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How real leaders come from behind and win

COMMENTARY I'm a happy guy this week: a lifelong New York Giants fan whose team beat the Packers (my wife's from Wisconsin) and the 49ers (I live in the Bay Area) to get to the Super Bowl. And coming from behind to beat New England (again) was awesome. Good times.

That said, it was an up-and-down season for the G-Men. There were times when I doubted they'd make the playoffs, let alone take home the Lombardi Trophy. Yeah, it was a real rollercoaster of a season. But then, sports are like that all the time. Come to think of it, life is like that. Business life, too.

Some of today's greatest companies -- Apple (AAPL) and IBM (IBM) for starters -- had their ups and downs, were even at death's door at one point. And the corporate graveyards are full of companies that fought the good fight and didn't make it. Nortel, Sun, Lehman -- it's a long, long list. Maybe Kodak's (EK) next; we'll see.

The truth is that no team or company goes straight up and to the right and just keeps on going. Competition and entropy do a pretty good job of conspiring to end dynasties and level the playing field. No, winning isn't easy, my friends. And that's why it feels so good. There's nothing like a hard-fought, come-from-behind victory against tough odds. It really makes you feel alive.

So, winning is good, it isn't easy to keep doing it over and over, and it's even harder to do it once you've been down. Okay, we've established that.

Business is about winning -- deal with it
Where does leadership come from?

At this point, I can get all inspirational like Clint Eastwood's halftime Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler, or I can get real and tell you what it really takes for an organization to come from behind and win. I've been there a few times myself. One or two made it; most didn't. Tough odds, I know.

Whether you ultimately come out on top or go down for the count comes down to four things that make all the difference for any company, organization or team:

Real leadership. These days it's popular to believe in crowdsourcing, that leaders and CEOs are overrated. That's garbage. Turning around any organization starts with leadership or it doesn't end well. And, in the case of IBM, Apple, and all my experience, it takes new leadership to turn a company around. It takes a fresh set of eyes and ideas to see what's going on, carve a new path, and galvanize everyone to work together.

The truth about what got you there. If you don't get a complete, non-sugarcoated picture of the situation you're in and how you got there, you'll never figure out how to change course and move in the right direction. And you know, employees and customers will tell the new leader things they wouldn't tell the old leader. I don't know why that is, but it's true.

Managing the bottom line. I'm often asked the definition of a turnaround. It's when you're running out of money and options. The sooner you realize that and start taking some serious steps to cut spending and manage your bottom line, the better. This is why jobs are usually lost when a private equity firm takes a company private. It's necessary to turn it around and get it healthy and growing again.

Inspired direction. Clearly, things have changed -- internally, externally, or both -- or the company wouldn't be in trouble to begin with. With new leadership in place, a clear understanding of the situation, and spending under control, the last step is setting a new path for the company that offers unique value to customers and strategy that can beat the competition. After that, it's all about execution.

There's an ancient Chinese proverb: "May you live in interesting times." Maybe it's a curse; it sort of depends on your perspective. In my experience, always trying to fly under the radar and stay out of harm's way is somehow both exhausting and boring at the same time. You're better off looking life straight in the eye and saying, "Bring it on."

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