Charlie Parker, a genius when it comes to the saxophone, once said, “Jazz comes from who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.”
Charlie was spot-on - at least when it comes to leadership… I wouldn’t know about jazz!
Leadership is about who you are. It is about character. It is about looking inwards in order to lead outwards. The source of leadership is within rather than a set of external skills. The best leaders are those who know themselves, know their strengths and play to those strengths. They understand something of the connected, relational and paradoxical nature of the world in which they live and lead. They embrace change as an opportunity rather than a threat and they remain humble, lifelong learners who find wisdom in the small, the simple and the overlooked.
Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine and member of the Global Business Network, writes in Rethinking the Future that, “The network economy is reshaping and revolutionizing every sector of business” (p258). In this network economy, or what we at TomorrowToday refer to as the ‘Connection Economy’, relationship forms the core organizing principle. It represents a fundamental shift in the way we think about the world and in how we understand leadership. For leaders to grasp this and begin translating it into tangible corporate practice is in essence to plot true north in navigating the future. Smart leaders will be those who are able to create and build process and relationship into the very DNA of their company. They will change what they pay attention to in the organization. They will focus on things more fundamental to strong relationships and will be attentive to the workplace’s capacity for healthy relationships in addition to its organizational form in terms of tasks, functions, span of control, and hierarchies. Smart leaders will need to become savvy about how to foster relationships and participate in networks as a means of nurturing growth and development.
In the Connection economy the competitive edge is not situated in business efficiencies but rather is found in the quality of the connections – both external and internal connections. The so-called ‘war for Talent’ is a prime example of this shift in where competitive advantage is to be found. Business efficiency is important but it is now taken as a given – if you are not efficient, you are simply not in the game.
So just what will it take to lead in a connection economy? Well here at least are 11 practical pointers as to what it takes:
- Value relationships more than transactions - In the new economy, relationships will ultimately be more important than transactions. In other words, a fundamental understanding that in this connection economy, relationship transcends transaction. Whilst efficient, cost effective transactions remain important business practices, more will be required in tomorrow’s world. The customer will demand relationship and that is what will determine loyalty and create word of mouth sales.
- Listen to customers, staff, suppliers, others…really listen! The individual now has unprecedented power to ‘create noise’. If you don’t listen or take feedback seriously, you might just find yourself dealing with a social media storm that is virtually impossible to control. Given how the rules of the game have changed when it comes to the broadcasting of information and opinion, how we listen also needs to change. I know of many influential companies where their ‘listening skills’ lag their other efficiencies and competencies. It is an imbalance that will need to be addressed urgently given the influence and impact of social media in today’s context.
- Ensure reliable feedback (of course this is another way of saying really listen) is not only gathered but is acted on or synthesised. All growth, be that in the biological world or that of organisations, occurs through what has been described as the ‘feedback loop’: Action – Feedback – Synthesis. Without feedback there can be no growth - assuming of course it is incorporated into new actions. What systems do you as a leader have in place whereby you can benefit from reliable feedback? The tragedy is that many leaders have either intentionally or unintentionally placed themselves above direct feedback on their own performance. Yes, there is a close focus on delivery when it comes to the bottom line but beyond that focus there is little else. Sometimes this means that delivery comes at a high price- one that goes unnoticed until it is too late.
- Who you are matters most. Who you are (character) and how you live (behaviour) must be aligned and are important. The emphasis in leadership development and education is slowly reflecting this swing in understanding leadership as not merely a set of skills but rather as being about character. How you develop character differs sharply from how you develop necessary skill-sets. There is more said about the importance of emotional intelligence and slowly the realization is dawning on the work needed to secure fitness in such areas of leadership. In my opinion more can and should be done in this area and those responsible (business schools and internal leadership programmes) need to be bolder and more intentional in this area. Progress in this area can be held back by current decision-makers who have been schooled in a different context and who fail to grasp the shift that has taken place.
