Leadership for the 21st Century: the plague of Power-Intoxication

The senior executive chairing the meeting asks for views but does not seem to be listening. It looks like the others know that this person does not listen. The voices that speak reflect prudence rather than integrity. The words are fancy and the tones are scientific but, when the meeting ends, it is clear -- everyone has taken safe positions rather than actively think, enquire together, and break new ground. There is confirmation of the Chair’s ideas and an affirmation that the seat of power is wise. Despite the lessons of history and so much more education, the mind filled with power seems to be no different from that centuries ago.

In our times, the ill-effects of power-drunk people at the helm are proving to be widespread, deep, and tectonic. This may seem exaggerated but, in my view, this is one of the serious threats to our future as a species. i agree with Yuval Noah Harari (21 Lessons for the 21st Century) that we ”confront….the biggest challenges humankind has ever encountered”. Leaders, more than ever before, must ask themselves if they ”serve power or truth”.

Edgar H Schein (former Professor at the Sloan School of Management, MIT) cautions us about this in Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.  “In airplane crashes and chemical industry accidents, in the infrequent but serious nuclear plant accidents, in the NASA Challenger and Columbia disasters, and in the British Petroleum gulf spill, a common finding is that lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences of the accident’ and though ”senior managers….always assure me that they are open, that they want to hear from their subordinates”, “when I talk to the subordinates in those same organizations, they tell me either they do not feel safe bringing bad news to their bosses or they’ve tried but never got any response or even acknowledgment….” 

Edgar goes on to state that “shockingly” people often “settled for risky alternatives rather than upset their bosses with potentially bad news.”

One of the interesting lessons in Good to Great is that when a company loses a leader (who is charismatic and flamboyant, but power-filled), it falls apart. This is so because the departing leader worked for “personal greatness” rather than “set the company up for success in the next generation.” Jim Collins makes the point that is in stark contrast to companies that keep up a consistent climb to greatness, owing to leaders who, among other things, create ”a climate where the truth is heard”.  Such leaders listen and do not shoot messengers. Consequently, they have teams that are prepared to weather any storm – indeed, teams that are willing to storm the gates of hell at the call of their leaders. Such leaders leave behind legacies that thrive long after they have stepped out of the playing field.

History tells us that this is no new thing. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford writes —  ”Whether measured by the total number of people defeated, the sum of the countries annexed, or by the total area occupied, Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history.” This he did with an army that at no time exceeded “one hundred thousand warriors – a group that could comfortably fit into the larger sports stadiums of the modern era.” What speaks of Genghis’ leadership is not this but that fact that “he left his empire with such a firm foundation that it continued growing for another 150 years” with “vestiges of his empire” continuing for over seven centuries. While most conquerors died miserable deaths, despised by their own as tyrants, Genghis Khan “passed away in his campbed, surrounded by a loving family, faithful friends, and loyal soldiers ready to risk their life at his command.” In every village, country, and region he conquered, Genghis would call for the learned, the wise, the healers, the writers and the thinkers – and with the help of translators who always accompanied him, he would listen. The man who was probably the most powerful human ever, it turns out, listened, learned – and did not permit power to deafen him.

Managing "adults"

i am thinking of management this morning — the kind that unleashes Talent, the kind that a lot of us look for in our workplaces.

Kim Scott narrates a conversation in Radical Candor.  ”A colleague shared an anecdote about interviewing with Steve....My colleague asked Jobs several perfectly reasonably questions: “How do you envision building the team? How big will the team be?” Steve’s curt response: “Well, if I knew the answer to all those questions, then I wouldn’t need you, would I?” Borderline rude, but also empowering. Jobs articulated this approach more gently in an interview with Terry Gross: “At Apple we hire people to tell us what to do, not the other way around.” 

Ricardo Semler writes in The Seven-Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works”On-the-job democracy isn't just a lofty concept but a better, more profitable way to do things. We all demand democracy in every other aspect of our lives and culture. People are considered adults in their private lives, at the bank, at their children's schools, with family and among friends — so why are they suddenly treated like adolescents at work? Why can't workers be involved in choosing their own leaders? Why shouldn't they manage themselves? Why can't they speak up — challenge, question, share information openly?”

With Teams and ventures i have managed, i have found that this approach always works — and gets people to be happy about coming in on Monday mornings. The other, more common, approach has people always scouting for another job.

Speed -- the mantra of modern business -- Part 2

While speed is a fact of life in many businesses, it appears to be causing havoc in the lives of individuals.

