The Most Fundamental Act of Leadership

user Darren Gold

What is the most fundamental act of leadership? There are so many ways to answer this question. Yet, it is an incredibly relevant question to ask. Everyone is a leader. You may lead a team at work. You may be a leader in your community. You may be a leader within your family. And you’re certainly the CEO of yourself. So I believe everyone should have an answer to this question. Here’s mine.

The most fundamental act of leadership is to declare into existence a new, created future for people to live into.

Let’s break that down. First, you’ll notice that I used the word “declare.” Most people think of language as descriptive, which of course it is. But in its most powerful form, language is declarative or generative. If, at the start of a game, the coach says, “We are going to win today,” she has declared into existence a new possibility for the members of her team. Second, is the notion that people live into a future. What do I mean by that? Well, we are all taking actions consistent with a future we are subconsciously living into all of the time. Finally, I use the phrase “a new, created future” as opposed to a default, past-derived future into which we are typically living.

Let me use a famous example to illustrate all of this. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously declared before a joint session of Congress that we would put a man on the moon by the end of that decade. By doing so, he created a new future for people to live into, one that was distinctly different from the default future they had been living into up until that point. And one that transformed the actions people would take for the next several years. Create a new future for people and the actions they take will naturally transform to be consistent with that new future. In this case, the actions of an entire nation shifted to be consistent with a powerful new future created by a single declaration. That is leadership.

Here’s another example. For those of you unfamiliar with the story of Nike, the company was founded in the early 1960s as Blue Ribbon Sports and served as a North American distributor for the Japanese shoe company Onitsuka. In 1971, Onitsuka suddenly began to threaten that it might terminate its exclusive distribution agreement with Blue Ribbon. At that point, Blue Ribbon’s annual revenues were approaching $2 million, all from the distribution of Onitsuka running shoes. As a defensive measure, Blue Ribbon began to manufacture samples of its own running shoe. It chose the name Nike. In 1972, Blue Ribbon received the devastating news that Onitsuka had indeed decided to terminate its contract. Blue Ribbon’s entire business had now disappeared overnight. It couldn’t have come at a worse time. The nation’s economy was in the tank. A recession was underway. The nation faced long gas lines, record-high unemployment, the Nixon scandal, and the Vietnam war.

Create a new future for people and the actions they take will naturally transform to be consistent with that new future.

In his memoir Shoe Dog, co-founder and long-time CEO Phil Knight recounts how he broke the devastating news to his thirty or so employees.

I looked down at the table. Everyone was sinking, slumping forward. I looked at Johnson (note: Blue Ribbon full-time employee no. 1). He was staring at the papers before him, and there was something in his handsome face, some quality I’d never seen there before. Surrender. Like everyone else in the room, he was giving up. 

At that moment, Knight had a choice. He could allow his team to live into a future that was automatically being determined by the events that were unfolding. Or he could declare into existence a new future, one that could potentially change the history of the company and save it from almost certain failure. He chose the latter. Here is what he said.

“What I’m trying to say is, we’ve got them right where we want them.” Johnson lifted his eyes. Everyone around the table lifted their eyes. They sat up straighter. “This is—the moment,” I said. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. Our moment. No more selling someone else’s brand. No more working for someone else. Onitsuka has been holding us down for years. Their late deliveries, their mixed-up orders, their refusal to hear and implement our design ideas—who among us isn’t sick of dealing with all that? It’s time we faced facts: If we’re going to succeed, or fail, we should do so on our own terms, with our own ideas—our own brand. We posted $2 million in sales last year…none of which had anything to do with Onitsuka. That number was a testament to our ingenuity and hard work. Let’s not look at this as a crisis. Let’s look at this as our liberation. Our Independence Day. Yes, it’s going to be rough. I won’t lie to you. We’re definitely going to war, people. But we know the terrain. We know our way around Japan now. And that’s one reason I feel in my heart this is a war we can win. And if we win it, when we win it, I see great things for us on the other side of victory. We are still alive, people. We are still. Alive.”

That too is leadership. Knight created a new future for people to live into, one that required a fundamentally different set of actions. Almost sixty years later, Nike today is valued at over $150 billion, has annual revenues exceeding $40 billion, employs over 75,000 people globally, and is one of the world’s most iconic brands.

You don’t need to be the CEO of a company to leverage the declarative power of language. You have a choice every day between living into a past-derived, default future where not much different seems to happen or living into a created future that will lead to an extraordinary life. As we head into this new decade, what future can you create for yourself and those you lead?

Back to TriumIQ

Let’s Talk

Contact Us

Trium IQ

The Art of Strategic Narratives: Story building

The klieg lights have been shining on storytelling as a leadership capability for quite a while now….


Want to Be a Great Leader? Be a Great Coach

This piece was written by Andrew Blum and originally published on Forbes. It’s no secret that the…


The Most Fundamental Act of Leadership

What is the most fundamental act of leadership? There are so many ways to answer this question….


Are Narratives Working for Your Company?

Recently, I met with a CEO who asked me what I thought of his company’s narrative. When…


The Trium Group Partners with Murad Executives and Former Prison Inmates to Explore Powerful Leadership Development

Business leaders from Murad engage in highly impactful workshop – and leave equipped to become living models…


Catalyzing Next Level Leadership to Drive Change

This article by Mina Muraki was originally published in Consulting Magazine. Change is the new norm in…


VIDEO | Clarity Creates Connection

Trium CEO, Andrew Blum’s latest video on how greater clarity can foster deeper connection. width=”560″ height=”315″ frameborder=”0″…


Clear Strategies in an Unclear World

Nearly every time I talk with CEOs about their strategic planning process, I hear the same story:…


Men: How to Not Get Triggered by Conversations About Gender

This article by Will Harper was originally published in Leadership Excellence. As a society, we are in the…


Take 10 Minutes Each Day To Change Your Life

This piece was written by Darren Gold and originally published on Forbes. One thing that I have…


5 Ways to Upgrade Your Leadership Effectiveness for Challenging Times

This post was written by Mark Teitell and Monica Chi, and originally published by DEG: The Digital…


Meet New Trium Partner, Doug Randall

Doug Randall is a thought leader and advisor on strategic planning, leadership and communications. Through his 20+…


“I Can’t” vs. “I Choose Not To”

Recently, I was on a much-needed vacation with my family. It was an opportunity to unwind and…


Leadership In Times Of Rapid Change: 6 Lessons Learned From A Suddenly Failed Institution

Leadership in Times of Rapid Change was written by Darren Gold and originally featured in Forbes.  A…


It’s a Man’s World… Or Is It?

This article was written by Catherine Gray and originally published by If they don’t give you…


Trium Recognized as Top 10 Leadership Development Consulting Company

This article was written and originally published by HRTech Outlook.  The Trium Group: Better Leadership for a…