LT Austin Henry Rutkowski studied International Security at Stanford and Oregon State University. He received his commission as a Naval Officer in 2007 and has served in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Japan and the Persian Gulf. He is currently stationed at Navy Information Operations Command, Fort Meade, MD.
“To improve is to change; to perfect is to change often”. – Winston Churchill
Enthusiasm, as Webster’s Dictionary defines it, is a “strong excitement about something.” Webster’s version defines the common use of the word but over simplifies a complex and important philosophy found in Locke’s classical eighteenth century definition, “Whereby in effect it takes away both reason and revelation, and substitutes in the room of them the unfounded fancies of man’s own brain, and assumes them for a foundation both of opinion and conduct.” Protracted as Locke’s definition might be, it serves to highlight an important distinction and understanding of how leaders perceive enthusiasm. Most use enthusiasm as a synonym for motivation, but according to Locke’s definition, enthusiasm is much more than an adjective for eagerness. It’s an idea that allows us to see beyond preconceived notional limits and constraints; a force that gives us freedom and permission to invent and create. In other words, enthusiasm precipitates innovation.
A Case Study.
A few years ago, I visited the Microsoft campus in Belleview, Washington. Several of my college friends accepted employment from the tech giant after graduation and invited me to a convention. Needless to say I was excited to get a look inside the software powerhouse. Moreover, I was eager to see what Microsoft had in the works, especially as competitors like Apple and Google were relentlessly pouring out new and innovative technologies. Surely Microsoft must be forging something extraordinary as well, and I was about to be one of the privileged first to witness it. I toured the campus and met numerous young professionals who offered to share their “new” and “innovative” projects. My excitement grew each time they spoke about a fresh device, but was quickly replaced with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu as the demonstrations drew on. I’d seen these products before. Not from Microsoft, but from other companies that promoted similar, if not identical, products and services already available to consumers. Apple had revolutionized the smart phone and tablet while Google and Amazon were answering with their own versions of these devices. So why was Microsoft, the once center of computing ingenuity, now chasing its competitors with replicated products and services? During that visit I beheld all the wealth, manpower and diversity of a grand empire, but could not find where these limitless resources were amalgamating into the devices that would revolutionize the future of technology?
I assumed that my visit to Belleview was sheltered. There were obviously many engineers, designers and innovators secretly locked away experimenting on new technologies. I believed, and sincerely hoped, that the next iteration of life changing products would suddenly explode from the once king of technological innovation. Alas, after my visit and to this day I continue to witness Microsoft chase their competitors with the release of identical products in already saturated categories. Why would Microsoft change it business model from creator to replicator, especially while it possesses so many essential resources necessary to cultivate creativity? More explicitly, what caused Microsoft to stop innovating? I posit that it’s simply a problem of enthusiastic leadership that caused Microsoft’s transition from leading technological advancements to mimicking them. Of course, this wasn’t always a problem at Microsoft. After all, I am writing this article with a word processor and operating system developed by the company. But what major contributions has Microsoft given to the tech sector since it pushed out Windows XP and Office 2003? Since the introduction those products, and with each new iteration, consumers continue to shift at an accelerated rate toward alternatives from competitors like Google, Apple and Linux. Furthermore, rather than create viable alternatives to the tablet or smart phone, Microsoft’s strategy appears to attempt marginal improvements upon what its competitors have already mastered. While in Belleview, I saw an organization more motivated by “what’s popular now” rather than enthusiastic about what it could create for tomorrow.
Leaders who drive their organizations toward the desires of the market remain mercy to it. Those exceptional leaders who draw the market place to them through new and innovative thinking will lead change rather than chase it. This notion can involve a significant amount of risk and requires leaders to encourage their organizations to explore ungrounded or even unrealistic ideas. Take the iPad as an example. Microsoft, and many others, attempted tablet computing years before Apple released the first iPad. Those attempts proved less than successful and never gained enough traction by consumers to make a lasting impact in the tech market. So, why would Steve Jobs pursue a seemingly dead idea just a few years later? He had little data to suggest that his tablet would succeed in spite of previous attempts and a significant amount of evidence supporting the contrary. Tablet computing had already failed on multiple fronts, but Apple pursued the idea and succeeded despite the odds. Apple’s innovation led by Jobs’ enthusiasm enabled the company to successfully pursue and create an entirely new method of computing. Simply put, Jobs’ created an environment of enthusiasm which perpetuated innovation and freed Apple to purse an ungrounded idea and succeed where others failed. It’s not difficult to test these assertions. Just look at today’s market share of smart phones and tablets powered by IOS and Android compared to that of the once ubiquitous Windows platform.
How can Microsoft get better? Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and arguably one of the greatest technology enthusiasts to ever live, recently returned to Belleview. Many speculate that Gates’ return is an attempt to revitalize the creative atmosphere within the company. If Gates’ is to be successful in this endeavor, much like Jobs’ was upon his legendary return to Apple, he must forever change the culture of Microsoft and instill a sense of perpetual innovation within the organization. To achieve this end, the leaders of Microsoft must resolve to empower those within the organization to take permission and pursue their own “fancies,” as Locke puts it. This is the true form of enthusiasm, and when properly harnessed can propel any organization to the innovative forefront of its respective field just as Steve Jobs accomplished with Apple. But leaders must serve as the facilitators.
To generate enthusiasm the leader must act the part. Enthusiasm is an emotional contagion that, when observed, self perpetuates among those in proximity. Dr. Hatfield, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, researched this very topic and discovered how a person’s behavior is influenced, mimicked and synchronized subconsciously through interaction with others. Portraying enthusiastic behavior while empowering those within an organization to take permissions and freely innovate will help to garner a more innovative culture. The idiom “lead by example,” holds true here. I mentioned that this process often involves some risk. Specifically, the risk that exists when allocating precious resources in the pursuit of ungrounded or unproven ideas. It is this risk that truly innovative leaders must have the courage to not only accept but relentlessly pursue. Moreover, leaders must empower those within an organization to follow suit and freely pursue their desires in search of innovative and creative ideas. Leaders that master this ability may witness the force of enthusiasm take hold and inspire new and revolutionary ideas within their organization.