The psychologist Stephanie Brown writes, in Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster -- and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down — “I live and work in Silicon Valley, the heart of technology innovation and revolution over the last thirty years….As I’ve observed our culture over the last twenty years, I see that society has lost control. Society as a whole, and the people who make up society, now look and sound like addicts. People are out of control in their drive for speed.”

Multiple studies such as the 2016 ILO report on Workplace Stress tell us that workplace stress caused, among other things, by the speed at which work is expected to be done, is leading to not just burnout but also cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal disorders. While the research on this is fairly nascent, what it all points to is clear — our speedy lifestyle is damaging our health.

There is also another effect. As more and more gets added to the mix of things, we also have come to believe that multi-tasking is a skill to cultivate. But, research tells us that multi-tasking has a cognitive switching cost, and leads to distraction that causes falls in IQ that are twice that seen in marijuana smokers. Moreover, as Stanford Professor Anthony Wagner concludes (after a study over 11 years),“multitasking isn’t efficient.”

In other words, the operating norm at work, speed, is leading to ill-health and impacting well-being.

What do we do? While mindful contemplation that aims to put things in perspective through periods of daily retreat does help, a powerful way to address this is to practically trim our lifestyle a bit.

In one of the many insightful sections of Good to Great, Jim Collins points out that “most of us lead busy but undisciplined lives. We have ever-expanding “to do” lists, bring to build momentum by doing, doing, doing — and doing more.” Jim asks — “Do you have a “to do” list? Do you also have a “stop doing” list?” This is not a new idea with roots stretching back to Vilfredo Pareto who, in the late 1909, published his 80/20 theory based on studies of wealth distribution. i think a key lies in this.

Pareto’s 80/20 lens presents us with a view of life where twenty percent of causes lead to eighty percent of the results. Put plainly, for our purposes, we would do well to identify the vital few in the workplace and dedicate our focus to these alone. We could extend this beyond the workplace and say the same thing — focus on the vital few and leave the rest be. When we are selective about what we do, about where our energies will flow, we establish a narrow field of focus — a field that consists of what we believe to be of importance to our work, and our lives. However much the speeding world may scream, we do not overload. This is also a barricade against distractions and helps reduce multitasking. We also make a shift from being busy to being productive. Robert J Sawyer writes in Calculating God that “learning to ignore things is one of the great paths to inner peace.” i would say that, in our times, “learning what to ignore and ignoring it” is vital for inner peace and effectiveness.

Speed -- the mantra of modern business -- Part I

One of the consistent questions i have seen in workplaces over the past decade is “How soon can you get it done?” There are variants to this — “How soon can we do this?”, “How quickly can we go to market?” and so on. It is clear that speed has become a dominant feature of life in business — and possibly, in other facets of life too.

During a 2016 panel conversation at Davos, leading CEOs made the following statements —

“Speed is the new currency of business.”

“The future belongs to the fast.”

You can always go faster than you think you can”

“….I don’t feel that we are moving fast enough.”

The American philosopher Abraham Kaplan writes in The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioural Science“Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” While i understand that speed is an essential ingredient in business, i also wonder if speed has become our hammer.

Has reality really quickened?

In a 2015 article examining The Creed of Speed, the Economist takes the position that while “The speed with which ideas zip around the world has increased”, “other measures suggest sloth, not celerity.” Though people speak of business speeding up, “the figures suggest they are largely talking guff.” What is happening is that the “abundance of information” and advances in communication technologies are creating an “illusion of acceleration” that is largely “a cloak of hyperactivity.”

This could be argued against. Chances are that the need for speed differs across industries, across functions, and also depends on the competitive landscape or the market one is in.

There is also another angle to this that Yuval Noah Harari brings up in Homo Deus. “Knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless. But knowledge that changes behaviour quickly loses its relevance. The more data we have and the better we understand history, the faster history alters its course, and the faster our knowledge becomes outdated….Today our knowledge is increasing at breakneck speed, and theoretically we should understand the world better and better, But the very opposite is happening. Our new-found knowledge leads to faster economic, social and political changes; in an attempt to understand what is happening, we accelerate the accumulation of knowledge, which leads only to faster and greater upheavals. Consequently we are less and less able to make sense of the present or forecast the future.” This is an interesting idea. Though we know more, accumulate more data, and have more tools to work on data, we are less able to forecast. If this is so, a constant strategic response to this would be speed. The quicker we are, the more nimble we are, the better placed we are to navigate in an environment of immense unpredictability.

