Seeing Beyond the Horizon and Strategic Leadership


The choice between right and wrong is easy;
it’s the choice between two rights that takes real courage!

I left my Ph.D. degree in marine biology in the mid-70′s to pursue a career in business but to this day I am still fascinated by the ocean and its life.  A particular interest is Ocean Currents and their impact on weather and the economy of the globe.  A while ago wrote a blog article about the relationship between ocean currents and business strategy.

One of the more recent and very useful developments in oceanography is High Frequency Surface Wave Radar (HFSWR) and its application for mapping ocean currents.  HFSWR has the ability to look over the horizon and detect surface vessels as well as ocean waves and is used not only in oceanography but in Homeland defense as well.

Pretty cool.  To be able to look over the horizon and see what others on land can’t see.  In some sense this is the role of strategic leadership, to look over the horizon and sense what is coming next for their business.  In thinking about strategic foresight (over-the-horizon thinking) I am reminded of the famous Bill Gates “Internet Memo”.

Microsoft and Strategic Leadership

At the time, 1995, Microsoft was booming, as shown in this chart of their revenue growth.  They had 28% net rev. growth, no long-term debt, $6.5B in cash and a Market Cap of $90B.  They were winning, big time.

So, let’s talk about you as the CEO.  Would you change the strategy?  Would you risk this type of performance?  Most leaders wouldn’t. They would keep on with a proven winning formula.

But Bill Gates somehow was able to see beyond the horizon and saw that the internet was about to destroy Microsoft, or at the very least make it irrelevant. And so on May 26, 1995 Gates issued an internal memo called: “The Internet Tidal Wave”. The basic message was this:

“We were wrong about the internet and we are going to do a 90° turn and go full steam to dominate the internet.”

And change strategies they did.  As a result they crushed NetScape and Sun and completely took over the web browser market.  And check out at the results!

It’s the job of the CEO to search beyond the horizon for his company.  To grab onto insights and snippets of information and work on them until they either yield great value or are deemed to be trash.  Then do it again.  To think strategically, to constantly keep asking, “What if . . . ” and exploring ways to build greater longevity and sustainability into the organisation.

But you can’t do it if you are constantly running from meeting to meeting with no time for creative thinking.

Different Leadership . . . Different Results

Are you leading your company beyond the horizon, or running from “pillar to post”?

Browser warsFast forward in the life cycle of once dominant Microsoft and there is another story to be told, one of a different leadership focus and different results.  Today, just 10 years after crushing NetScape and Sun and completely dominating the web browser market, Microsoft is a distant second place to Google Chrome.

Didn’t Microsoft see the rise of other browsers like Chrome, Firefox, Opera or Safari coming? Or the rise of Apps instead of software?

Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft for the years during the “browser wars” and up until just recently, had a very different leadership style than Bill Gates.  Ballmer was a perpetual motion machine of doing, talking, motivating, haranguing, browbeating, running from meeting to meeting. Energetic and forceful? Absolutely! A get things done “NOW” kind of guy? Certainly! Managing by the numbers and keeping multiple projects going simultaneously was his specialty.

A deep and thoughtful strategic thinker? Probably not. He ran Microsoft from quarterly results to quarterly results, not for the long-term.  It’s amazing how difficult it is to think about the future and see the “over the horizon” stuff when your day is full with “busyness”.

To go slow is to go far! ~American Indian proverb

John R. ChildressN2Growth: President, Europe and Chair, Culture Transformation Practice

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014).

John also writes thriller novels:


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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