Great Leaders’ Quest For Elegance

Successful executives will seek to simplify processes and rid their organizations of inefficiencies.


You may not think of elegance as a value in leading a credit union, but today’s successful leaders are seeking it out as they look for ways to move their organizations forward.

Take the late Steve Jobs: he knew elegance. One of the most refined pieces of technology we have ever seen is his company’s iPhone.

Close your eyes and picture Jobs. What do you see? Most likely, he is wearing a black mock turtleneck. Now try to think of when you’ve seen him wearing a button-up shirt. Hard to do, isn’t it? Jobs hated buttons. He believed that buttons were imperfect devices used to hold a piece of cloth together. Instead, he preferred a more refined button-less turtleneck.

Now, think about the iPhone. He transferred his dislike of buttons on a shirt to buttons on a phone. Without them, the iPhone is quite elegant.

As a credit union leader, do you have an organization with too many buttons? How many processes in your institution are being done because that’s the way they have always been done? Are there ways you can simplify practices?

My friend Steve Hodgson of Redport International introduced me to a more elegant mindset nearly two years ago. He authored a white paper on achieving elegance in a credit union. It is a series of benchmarks designed to determine how elegantly a financial institution is operating. Hodgson doesn’t wear turtlenecks, but he is keenly aware of the “buttons” that need to be reimagined in credit unions. Like Jobs, Hodgson knows it’s more about what you take out than what you leave in.

Many credit union leaders are wrestling with finding a sustainable business model to keep their organizations moving forward. Sustainability is all about doing more with less. For credit unions, this means doing with less capital and finding a way to build it as quickly as it’s needed.

We can’t control the advancement of technology, assessments from our regulators or growing competition. However, we can manage our strategy and become more elegant in our approach. I am positive that Jobs must have been warned his button-less phone may not be accepted by consumers. Someone must have told him that getting rid of the buttons was a risk, but he saw the beauty in its simplicity.

As credit union leaders, we need to have the courage to embrace our strengths, make bold decisions on reducing or eliminating less profitable parts of our business and discover how to change time-honored processes. Elegance is not being all things to all people, and it isn’t about being flashy. It is a refined approach to solving a problem, and it’s the courage to not accept the past as a reason for staying the same.

Great leaders are very good at knowing what to leave out. In both our personal and professional lives, the most important decisions we make every day deal with what we won’t do, rather than what we will do. Deciding what to leave off the list gives us the ability to focus on what’s really important. Let’s look at another example from Jobs. If he spent all his time figuring out the kind of buttons he would put on his phone, he may never have had the time to focus on the ground-breaking technology by which all others are measured today.

Elegance is simplicity and refinement, it is focus and poise, and it is the challenge that credit union leaders must address to move their businesses forward.