The hardest question any leader can ask

June 21, 2012: 2:56 PM ET

Is it worth daring to be great?  No buzzwords, no ambiguity, just a simple question that couldn't matter more.

By Saul Kaplan, contributor

FORTUNE -- Business model innovation starts by realizing you are contributing to a movement that is bigger than you. It's global, self-organizing, and transformative. Lead by letting go. The first and most important step in the business model innovation process requires a change in perspective for both you and your organization. Looking through the lens of your current business model will most likely result in incremental changes at best. Business model innovation requires a different perspective. It requires a different set of lenses to examine new opportunities. It starts by realizing transformational opportunities are bigger than you and your organization. Business model innovation must be treated like an epoch journey with all the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a young child exploring new territory for the first time.

Business model innovation must be a strategic objective or it won't happen. One of my biggest pet peeves is setting strategy one tactic at a time. It drives me crazy to be surrounded by people and organizations that think if they just work hard enough and do more things that a strategic direction and destination will emerge. It seems that most of the world works this way. It is terribly inefficient. How many people and organizations do you know that pedal the bicycle like crazy but never seem to arrive anywhere. They just keep pedaling harder hoping that something will eventually stick. It is exhausting watching them. Why not establish business model innovation as a strategic objective, a specific destination, and work hard on those things that help you get there. It seems so simple. Setting a strategic direction provides a way to know which tactics are aligned and contribute to reaching the destination. The destination may change along the way requiring different tactics, and that is OK, but not having a destination at all is a ticket to nowhere.

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When John F. Kennedy said, "We choose to go to the moon" in 1961, Americans rallied around the destination. We believed it was possible and the goal of setting foot on the moon rallied a country to advance its global science and technology leadership. It was cool to study math and science and clear that innovation was the economic engine that would drive American prosperity. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon eight years later and said, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind", we celebrated his achievement as if it was our own and knew at that moment that anything was possible. We have been trying to get that feeling back ever since. Today, we have no clear destination, in space or on earth.

Business model innovation is an epoch journey and requires daring to be great. Keith Yamashita, Chairman of SYPartners and one of the most thoughtful and influential strategy consultants I know, asked the question that still haunts and compels me at one of BIF's annual Collaborative Innovation Summits that brings together innovation junkies from around the world to share personal transformation stories. (Check out BIF-8 taking place in Providence, RI on September 19-20.) Keith asked the question, is it worth daring to be great? No

consulting buzzwords, no ambiguity, just a simple question for all of us to ponder. Implied within Keith's question is the presumption we can all be great. We just have to dare to do it. Greatness isn't something conferred or willed by others. It isn't an entitlement or an inheritance. Greatness is innate and waiting for us to dare to achieve it. Keith rightly suggests greatness isn't a deficit that you have to fill. We unlearn greatness. We permit "the system" to suppress greatness. We start to believe what other people say about us as being true about us. Kids don't start out that way. Kids are innately and wonderfully curious about the world around them until sadly society wears the enthusiasm and opportunity for greatness down. All kids start great.

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I'm reminded of Michelangelo saying, "every block of stone has a statue inside and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it". The same is true for people and organizations. Each is born with an incredible sculpture inside. We all have greatness within us and it's our opportunity and responsibility to discover it. We must be our own sculptors and not wait or depend on being sculpted by others. If we're waiting for permission to be great we will be waiting a very long time. Compelling sculptures are born of self-exploration and personal passion. Greatness comes from within. It's not up to parents, teachers, friends, and bosses to do the sculpting but to encourage us, create the conditions, and provide the tools for self-sculpting.

Greatness comes from within and starts with the lighting of a fire. So back to Keith Yamashita's question, is it worth daring to be great? Only you can answer the question for yourself and your organization. For this blessed and inspired innovation junkie my answer is, I don't think I could live with myself if I didn't dare to at least try.

This piece is adapted from The Business Model Innovation Factory. Saul Kaplan is the author of The Business Model Innovation Factory. He is the founder and chief catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, RI, and blogs regularly at It's Saul Connected. Follow him on Twitter at @skap5.

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