One of the greatest campaigners in history is surely Sir Winston Churchill. With his soaring rhetoric and steely tenacity, he inspired the British to believe they could win World War II, and he convinced an isolationist U.S. to mobilize against Adolf Hitler and sell, lend, and lease its arms.
Churchill, of course, is one of history's greatest leaders. There are few of us who could ever match his way with words or hope that our words could bring about the dramatic consequences that his did. But both campaigns—the one at home and the one abroad—were won by his oratory and relationship-building skills. They remain the quintessential case studies of influence and power in leadership.
I'm not going to even pretend that you can be a Churchill in your company. But the notion of waging a campaign as opposed to heading a project or an initiative is a powerful one in and of itself. The word alone lends importance and credibility to an effort. It elevates that effort in a way that allows and encourages more people to rally around a cause quickly. And the word "campaign" conveys the sometimes grueling nature of what it takes to win something of substance—gaining significant market share against a rival, launching a new breakthrough product, leading a total transformation of a company.
Campaigns turn purpose into action, concentrating people's efforts on what can be done and turning those efforts into results; that is the essence of leadership. Campaigns are sequences of actions—not a single decision or a project—designed to produce clearly defined objectives within specified time frames and with specified resources. These targets are achievable, specific and limited but have strategic significance.
A campaign can be directed toward fixing a hole when something is broken, making a U-turn when a change of direction is required, or simply staying on top of your game. A campaign is a form of guided improvisation, held together by a theme as opposed to an action plan. And a series of campaigns, executed in a concerted way, can lead to complete transformation of an organization.
In any campaign, the leader's first job is to get his colleagues to think about and decide what the company or unit is to do. For example, companies have to defend or create competitive advantage. How to defend an advantage may be obvious. But a company's advantage can change over time without its managers fully appreciating it. Then a campaign may be needed to analyze and identify the "active ingredient"—the advantage. This is the thinking part of leadership.
Rallying the Troops
The leader's second job is to get his colleagues to understand and support the organization's task. Leaders should not aim to indoctrinate employees but should instead draw upon a shared sense of purpose. A poor attempt to mimic Churchill will do more harm than good. As a leader you should remain authentic to yourself, using what skills you have. Every now and then top executives will need to sponsor a campaign to develop or refine the company's brand or identity. This is the inspirational part of leadership.
The leader's third job is to recruit and develop people for the campaign and to deploy them in the right roles. Three quarters of large employers readily admit that they are not successful in recruiting highly talented people or effectively identifying the best and weakest performers, according to a study by Towers Perrin, the human resources firm. Allocating people to roles should be a negotiation rather than simply an administrative exercise. The real issue is always how much commitment and energy an individual will bring to a role and how well he and his immediate colleagues will work together. This is the mobilization component of leadership.
Equipping Your Team
And finally, a leader's job is to equip people to perform their tasks for a campaign. That often involves curing some defect, from unclear accountability to poor information design, giving the troops the assets and the resources they need to win. This is the "equip" part of leadership. A campaign should be reasonably short, typically between three and six months, with an absolute maximum of a year. You want to make sure a campaign target doesn't become out of date and that all the players can focus for the entire period of the campaign.
All campaigns are not created equal. When trying to get out of a hole, a leader has to first engage in a thinking campaign and then he or she must inspire. Once successful, the leader has to redefine the possible and then mobilize the organization to build capabilities matching its new ambitions. When things aren't working out, a U-turn may be needed. More often than not, U-turns start with a restructuring or a shake-up of the senior leadership team.
As Churchill once said, "We have before us a great opportunity, a golden opportunity, glittering bright but short-lived. Our chance is now at hand. The chance is there; the cause is there, the man is there." Remind your team that they have a chance to seize whatever opportunity is before them.