This means that even though speed causes more complexity, more wrong-turns, waste (energy and resources), and adds to the unpredictability — it becomes the operating norm.

This does not mean success is guaranteed to the speedy. Missing the bus has undesirable consequences. But so does showing up at the bus-stop on a day when there is no bus service. Companies that consistently create value are not necessarily those who run faster but those whose leaders have also mastered the the art of timing. And as the future gets more foggy, this art acquires greater value. Having said that, this does not diminish the case for speed being the operating norm. Better early than late or never.

Peter Drucker's prescience -- "managing" others and ourselves

In a 1992 HBR essay, Peter Drucker observed that we are in an age of profound transformation where “knowledge is the primary resource for individuals and for the economy overall.” Conventional factors of wealth and production (Land, Labour and Capital), will not vanish but “become secondary.” Ever the humble scholar, Peter was conscious that it would be impossible to accurately predict what kind of a society will emerge from this period of transformation but he was confident that the changes we would do well to make were already evident.

The two primary changes Peter saw are about the ways we “manage” others and ourselves.

“Managing” others

In Management Challenges for the 21st Century, published just before the dawn of this century, Peter points out that “"employees" have to be managed as "partners"--and it is the definition of a partnership that all partners are equal.“  In my work consulting, training, and coaching, i find this is probably the biggest and hardest challenge that individuals and organisations are wrestling with. Even in Information Technology Teams that proclaim to anchor themselves to the Agile way in projects, i find that our habits of management have yet to change. It is indeed interesting to see Scrum Teams where “tasks are allocated” and Project “Managers” operate with a “command-and-control” approach that is far removed from the “partnership” spirit that is at the heart of the Agile thinking — a thinking that Peter subscribed to with his view that workers (seen as partners) “cannot be ordered” .

Summarising research and insights from the trenches of some of the most innovative organizations in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink identified “autonomy” as the most important of three factors that are key to motivation. Autonomy is not, as Daniel explains, “the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice — which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others.” The prophetic Peter foresaw that the emerging era is one where people will seek greater autonomy and prefer “to be led, not managed.” This calls for a significant shift in the approach to management — something we are struggling with.

One of the consequences of not fundamentally changing our approach to working with people is increased workplace disengagement. Gallup’s 2017 State of the Global Workplace report presents the eye-popping conclusion that 85% of employees are disengaged. This new global norm translates to, among other things, direct productivity losses and fragile loyalty. The Forbes-Silk Road 2018 Report articulates employee engagement’s central role for firms to succeed in “the Age of Digital Disruption”. About two-thirds of CFOs surveyed indicating that their firms are having a hard time retaining the employees they want. “Eight out of 10 high-turnover firms say that more than a quarter of their company’s labor costs go to unwanted turnover, with three out of 10 saying that employee churn eats up more than half of total labor costs.” This excludes the cost of productivity losses and losses owing to impact on customer-experience. Organisations with low employee-turnover report fair pay, environments that empower, and training opportunities on the job as factors that help retain and engage their people. While remuneration is a factor, creating “environments that empower” (an idea right out of Peter Drucker’s mind) is key. It is imperative that we change the way we “manage” others.

“Managing” ourselves

Peter was alive to the fact that, more often than not, organizations are slow to change because when faced with turbulent change, individuals “act with yesterday’s logic.” In 2005, as the Knowledge Revolution was sweeping around the world, he called on each of us to embrace a new personal ethos — “to learn to manage ourselves….learn to develop ourselves….to place ourselves where we can make the greatest contribution.” In other words, each of us would do well to actively create conditions for our growth by continuously learning, and seeking fulfilling ponds that give us room to put our capabilities to meaningful use. The wise Peter’s powerful advice is that each of us must “think and behave like a chief executive officer” of our lives. Daniel Pink’s remark is a hat tip to Peter — “This era doesn't call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.” Each of us is not a pawn but a player with potential to actively change ourselves and, consequently, the fate of the game.

A significant part of this new ethos is acting on the reality that Peter discerned a long time ago. Any organization, to be genuinely successful, “has to be an organization of equals, of colleagues and associates” without “any inherent superiority or inferiority” and a culture of relationships that is the opposite of “boss and subordinate.”

This idea of taking sole responsibility for our careers (indeed, our lives) while genuinely working for the good of the collective is Peter Drucker’s message for our times. The state of the world today provides ample evidence that we would do well to act on this wisdom.