Are you playing in the right space?

I am a big rugby union fan. At the weekend, England took on the un-fancied Italians in their annual 6 Nations competition fixture. The ‘Azzuri’ excel in coffee, cuisine and love, but the expectation was for an easy win for the competition leaders. Whilst they ultimately prevailed, it wasn’t without drama. The Italians exploited rule technicalities that enabled their players to position themselves in unexpected places. The English were clearly confused. Their advantage in power, player quality and financial resources (England being by far the wealthiest rugby union) was neutralised. The clever Italian tactics forced them back time and again. They were playing in the wrong space.

The game has changed

As leaders, we need to make sure we are not similarly distracted. I believe too many businesses allow their leaders to focus on the wrong things. They get pulled into (or find comfort in) day-to-day detail and become lost in management. In our fast-changing business world, that’s a recipe for disaster. Successful leaders must be focused on the bigger-picture, obsessed with answering two questions. Where are going? How will we get there? My model below explains:

The vertical axis of the model is about focus and ranges from ‘detail’ to the ‘big picture’. The horizontal axis indicates 3 continua. ‘past’ to ‘future’, ‘slow’ to ‘fast’ and ‘manage’ to ‘lead’. Stick with me and I’ll explain. This creates 4 quadrants. Where should you be playing?


The bottom left quadrant. Detail-heavy tasks, based on current and past activity, are best performed by computers. Software, technology and artificial intelligence are now supremely capable at analyzing and extrapolating information for improving efficiencies. If you are spending a lot of time in this space, chances are you’ll soon be replaced by a machine!


Of course you do need to keep an eye on current business performance – at a big picture, strategic level. You must be in the ‘now’. Here you are custodian of the business and the brand. It’s about using your expertise and wisdom to maintain the status quo in a predictable, conservative manner. Shareholders and the market don’t like surprises. The problem is that, for many, leadership stops here. It’s necessary but not sufficient. Successful leaders must look, think and act beyond the present.


Smart leaders have to build their influence. Influence is a new source of personal and organizational power. As the rate of change accelerates beyond our ability to keep up, we are looking for answers. We seek out the thought leaders who can tell us what will happen and how we can position ourselves to succeed. You will be future-focused, fascinated with creating the ‘next’. You must cast off the shackles of conservatism and rebel. The future is likely to come from unexpected directions, so you need to challenge the status quo and push your thinking into new areas. You must also communicate your vision – to the business, to customers and the broader market. In doing so, you inspire confidence and attract new partners. This is where influencers create commercial advantage as the money follows the ideas.


As exciting as the ‘influencer’ role is, it’s not the complete story. The best leaders must also activate. That’s about building the plan and resources to create the future you see. Making decisions. Switching from risk-management to risk-taking. Disrupting what already exists in the business and motivating and engaging the staff to want to go on the journey.

It’s not enough to be a futurist with a helicopter view. Today’s leaders must play in both the ‘influencer’ and ‘activator’ space – shifting between the big picture vision and the ‘boots-on-the-ground detail needed to bring it about.

Where are you playing?

Are you focused in the past? Stuck in the slow lane? Merely managing people and processes? If you are in a leadership role, that’s not enough. It may have been in the past , but not now. You are not creating enough value to secure your future. It’s time to speed up, to become more agile, to look to what may be and stick your neck out in the process of creating it. There’s risk of course, but leaders are in the risk-taking business. Better to fail-forward today than fail-completely tomorrow.

Playing in the wrong place almost caused the England rugby team to fail in what was meant to be their easiest game of the season. Ultimately, they adapted to the new paradigm and prevailed. They evolved and won.

Have you?


Work with Mark

Since 2010 Mark Hodgson has been successfully helping executives, coaches and consultants to build confidence, gain clarity in their message and position themselves as influential thought leaders who people want to work with.

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