can live on its own.

If you want to be associated with success, then align with, support, or be the creator. You may like what creators have to say. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter. They are going to make their mark anyway. To oversimplify, we have found that creators very often fall into one of these three categories.

1. The Conscious Capitalist

We know what you’re thinking: “Who would want an unconscious capitalist?” But bear with us as we try to explain this special type of enlightened leader who today runs companies like Patagonia, Whole Foods (WFM), Trader Joe’s and the Container Store (all of which consistently outperform the competition).

Conscious capitalists know how to generate emotional, social and financial value simultaneously for all stakeholders. And when they do, they start crusades that have a unifying purpose. The hard data show that these innovative and purpose-focused firms create exponentially more economic value (than typical companies and even more than the “good-to-great” companies), and endear more customers and more employees to their mission year after year after year. They unlock new economic value that others have missed.

How do they do it?

Take Bryan Hansel, cofounder and chief executive officer of Smith Electric Vehicles. He makes electric trucks. He knows that electric delivery trucks, school buses and the like will help save our planet. He also knows that to create a “sustainable” product, he has to have a sustainable business model; he has to make money; he has to have a committed, incredibly competent team. Simply surrounding yourself with a group of people who are passionate about a worthy “cause” and willing to work for free won’t cut it. Conversely, and ironically, singularly focusing on profits won’t get you the maximum sustainable amount of profit.

Hansel is pragmatic. He knows that while one man can’t create a new industry on his own, aligned leaders can create the right dialogue, vision, and strategy. That’s why he invited the heads of 20 of the largest truck fleets—including Frito-Lay (PEP), Staples (SPLS), Coca-Cola (KO) and all the major package delivery companies—to a meeting. He opened his books. He showed them the possibilities of a new type of trucking business. His bold message to each company? “You’re all in or you’re all out.”

The result? All 20 companies signed on to the concept.

The world needs creators who are conscious capitalists. Do you lead with social, economic, and emotional benefits in mind?

2. The Irreverent Entrepreneur

Michael Michalowicz has built three multimillion-dollar companies, selling his first (Olmec Systems, a computer network integrator) to a private equity firm, and his second (PGLA, which provides data forensic services) to a Fortune 500 company, and currently operates the third (Obsidian Launch, which does behavioral marketing). He became the author of the business cult classic The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur and a TV personality, and served on the advisory board for dozens of new small businesses.

But his real accomplishment was finding his purpose. His mission now is to help people see entrepreneurship as life’s ultimate playground. A place to have fun, get messy and be the real you.

According to Michalowicz, the entrepreneur can help any business innovate. “Being an entrepreneur is a frame of mind. It means that you’ve learned how to fail forward, take responsibility, are unabashedly true to your values, and find joy in creating for others. I coach leaders in companies big and small to find people with this mindset and give them big challenges to solve. Entrepreneurial thinking is the key to creating a culture that can get to breakthrough ideas way faster.”

Who are the entrepreneurial thinkers in your company? What challenges can you give them today that could use the help of the entrepreneurial mindset?

3. The Inspired Millennial

Victor Saad is going to make a difference. A 26-year-old Egyptian American, Saad is a classic example of what can happen when vision, passion and technology intersect in the age of connectivity. As the founder of the Leapyear Project, he’s given himself 18 months to see if one person can change the world by challenging other young people around the globe to take their own “leap.” The question he has put to other young people: “What risk will you take to change your life, your community or your world for the better?”

There have always been dreamers and visionaries. But the youngest creators of today have a whole new set of tools.

Saad will change the world—we’re sure of it. In less than two months, he has interviewed more than 500 people from seven countries and 30 states. He already has 5,000 site views from 25 countries on his just-launched website. And his 60-plus confirmed “leapers” include a Capitol Hill employee who has left her job to fight deforestation in Borneo, and a pastor who has left his job to start a bike shop in one of our country’s unhealthiest communities. Saad is an inspired member of the Millennial Generation who seems to intuitively understand his opportunity and his access to leverage. Market leaders should be watching creators like him because like no other group before it, Millennials have a deep understanding of communications, media and technology.

So when a Millennial like Saad chooses to change the world, he can quite literally share his message with the world, immediately. The now classic example is Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign, which managed to activate Millennials resulting in a 4-to-1 advantage in online conversations over the seasoned John McCain. It could be argued that Millennials decided the last Presidential race.

We imagine you have a number of challenges that you hold only for the most senior creators in your organization. Consider inviting inspired Millennials into the fold. They will absolutely activate the ideas in ways you might not even see as possible.

Are you an army of one? If not, who is (and how are you helping them)?

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