What is your strategic aspiration? Do you know?

The single most crucial dimension of a company’s strategic aspiration: a company must play to win. To play merely to participate is self-defeating. ~Roger Martin

If you follow my blog, you might think this quote is in complete contradiction with a post I recently wrote about an infinite mindset. It’s not. The infinite mindset is fueled by a higher purpose, and so is “playing to win” in this context.

What is your strategic aspiration?  How will you play to win?

Strategic planning becomes very difficult, very quickly, when there is not a clear strategic aspiration. I’ve been there with clients, frequently. As Roger Martin asks, “How will you play to win?” In this context winning isn’t focused on defeating your competitors; it’s focused on winning for your customers (i.e., higher purpose). It’s a clear example of leading with bold grace.

There are three questions that can help to answer the ultimate question, “What is your strategic aspiration?” [Note to readers: I believe this very same thinking can be applied personally as well; it’s not just for companies or organizations.]

Strategic Aspiration Question 1: What business are you in?

Most of us go for the obvious answer first and focus on the product or service that we provide. Martin suggests that we begin our thinking with people like our customers, consumers, clients, etc. rather than our product or service. For example, a company might say that obviously they are in the business of making smartphones. Or, are they really in the business of connecting people and enabling communication any place, any time?

Strategic Aspiration Question 2: Who is your primary customer?

This too is a question that many of us answer quickly, without being really thoughtful. Like most companies or organizations, you likely have multiple customers. A book publisher’s customers may be readers, authors, and various distribution channels. You need them all to be successful. A university’s customers may be students, faculty, and employers.

There is not a single correct answer to this question for either of these two examples. The key is to identify which is your primary customer and then focus your strategic aspiration on that customer. It doesn’t mean you will ignore your other customers; it does mean that you’ve made an intentional choice about which customer will be at the core of your strategic aspiration. How you intend to play to win.

Strategic Aspiration Question 3: Who is your best competitor?

When thinking about competitors we tend to look at our biggest and historical competitors. But, are they really our best competitors? Who is out-performing us on key metrics? Then ask, what are they doing both strategically and operationally that is better than us? What is their competitive position? What could we learn from them and do differently?

The essence of great strategy is making intentional choices. What is your strategic aspiration to win and what does winning look like? Answer that question to begin leading with bold grace.

Are you leading with broken soundtracks?

Broken soundtracks are one of the most persuasive forms of fear because every time you listen to one it gets easier to believe it the next time. ~Jon Acuff

Ever have a song stuck in your head? That soundtrack that you just can’t escape. Or, what about that phrase or mantra that plays over and over in your mind that keeps you from being your best or doing your best work? It’s also a soundtrack.

Jon Acuff is the author of a new release, Soundtracks: The Surprising Solution to Overthinking. Jon tells us that, “When you don’t create, curate, and choose what soundtracks you’ll listen to, the music doesn’t stop. You just hear a bunch of songs you don’t like.”

Shared Broken Soundtracks

While Jon wrote this book for individuals, I couldn’t help but think about the “shared broken soundtracks” I hear in organizations. It’s those phrases, sometimes spoken, but more frequently stuck on a never-ending loop in the minds of employees. Here are a few that came to mind:

  • Don’t speak up, just keep your head down.
  • Historically, we’ve done it this way…
  • We tried that once and it didn’t work.
  • It’s not in the budget.

As Jon describes, “your brain spins on a thought or an idea for longer than you anticipated. Unfortunately, it tends to lean toward the negative. Left to its own devices, it will naturally gravitate toward things you don’t want to dwell on.” It becomes a broken soundtrack. And, every time you hear that soundtrack, it becomes easier to believe.

Now, imagine a different kind of soundtrack in your organization. This example, used frequently, popped into my head.

During a visit to the NASA space center in 1962, President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?” “Well, Mr. President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” It’s not hard to imagine what soundtrack was playing in this janitor’s mind.

