In every successful business, you will find great leaders who do not allow their thinking to be confined by the tradition, norms, or the unwritten rules of their industries. When leaders of other companies say, "That's not the way we do it", great leaders ask, "Why not?" The ability to think unconventionally provides a competitive advantage that helps them succeed.
A great example is Michael O'Leary, CEO of the European based discount airline Ryanair. To help make his company successful, he met with Herb Kelleher, co-founder of the U.S. based discount carrier South West Airlines. O'Leary's goal was to learn everything he could about the discount airline business from Kelleher. The action of asking potential competitors for their secrets to success is considered abnormal and potentially ludicrous but O'Leary did not let this stand in his way. He set up a meeting with Kelleher for that very purpose.
During the years that followed, O'Leary not only applied what he learned from Kelleher but he took the concepts and strategies of discount airlines to a new level that is unthinkable for most airline executives. Ryanair provides customers with incredibly low fares but proceeds to charge for everything else: food, pillows, blankets, checked baggage and even water. Seats on Ryanair aircrafts do not recline because, by removing this feature, additional rows of seats could be fitted onto each aircraft to make room for even more customers. The pockets on the back of each seat have been removed so that cleaning crews do not have to be paid to remove trash left behind by departing passengers. At one point, the removal of window visors on the aircrafts was considered in efforts to prevent having to pay staff to reset them to the upright position before each new flight. In order to augment revenues and profits further, O'Leary even considered adding pay toilets to the company's aircrafts and online gambling to Ryanair's website. It goes without saying that O'Leary's ideas are outside of the norm for the industry. Most executives in the airline industry would agree that this is not the way that airlines are supposed to do business. But there are many people who like what O'Leary is doing as evidenced by Ryanair's 2009 earnings which were in excess of $431 million. This is quite a feat considering that the average Ryanair fare is approximately $42.50 US. O'Leary's way of thinking has allowed him to grow his tiny regional airline into an aeronautic giant that transports over 85 million passengers each year to 155 airports in 26 countries. The company's market capitalization of $7.2 billion rivals that of Southwest Airlines and trumps that of its competitors Aer Lingus and easyJet. Most leaders in the airline industry would love to experience the same growth and profit margins as Ryanair but do not copy the strategies that have made it a success. Why not?
Unfortunately, many executives, not unlike the average person, have mental barriers that prevent them from seeing past or thinking through the conventions and norms that surround them. In his constant drive to cut prices, O'Leary questioned why every plane needed two pilots when only one would do. Most other airline executives would never have even considered this idea. "We must have two pilots" would be their instinctive response. O'Leary would argue that one pilot combined with the automatic pilot feature and another crew member trained to land the plane in the case of an emergency would be enough. Regardless if single-pilot commercial flights become a reality or not, the key is that extraordinary leaders have the ability to think outside of the box and question tradition. They can mentally navigate beyond the barriers of conventional thinking to find new and innovative ways to succeed.
Bill Comrie, founder of the Brick Warehouse, is another example of a great leader who thinks unconventionally. In a monthly merchandising meeting when sales for the company were flat, the buyers were sharing horror stories due to the tough economic times: factories going out of business, large standing orders being cancelled by major retailers, and sales decreases and negative profit results ravaging the industry. After listening to tragic tale after tragic tale, Comrie jumped up and yelled, "This is great! Don't you see it? This is great!" As he looked around the room repeating the question "don't you get it?", the buyers lowered their heads without responding to avoid eye contact with Bill. After repeating the question a few more times, Comrie looked at the group and said, "Don't you see?" and after a long pause he said matter-of-factly, "You have never have a better time to buy then right now." He pointed out that the poor economic conditions created a buyer's market and reminded them that they were buyers. He asked the group to find some amazing deals that could be passed on to customers to support a major sale. At the next meeting, excitement was measurable, as they all had news of extraordinary buys. Not only did the group secure some great deals, but all of the vendors provided additional support for the event making it a huge success. The Brick Warehouse was one of the few furniture retailers that year with a noticeable sales increase all thanks to Mr. Comrie's ability to think unconventionally.
Besides considering options that others would not consider or viewing things differently than most, great leaders avoid the mental traps that other leaders fall into. Many organizational leaders work hard to get their companies to a certain point only to believe the hard work is done. The curse of mediocrity appears in the idea, "Good enough". Even more dangerous is, "We've always done it this way". This thought can prevent leaders from exploring innovative ideas or critically changes that are required for future success of the organization. There are many examples of companies that have grown past major competitors by changing the rules of the game. It happened in the investment community when Charles Schwab outgrew Merrill Lynch by getting into the online trading. Newspaper publishers lost massive amounts of market share of the classified ad business to Craig's list, kijiji, and eBay with an online model. Dell passed industry giant Compaq in computer hardware business with the direct-to-consumer business model. Though the examples are endless, it is rare to see many leaders in established businesses making the changes necessary to effectively compete.window motor regulatorspecifying air motors maintenance