Learning From The Past To Innovate The Future
There is a really great article in the current Leadership Issue of Reuters Magazine titled “The Made-In-China CEO” written by Senior Company News Correspondent, Terril Jones. The article looks at the two types of CEOs which now dominate China’s business landscape: the traditional state-owned-enterprise leader who generally favors a lower risk strategy, and the “No-School CEO” that’s big on innovation and opportunity.
Zhang Yue is the featured CEO of this latter category who isn’t afraid to dream big and bold. His goal is to address the challenge of resource consumption and to make the world a more livable place in spite of increasing numbers. Some have dared to call him China’s version of Steve Jobs. After reading the article, I’m not sure I buy into that completely, but you can see that he retains many of the classic “Jobsian” attributes: focus, passion, and drive to see the vision become reality.
Zhang is a leader by example as you’ll see from the article. One of the things that I found quite interesting is that he has 43 statues of great writers, intellectual thinkers, inventors, and modern day business leaders scattered around the corporate campus – including Abraham Lincoln, Jack Welch, James Watt, Leonardo DaVinci, Aristotle, and Confucius. When I stopped to consider the people he chose to honor in this way, it made total sense to me. Many of these people dreamed and believed in the “impossible.”
We often think that innovation has to come from something brand new that no one has ever thought of before. How often though could we look to the past for the inspiration we need to solve a problem differently? I applied this to myself in the last couple weeks, as I finished the book Born To Run. If you’re a runner, you’ve probably read it already. If not, the premise of the book is pretty simple. Human beings were running great distances for years without the need for overly complicated footwear. And yet, footwear companies like Nike and Adidas convinced us that we needed something different for our feet. Instead, those shoes have created a running style that has created bad form and a host of injuries (aka the heel strike). The book essentially suggests that by going back to how we originally ran (on the front of our feet, as you would when you walk barefoot on a rough surface), you run faster, longer, and with potentially fewer problems. One group of people, the Tarahumara from Mexico, routinely run hundreds of miles each week and have shattered all sorts of ultradistance competition records while running on nothing more than a light pair of sandals.
Have a read of the article which starts on page 42 of the pdf. As Zhang closes, his goal is to break with convention. Perhaps that is something we should try as well – and not just try to make it up as we go, but look to the past for inspiration for tomorrow.