Why aren’t CEOs ambitious any more?

Why aren’t CEOs ambitious any more?

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde

In the Japanese city of Sapporo, one man towers above all others.

“Shounen yo, taishi wo idake!” William Smith Clark told students as he departed in 1876. “Boys, be ambitious!”

A chemistry professor and colonel in America’s Civil War, Clark had been hired by the Japanese government to establish an agricultural college on Hokkaido. Although he spent just eight months on the island, his impact on Hokkaido’s economy and on Japanese society was significant.

That agricultural college is now Hokkaido University and Clark’s statue overlooks Sapporo from several vantage points. His admonition to aim high is now part of Japanese culture.
The late Apple founder, Steve Jobs, had similar lofty ambitions. “We’re here to put a dent in the universe,” he noted. “Otherwise, why even be here?”

Today, too few leaders seem to share Clark and Jobs’ visionary zeal. Despite the unmistakeable signs of a seismic economic shift as the industrial era gives way to a hyper-networked world, in most organisations, it’s still largely business as usual.

“We grossly underestimate the extent to which the world has changed,” says Steve Vamos, former CEO of Microsoft Australia and now a director on several blue-chip Australian boards.

“We’re stuck in these old ways of thinking. Us boomers, we’re controlling know-it-alls. We hide mistakes. That’s no longer effective. We need to be brave, and willing to fail.”
Nowhere is the lack of courage and ambition more evident than in innovation performance.

A new survey by global IT services firm Accenture confirms the sense of stagnation. Despite a majority of CEOs saying innovation will drive their organisations’ long-term success, many companies are “disappointed” by returns. Instead of the disruptive products, services and business models of yesteryear, today’s innovations are typically line extensions.

“A cautious approach to innovation is understandable, given the relatively disappointing results,” Accenture says. “However, it is a potentially perilous strategy. Enterprises that restrict themselves to incremental innovation, on the other hand, risk unknowingly entering a vicious cycle in which they lag ever farther behind.”

When it comes to innovation, crafting a vision requires a delicate balance, says innovation writer and adviser, Ralph-Christian Ohr. If the vision is too loose, not much is achieved; too tight and you risk missing emerging opportunities.

“Vision is future-oriented and reflects the ability to spot promising peaks in a changing landscape.” Ohr says. “It provides the motivation and a rough direction for this leap. Thinking too small leads to a short leap, resulting in an inability to leave the current hill (paradigm).”

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