The Leadership Paradigm

Unconventional thinking from extraordinary leaders
By Daniel R. MacDonald

In every successful business, you will find great leaders who do not allow their thinking to be confined by the tradition, norms, or 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 exceptional leaders succeed.
A great example of an unconventional thinker 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 even 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 to a new level. 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. 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 needs 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. During a period when the company was experiencing no sales growth, Comrie called a meeting with his buying team. The meeting began with the buyers sharing horror stories that resulted because of the tough economic times: factories were going out of business, large standing orders were being cancelled by major retailers, and sales decreases and negative profit results ravaged 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 his question, the buyers lowered their heads without responding to avoid eye contact with their leader. After repeating the question a few more times, Comrie looked at the group and said, “Don’t you get it?” After a long pause he matter-of-factly said, “You have never had a better time to buy than 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 onto their customers during a major sales event. At the next meeting, the room was buzzing with excitement as everyone had extraordinary news to share. Not only did the group secure some great deals, but all of the vendors provided additional support for the sales event which made it a huge success. The Brick Warehouse was one of the few furniture retailers that year to achieve a noticeable increase in sales all thanks to Comrie’s ability to think unconventionally.

Besides considering options that others would not 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 that the hard work is done. The leaders of these companies doom themselves by believing that they “have arrived”. Another downfall of some leaders is the curse of mediocrity which is evidenced through their use of the phrase, “It’s good enough” or “It’s fine the way it is”. Even more dangerous is the phrase, “We’ve always done it this way”. This way of thinking can prevent leaders from exploring innovative ideas or beneficial changes that are required for the future success of their organization.

“Somewhere in a basement, a garage or an apartment there is an entrepreneur forging a bullet with your company’s name on it.”
Gary Hamel – Management Expert

There are many examples of companies that have outperformed their major competitors by changing the rules of the game. It happened in the investment community when Charles Schwab outgrew Merrill Lynch by getting into online trading first. Newspaper publishers lost significant classified advertising revenue to online websites like Craigslist, Kijiji, and eBay. Dell surpassed industry giant Compaq in computer hardware sales with the direct-to-consumer business model. Though the examples are endless, it is rare for leaders in established businesses to make the changes necessary to effectively compete.

It is evident that great leaders think unconventionally, but is it something that everyone can do? Probably, but it takes considerable effort and practice. Here are three strategies that can be applied to help you think more like a leader.

1. Suspend judgement – To think more like a leader, it is critical to assume the mindset that anything is possible. When generating ideas, do not consider if an idea will work or if it makes sense, simply focus on the quantity of ideas; contemplation of ideas’ quality comes later.

2. Ask “why not?” – Use the “Why not?” line of thinking to assess your ideas. If you think an idea will not work, ask yourself why not and focus on how your idea could be made plausible. This will help you identify assumptions, conventions, and norms that may be limiting your thinking. Once you identify these barriers, you can work to overcome them.

3. Innovate – Determine ways to apply successful strategies, concepts, and ideas used in successful companies to your organization. This is an effective way to stay ahead of your competition.

Learning to think unconventionally requires concentrated and applied effort over a long period of time; however, the rewards in terms of potential growth and profitability are worth it.

Dan MacDonald is President of BIS Training & Development, an Alberta based company that specializes in online and classroom based corporate training. MacDonald is the co-author of three books: Leadership, Management, and Success. To find out more about BIS Training & Development, visit

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