What kind of broken soundtracks are you enabling?

Want to change those broken soundtracks?

Be bold; give your employees fresh eyes. Then, with grace, recognize that change won’t happen overnight. Jon says it’s three “easy” steps.

  1. Retire your organization’s broken soundtracks.
  2. Replace them with new ones.
  3. Repeat them until they’re as automatic as the old ones.

What broken soundtracks need to be retired at your organization? What new soundtracks would you like to hear instead? What can you, as a leader, do to repeat those soundtracks over and over. Use positive soundtracks to lead with bold grace.

Leading Uniquely Complex People

Strength lies in differences, not similarities. ~Stephen Covey

Several years ago my appendix ruptured. What I didn’t expect was the ER doc’s explanation of the six or so different types of intestinal anatomy. What?! Our internal anatomy isn’t more consistent or common from one individual to the next?! Of course I have one of the more unique intestinal scenarios. Now, even though everything isn’t where it is “supposed to be,” I have had no problems (other than the appendix) and likely never will. I even asked the surgeon if he could put everything back to where it was supposed to be during the surgery. After he did some research, he concluded that it was better to leave things, as is, since I had no issues. Being uniquely complex was working for me.

What’s my appendix got to do with leadership? Well, I’ve discovered that as I age, instead of seeing how very similar people are, I am seeing more how wonderfully complex and unique we are. Even our internal anatomy might be unique or unexpected, and yet, enables our bodies to function effectively. There isn’t just “one way” to be effective.

We Are Amazingly Uniquely Complex

Over the past several weeks I have thought a number of times how amazingly unique we are.

I’ve seen teams who’ve been together for years, and even decades, each have a view of their organization that is surprisingly different. They are seeing it from their own uniquely complex perspective.

I just started reading How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett. I discovered that even how our bodies experience basic emotions like anger, sadness, joy, etc. varies. In fact, variation in how we respond to the same emotion is the norm, not uniformity. Another example of how we are each uniquely complex.

We Forget That We Are Uniquely Complex

I think we would all lead better if we reminded ourselves, frequently, how complex and unique we are. The academic study of leadership began around 1980. Even after 40 years of study and research, there is still not one single definitive definition of “leadership.” I think that’s the case because it’s complicated. We’re trying to lead organizations that are made up of people who are more diverse, more complex, more individually unique than at any point in history. No wonder we have a hard time defining what it really means to lead others.

Anne Wilson Schaef said, “Differences challenge assumptions.” Without differences, we would lead assuming that our thinking or behavior is right, best, or even appropriate. We need differences in order to recognize our assumptions. We need differences to make us stronger. Strength lies in differences, not similarities.

Lead with bold grace and embrace the uniquely complex, both in yourself and others.

Greatest Leadership Mistake

One of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption, “I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way!” ~Marshall Goldsmith

Greatest leadership mistake: leaders assume they are successful because of how they behave. Marshall Goldsmith is the gold standard (couldn’t resist the pun) for executive coaching and I quote him often. I have found this same thinking to be true—leaders assume they are successful because of how they behave—especially leaders who have been recently promoted into leadership positions. They wave their strengths boldly. It’s as if they are carrying a huge flag to immediately let everyone know that they are coming, proudly displaying their strengths.

Leading with Bold Grace Requires Flexible Behavior

I work with leadership teams to build both individual and collective self-awareness, many times using a behavioral assessment tool. I suggest that they look at their strengths, not as a flag they wave, but as a secret weapon they carry in their back pocket and then recognize the appropriate time to use that secret weapon. Leading with bold grace requires the flexibility to adapt; not assuming that you are successful because you behave a certain way.

For example, someone might have the strength of being very direct. Imagine that if every encounter they have with a colleague is marked by a very direct—nothing held back—response. After all, it’s their strength so why not lead with it all the time? Or, maybe another leader has the strength of ensuring that everyone is heard. They too always lead with their strength (like waving a flag), garnering input from everyone before they announce a decision. What happens when a timely decision is far more critical than a decision that encompasses a wide range of views?

