Confucius, when asked about leadership, likened people to grass and the ruler to wind: whichever way the wind blows so will bend the grass.

This reveals an important implication for an intrapreneur or innovator. Your team looks to you to indicate which way to go. You may not control the entire field but you can accelerate or slow the wind on your grass.

You can alter the direction. You can guide them to be more customer-centric or internationally minded or efficient. Great innovative leaders create subcultures that unlock innovative behavior, even within bureaucratic organizations.

But trying to blow in an entirely different direction from your organization, or upwind, sets you up for a tiring battle.

Work with the flow of your organization’s leadership. Understand where your organization WANTS to go. This is one of the fundamental differences between entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. While entrepreneurs look for ideas the market will embrace, intrapreneurs must look for ideas that their organization will also embrace. She must look for ideas that disrupt markets without disrupting her corporation. She builds an organizational intuition, sensing the forces around her, knowing where to press and where to pull back. In this way, she more effortlessly exerts influence.

Don’t think of this “soft” approach as weak. Think of it as enlightened. As Lao Tzu wrote:

“If you want to shrink something, you must first allow it to expand. If you want to get rid of something, you must first allow it to flourish. If you want to take something, you must first allow it to be given. This is called the subtler perception of the way things are. The soft overcomes the hard. The slow overcomes the fast. Let your workings remain a mystery. Just show people the results.”

Here are five questions to help you identify in which direction the wind is blowing in your organization:

  1. Is my organization’s primary focus that of customer intimacy, product, operational efficiency, or people and culture?
  2. What are the five most important strategic priorities we’re pursuing right now (not the official ones but the ones leadership is actually investing in)?
  3. What is my organization most focused on this year, the next three years, or beyond that?
  4. What will my organization not do or accept? What are the boundaries beyond which they will not consider an idea?
  5. Who are the “catalysts,” the leaders who are willing to support unusual ideas? How do I get close to them?
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