For every act there is an accepted set of limits.
If you stay inside them it is considered safe. Pushing the
outside of the envelope tests those limits, finding out exactly how far
they can be pushed.
The term came from mathematics first, and then was
applied to aeronautics. Tom Wolfe made it popular in his novel, The Right Stuff, about US pilots
experimenting in the 40s, 50s, and 60s with rocket-powered, high-speed
of the phrases that kept running through the conversation was “pushing
the envelope.” The “envelope” was a flight-test term referring to the
limits of a particular aircraft’s performance, how tight a turn it
could make at such-and-such a speed, and so on. “Pushing the outside,”
probing the outer limits, of the envelope seemed to be the great
challenge and satisfaction of flight test. At first “pushing the
outside of the envelope” was not a particular terrifying phrase to
Then Wolfe goes on to detail the horrible crashes
and deaths that result in the boundary where human effort meets the
laws of physics. He concludes a few pages later, “One of the most demanding disciplines in
flight test was to accustom yourself to making precise readings from
the control panel in the same moment that you were pushing the outside
of the envelope…”
Visionary leaders live on the frontier and find
themselves often at the limits of what the system will bear. And
everyone knows, frontiers people are a weird lot. Those who spend a lot
of time at the limits of human endeavor do not take for granted the
same assumptions the masses share and their ways reflect it.
Further, they are no strangers to danger. Each has
their own standards and ways of dealing with greater ambiguity and
threat than most of us would choose to take on.Yet, human progress owes
them immeasurable debt, as these visionaries are responsible for
breaking the collective trance of what is possible, forging into new
territory, and making real progress possible.
Being a visionary while leading an organization is
an odd pairing. Organizations by their very nature are paragons of
stability, thriving on the rhythm and pacing of the status quo. Yet,
when the two find each other, the makings of greatness are present: the
potential to lead in a rapidly changing world.
To make the whole thing work there needs to be
some kind of weaving together of the dependable foundation of the
organization with the adventurous experiments of the visionary. How
this happens is as individual as the alchemical mixture of organization
and personality can be, which is to say highly nuanced.
Nonetheless, here are seven guidelines that can make a valuable
- Recognize the
need for both pushing the envelope
and providing a firm foundation.
Do not attempt to convert either to the other’s task. Put conditions in
place that allows each to succeed powerfully with their task.
- Avoid micro
managing by the visionary. Instead, create a body or hire a
person to connect the dots.
- Avoid boxing
in the visionary with requirements and bureaucracy. Instead,
develop frameworks that embrace the liquidity of their actions.
appropriate and robust two-way communication between visionary and
staff members. Take it seriously. The visionary needs to read
the control panel and the people who are keeping the trains running
need to welcome innovation. In general it’s about 75%-25% for
each. The visionary needs to know the top 25% of the organization’s
basic performance indicators, and those in the trenches need a good
dose of 25% of the disruptive, boundary-pushing activity that is taking
place at the top.
processes to weave the two together that are flexible, and bridge these
two worlds: stability and transformation. Do not use frameworks
that are inflexible or rigid. Just the same, do not allow chaos to
reign by stepping free of processes altogether. Instead choose a way of
working that provides both adaptability and reliable endurance.
- Welcome the
friction. Prepare for it. Budget for it. Bring in
expertise that knows how to handle it and use it to create
- Work both
ends. Follow visionary insights; ie, probe new ground.
Likewise, leverage the steadiness, dependability, and strength of a
solid foundation. These two combined create the perfect conditions for
achieving the gold standard.
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