Three questions that every leader must ask.

The more competition you face, the greater the need to highlight the differentiation — the unique advantage of your product or service — in order to succeed in the marketplace.

Differentiation-based leadership places the onus of grasping, defining and communicating that differentiation on the shoulders of the leader, and extends the concept to encompass every area of business — including the leader him or herself.

Using differentiation as the central principle of strategic competitive advantage, these are the three questions that every leader must ask.

1. What differentiates your company or organization?

Value propositions. Brand promises. Strategic competitive advantages. All of these diverse marketing terms are grounded in the same fundamental principal of differentiation – what sets your company apart from your competitors?

A large part of successful leadership rests on your ability to articulate your company’s differentiation to its many stakeholders — your customers, your employees, your strategic partners and your investors.

But your company’s differentiation only describes the first question of Differentiation-Based Leadership.

2. What differentiates the individuals — what are the unique strengths of each individual in your organization?

As complex beings, we are wired with conflicting desires to both belong and stand out at the same time. That’s why, to work together at the highest level of productivity and efficiency, we have to discover, acknowledge and value what sets us apart. That’s why results aren’t achieved just because people believe in the product, process or cause; results are achieved because people believe in themselves.

And that’s why Differentiation-Based Leadership asks a second question: What are the unique strengths of each of the individuals who make up your organization?

But it’s the third question of Differentiation-Based Leadership that provides the greatest support for the first two – and it may be the hardest to answer

3. What differentiates you as a leader?

As a leader, you have the biggest influence on the culture, the goals, the vision and the process by which you go about fulfilling it.

By discovering, acknowledging and valuing what sets you apart from other leaders, you begin to go down a path of self-discovery that lies at the heart of Differentiation-Based Leadership.

At the most selfish level, knowing your own true differentiation simply makes you better equipped to articulate your personal strategic competitive advantage – it makes you more marketable as a leader.

More importantly, however, discovering your own true differentiation allows you to more genuinely value the unique strengths that the other people on your team bring to the organization. It helps you harness your center of authenticity – which makes you more powerful as a leader. It helps you encourage others through a similar process of self-discovery. And, quite simply, it allows you to lead by example.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as completing another self-assessment, or just asking the question, ‘what makes me different?’ In the business of differentiation, just as in any brainstorming, I’ve seen even the best-intentioned people and teams content themselves with the first ideas that come to mind.

That’s why there are still some retail stores who believe that ’Sales. Service. Selection.’ is a unique tagline – and that’s why there continue to be many financial advisors who believe they are the only ones who ‘truly care about their clients’.

Often, the heavy lifting involves sitting down with a coach, consultant or otherwise trained, objective third-party who can help you get past the usual platitudes.

One of the reasons why people can’t see their own differentiating strengths is that because those strengths feel so natural and require no effort, they simply don’t call attention to themselves. You don’t even realize you have them — it’s as if they are invisible.

In my practice, I have developed a number of exercises and processes that help people bypass these platitudes, and make the invisible, visible. Two of these are Primary Influences and Mentors, and What Drives You Crazy Makes You Great.

If you’re up for it (and you’ve got a pen handy), let’s begin with what drives you crazy…

What Drives You Crazy Makes You Great

Instead of looking for core strengths and passions directly, this approach begins with asking participants to consider a situation where they notice the obvious mistakes that other people in their fields have made.
Applied to leadership, imagine that you recently took over the management of a team or organization.

One of the first things you’d likely do is analyze the current situation — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Then you’d look at the decisions which have led the organization to this point.

If you’re like most people, there would be some decisions that would have you shaking your head in disbelief. Be honest with yourself — in the back of your mind, you might be saying to yourself, ‘I can’t believe they did this – if they had brought me in sooner, I could have averted the problems they have now and they wouldn’t be in the mess they are in today.’

It may be politically incorrect to criticize others openly, but what you consider to be fundamental errors in the judgments, actions and decisions of your predecessors are actually the clues to your natural talents and strengths.

When you look around and see how other people are doing it ‘all wrong’ and getting poor results, your subconscious mind says, ‘how can they be so stupid not to see what’s so obvious to me. They should be doing it this way – whatever this way is for you.

And that’s why it drives you crazy.

When you look at the mistakes and errors that others leaders have made, what drives you crazy?

Primary Influences And Mentors

Once you start on the journey to discover your own differentiation, you may build up enough courage to travel back in time to re-visit your early mentors and influences. In my case, it took me many years to build up that courage and identify the connection to my parents.

With a degree in linguistics, my father had a facility with words and a gift for language. So when he joined the French Foreign Legion during the Second World War, he was put in charge of translating messages for the French, British and American troops — and sometimes delivering them in person under enemy fire. After the war, he became a professional translator, and worked his way up to become head of the translation department at McGill University.

My mother is a survivor of the Holocaust. Deported on March 7, 1944, she spent almost a year at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, the largest killing grounds of the Nazis. Surviving beatings, interrogations and the selections by the infamous Dr. Mengele, she was then forced on a three-day death march through the mountains in the bitter, bitter cold of January 1945.

From Wroclaw on the Polish-German border, she was transported to Ravensbruck and then to Neustadt. When the camp was liberated by the Russian army on May 3, 1945, she was taken for dead as she lay motionless on the ground, too weak to move.

No one would be surprised at how an experience like that would shatter a person’s spirit and joy of life. And yet, if you met my mother today, you’d find someone in love with the world.

She doesn’t need a reason — or even music — to dance around my back yard.

As an author, advertising copywriter and speaker, I always knew where I got my facility with words and my gift for language. But I never fully understood how and why I inspire audiences until I saw that my mother’s ability to survive is also my ability to survive — and her passion for life is also my passion for life.

That’s a key part of who I am and the value I bring to the organizations I work with. It’s one of my unique differentiators as a speaker – and it’s the foundation of my leadership style.

What’s yours?

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