The Empty Plinth™: An opportunity that all leaders must seize

Empty Plinth

“The empty plinth is a testament to failed intent”


We all have empty plinths – the great and ambitious ideas that we don’t implement. The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, originally intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV, remained empty for over 150 years. And in business, we build our plinths, write the inscription in our minds, yet ultimately we fail to deliver a statue that marks out a great achievement from a bold vision.

Why do some business leaders realise their great ambitions – and some do not?

Is it a meticulous attention to detail in developing a change programme? Is it a laser-sharp focus on a clear vision? Is it great leadership in a class of its own? In truth, it’s partly all and more of the above. And sometimes the blockers are self-limiting ones. Our knowledge, experiences and wisdom, for example, may tell us that it can’t be done. And yet … revolutions in technology, medical breakthroughs, corporate transformations, and political earthquakes all show us that the unlikely, or even the seemingly impossible, can be achieved. And increasingly, it must be, if any business is to thrive.

This is because the world is changing at an ever-faster rate, with a growing and relentless pressure on leaders to look into the future in order to thrive. The leader who is not thinking about what people will expect in 20 years’ time is, de facto, failing to take their company in the right direction.

The empty plinth is a future opportunity. And if any leader cannot understand the future and their part in it, they will very quickly become history.

This commitment to a future destiny shows itself in other ways. When the engineers at NASA were developing the Saturn V rocket to take men to the moon, they encountered untold engineering and technological problems. A key to their ultimate success was the view that failure, quite simply, was not an option. 

There could be no empty plinth, and so there wasn’t.

This fundamental belief was embedded in the culture of NASA and all the people working there. It drove them to bring together the right policies, processes, people and leadership devoted to this end. The rocket became the statue, NASA had its plinth, and the world knows the resulting inscription.

In business, the truth is that most things can be achieved – it’s more of a question of how badly a leader wants it. Different leaders follow different paths to success, and there is always more than one way to achieve a goal.

But these competing route maps need to share something in common. They need to be less about academic theory and more about a state of mind, identifying the basic needs and then applying them correctly.

What must be becoming increasingly clear to business leaders is that not only can they rise to the challenge, but that they must. If the other three plinths in Trafalgar Square, long since filled, represent the established past, the fourth plinth represents a major opportunity for the future.

So how can leaders and businesses realise their great and ambitious plans?

In a paper previously published by The Swann Group (Defining a global context for incoming CEOs) we proposed a two-pronged approach to ensure successful leadership – the sort that puts their businesses firmly on their plinth.

One of these is external: How leaders become aware of the bigger context within which they operate, evolve and influence. The other is internal: How they identify and address areas of weakness, such as areas for knowledge, skills and personal development.

These external and internal dynamics will be the subject of our next two articles.

Skein identifies and implements the changes needed to achieve strategic goals and financial results. Our expert advisory services are based on decades of experience at senior levels and contemporary research and analysis.

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Image (c) Shutterstock | stock_wichel

Tom Aldridge