Success Comes from Flexible Behavior

One theory that nearly every leadership guru agrees upon is that the most effective leaders don’t have a specific behavioral profile or personality type. The most effective leaders are those who know how to be flexible and adapt their behavior to given situations and circumstances.

Who we are is who we are. It is not good or bad, helpful or hurtful. However, if leaders don’t recognize that if their behavior remains somewhat constant as the situation or circumstances around them changes, they are going to run into trouble. 

Example: someone who is highly detailed and scrutinizes everything may need to lean on that strength when their organization is going through an audit. But, once the audit is complete, that same behavior practiced with the same intensity, could be viewed as micromanaging and severely hinder their ability to lead others.

The Greatest Leadership Mistake

The greatest leadership mistake could be avoided, or at least minimized. Imagine what we could accomplish if we willingly welcomed a better understanding of the impact of our own behavior. Quoting Goldsmith, “To help others develop, start with yourself. Great leaders encourage leadership development by openly developing themselves.”

Build your behavioral flexibility muscle to better lead with bold grace. You can stop making this mistake.

A Higher Purpose Demonstrated in the Concert Hall

We found that for leaders to make something great, their ambition has to be for the greatness of the work and the company, rather than for themselves.  ~Jim Collins

photo by Kathryn Scanland

I think Jim Collins’ work (author of Good to Great) is reflected in not only the talent, but the life of the extraordinary cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. In every performance when I’ve seen Ma, he has always shown great ambition for the work (music) and others, rather than for himself. It’s a higher purpose wrapped up in focus, passion, and humility.


Once when being interviewed, Ma said, “I can be incredibly focused, and you know, incredibly willful.” This incident in Philadelphia describes just how focused he can be. 

Once, while playing in Philadelphia, his chair tipped over. As Ma fell backward, the audience gasped. A musician behind Ma caught him just in time. Amazingly, Ma kept playing through all of it and sat back down without missing a beat.


Ma said, “Passion is one great force that unleashes creativity because if you’re passionate about something, then you’re more willing to take risks.” 

If you’ve read Collins’ book, then you’re familiar with the hedgehog concept. The point where your answers to three key questions overlap. What are you deeply passionate about, what can you be the best in the world at, and what drives your economic engine. Passion is something that Ma understands and clearly demonstrates when he performs.

Here’s what I mean. When I listen to music on a classical station, I can actually tell when I hear a cellist if it is Ma. I can’t do that with any other musician; I’m not that good. But Ma is that passionate. His playing is different, it’s distinctly passionate in ways I simply don’t hear from other musicians.


In a biography of Yo-Yo Ma by Susan Ashley he is described as “a true superstar, but one would never know it upon meeting him. Ma is soft-spoken and humble.”  This is something I have witnessed firsthand, several times.

I’ve been to many concerts, hundreds, and what I’ve seen Ma do is extremely rare. On one occasion when his featured cello concerto was finished, the audience immediately stood to their feet and he took a short and modest bow. Then, he walked over to the first-chair cellist and gave him a big hug. He proceeded to very personally greet each of the other cellists. Finally, he stepped back with the remaining musicians and included them in receiving the applause.

In another instance I was fortunate enough to see Ma in one of his somewhat secret pop-up concerts along the Chicago River playing with a group of very young musicians (in the photo). There too, he greeted each of his fellow musicians and in no way stepped into the spotlight for himself.

It wasn’t about him; it was about the music. Just as Collins’ said, “their ambition has to be for the greatness of the work, rather than for themselves.”

Yo-Yo Ma is the quintessential example of being driven by a higher purpose and leading with bold grace. I believe that our individual higher purpose becomes evident when find a similar intense synergy like Ma’s through focus, passion, and humility.