- Understand paradox. Paradox is part of life and business. Understand it (as opposed to trying to resolve it), work with it and learn from it. Examples of some of the paradoxical forces at work would include: global v local, big v small, relational v technological (for some this represents a paradox but for a younger generation it isn’t), centralised v decentralised. Contemporary leaders are required to lead in a world of paradox. Your only defence in such a context is to arm yourself with frameworks that will allow you to understand the paradox at play. Generational Theory would be a good example of such a framework. It doesn’t answer every question but it does provide some profound insights as to the generational paradoxes you will encounter within your professional (and personal) environments.
- Imprint adaptability. Business growth comes about not through planning but through adapting. Adapting becomes the new way of living and of changing. (In a predicable, ordered world, planning was possible. No longer is this the case given the systemic nature of the world in which we do business. Systems theory holds that the more complex the system, the less predictable it becomes.) Delete (or perhaps shred) the elaborate plans that stretch beyond even where the Starship Enterprise has ventured and rather focus on ensuring that the inherent capacity for adaptation is imprinted throughout your business.
- Change from Controller to Collaborator - In a relational and networked world, leadership is no longer about control but rather about collaboration. This of course is far from simple but there is a lot being said, studied and written about the need for collaboration and it is something that ‘won’t go away’. Expect to see more on this subject and expect the ‘volume to get louder’! Leaders need to understand that influence is now the new frontier of leadership. Thanks to the reality of social technologies, leaders can no longer expect to control the conversation. However, you can and must influence the conversations taking place that are of concern to you.
- Invite participation, create ownership at every level. Make a note of this point. Write it some place where it will shout at you daily. Look at it and think about how you can do it. Invitational leadership suggests that it is a leader’s responsibility to create the kind of environment that invites the best out of others. If those around you are not delivering their best, Invitational Leadership suggests that the blame for such starts with the leader!
- Embrace diversity. Diversity is the soil from which the twin challenges of (healthy) conflict and innovation will grow and flourish. Research shows that diversity leads to resilience and what leader would not want a resilient company? However, leading diversity is easier said than done. TomorrowToday, in conjunction with a leading international business school, has developed a day programme on leading diversity. It is scheduled for programmes located in both Russia and Singapore in the near future. In essence we need to learn how to move from being different from each other to being different for each other. This is the challenging road in the quest towards harnessing diversity.
- It will be more important to remain curious rather than be certain. This means that success will emerge from failure and we will need to be willing to ‘try a lot of stuff and keep what works’ (Collins). It was Joseph Campbell who wrote, ‘Where you stumble, there your treasure lies.’ Work environments need to become ‘safe sandboxes’ – places where experimentation and risk-taking are encouraged; places of sheer play. What then are the questions you should be asking that will spark learning and curiosity?
This will mean embracing the marginal, the fringe. This is where the future is. Physicist, David Bohm, once said: “The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained.” Smart leaders know where to find the fringe and how best to manage it in order to create change and stimulate progress. Who represents ‘the fringe’ in your business? Contact them now and set-up a time when you can take them to coffee and explore their thinking and ideas.
11. Become a Storyteller. Stories matter. So do stories about stories. Smart leaders will increasingly be seen as the ‘Storytellers’ within the organisations they lead. Stories inform life. They hold us together and keep us apart. We inhabit the great stories of our culture. We live through stories. We are lived by the stories of our race and place. Look for the stories! Next time you are in a bookstore, browse through the children’s section or if that is too difficult then buy Who Moved my Cheese and read that. (It requires lower literacy ability than any of the Harry Potter series… yet becomes a business best seller!) We have used Dr Seuss’s classic, ‘Oh the places you will go’ in a leadership programme and I once facilitated an entire strategy process using a story framework. Stories provide content; they give context; they bring about coherency; they foster and nurture connection and can be used as a catalyst for change. The work I mentioned that we will be doing on leading diversity (point 9) includes a story component as one cannot explore diversity without an appreciation for story.
For many of you facing up to the demands of leadership some or several of these points may represent ‘foreign territory’. They may represent an agenda or a journey that will require bold exploration or creating a new set of reference points altogether. It involves learning (and maybe ‘unlearning’) a whole new language and new customs. Acquiring these navigation points and skills, unfamiliar as they may be, will ultimately determine whether or not companies heading for tomorrow will thrive, or forever be “lost at sea”.
Go on, take Charlie’s advice… live it! You won’t be sorry you did.