Change Is An Opportunity

When change isn’t allowed to be a process, it becomes an event


It can seem that our news is just a stream of shocking events. Just when you think you can’t be shocked anymore then along comes another sensation.

Since the turn of the century, around the world, we’ve learned that our corporate leaders have illegally avoided taxes, lied about emissions in the car industry, rigged interest rates, sheltered customers from taxes, laundered Mexican drug money, presided over an offshore banking system that was larger than anyone ever thought, forced good companies into closure and destroyed pension funds as they themselves grew wealthier. Collectively, they oversaw unprecedented destruction of wealth and the collapse of the financial system and watched as life savings placed into investment funds set up by leaders of unimpeachable integrity turned out to be Ponzi schemes.

Our spiritual leaders have covered up sex abuse in the Church. Our charity leaders have sexually abused the vulnerable. Our child welfare leaders have permitted child abuse. Our political leaders have allowed an epidemic of gun crime. They have cheated on their expenses, admitted sexually inappropriate behavior, started ruinously expensive unpopular wars on the basis of false information and overseas, leaders have been taken completely by surprise by the Brexit vote.

Our education leaders have presided over exam cheating and sexual harassment. Our defence industry leaders have settled claims relating to the bribery of government officials. Our leaders of public utilities have poisoned customers. Our entertainment leaders are facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. Our leading broadcasters have falsely accused political figures of being child abusers, while allowing actual abusers to commit crimes on their premises. Meanwhile, our sporting leaders have been caught cheating and doping. Our medical leaders have chronically mistreated patients. Our human rights lawyers have been struck off for misconduct and dishonesty while our military leaders have admitted using torture and our service personnel have died through their negligence.

These events sound unlikely, unbelievable, even impossible, but they all happened. Outside of the cataclysmic events of the world wars, it is difficult to remember a time when leadership has appeared more thoroughly and completely discredited.

Maybe it could be argued that this level of wrong-doing has always been there. It’s different now because the proliferation of news channels means that everyone hears about everything. And what we hear about leadership isn’t reassuring. So what’s gone wrong?

In the last twenty five years, the world’s leadership environment has shifted on its axis. It used to be an overwhelmingly male, heterosexual, patient, predictable, factual, planned, white, long-term, Western-orientated, technology-leveraged, deflationary, structured, left-brained rational, broadcast, top-down, militarily symmetric world.

Now, leadership is operating in an inverted, unreal, amoral, impatient, inflationary, selfish, spiritual, irrational, gender-fluid, polysexual, asymmetric, strategically multipolar, everywhere-facing, bottom-up, information soaked, multi-racial, androgynous, fluid, opinionated, rapidly-moving, asymmetric world.

What do these events have in common? Did they lack professionally qualified university-educated leaders? If not, why didn’t they notice what was happening? Were they distracted by too much or too little information? Did they know they were doing wrong? Did they lack the imagination to see the effects of this? Did they feel they couldn’t speak out? Did they think they would just get away with it? Did their size play a part? Did it matter that they were led mainly by middle-aged men? What role did technology play? Finally, is there a pattern here? We know there are good leaders out there, even great leaders. Leaders with integrity, courage, wisdom. Inclusive leaders. Leaders who change the lives of many.

Why are they so invisible? Could it be because our focus and thinking is actually part of the problem? Over the last thirty years more people than ever before have gone to university to get a degree or post-graduate qualification. We now have an army of drill-down, analytical thinkers. We also have lots of data and facts. But how many of the problems above occurred because no one had enough facts? Or was it too much confidence and too little imagination that blinded these leaders to the potential for disaster?

Maybe we ask too much of individuals? We’ve become so focused on the leader that maybe we’ve forgotten about the ‘ship’. It would come as no surprise. The focus on the solitary, infallible (often male) leader has been passed down to us for generations. Whether it’s Jesus or Steve Jobs or Moses or Elon Musk, we’ve been brought up to believe in this model. It lives with us today as the ‘hero’ CEO or the ‘rock star’. This traditional male model has so often been the provenance of flawed decisions.

When we look at all evidence and research, we see that women are better at imagination, empathy and collaborative teamwork. Yes, the argument for equality is about social justice, but it’s also about efficiency, too. Maybe the overwhelmingly male model confused the issue of equality with just another civil right? This is to overlook inclusivity and it’s ability to offset reckless risk-taking by wider group involvement.

Nor is this an entreaty to the group identities upon which Marxism thrives. The Internet is disintermediating ALL relationships not just commercial ones. One only needs to see a family in a restaurant together yet all dining alone with their iPhones. And leads us neatly to another factor distracting leadership – the overload of insistent, disruptive and attention-getting, communications. This diverts thinking to the short-term, the quantitative and tactical and has a negative effect on creativity, imagination, community values and even mental health.

This overload and the speed at which modern information moves is also increasing the levels of impatience from electors, staff, shareholders and other stakeholder groups. There is no patience to take in complexity or even to read and understand. Attention spans are falling. Only the short-term matters. Hopefully, everyone will be free and clear by the time anyone notices the problem.

This leads to bewildered leaders who have no time to build new models of how the world is shifting. They are frequently clinging to comfortable but inaccurate and outdated models of a macroeconomic environment that no longer exists. No matter how many times you drill down reductive thinking to these complex problems, it’s difficult to build up a bigger picture. This is where a wholly different approach is needed – one that joins the dots and parentheses rather than analyzes.

If analysis is legitimate then why not the opposite? Maybe it’s time to have ‘situational fluency’ as a new area of study – the ability to understand and move between multi-dimensional spheres and silos of expertise. This will allow leaders to join the dots across the landscape of reality to create a new global narrative on which a fresh leadership approach can be based.

If we want our leaders to see the problems ahead, we must teach them to use their imagination. This means rejecting the easy logic of over-reliance on analysis and extrapolation based on historic data. We need to be able to recognize patterns more efficiently to see a cyclical rather than a linear model. Leaders have to spend more time preparing for many outcomes and less time on prediction of one outcome.

This also means recognizing the difference in perceptions between a quantitative and qualitative outcome. Something can achieve a monetary result and still be perceived as a failure. For instance, no one is saying the big technology companies aren’t successful financially. The tech lash is not about how happy their shareholders are.

This means that leadership has to be the custodian of the corporate values. This needs executives to have a ‘to be’ list as well as a ‘to do’ list. Values can’t be measured or decanted, but they have an important impact nevertheless. One of these values must encompass an economic vision.

We have created a new macroeconomic landscape which is different than that which prevailed post-war. For the longest period in history, governments have lowered interest rates and printed money to encourage long-term growth. This is creating record debt and stimulating inflation that contributes to inequality and instability. And not just nationwide, but all over the world.

What is our way out of this? By recognizing that reductionism has taken us as far as it was designed to and that the cycle is turning.

Historically, the turning has been cataclysm. It is a test of all leadership that it uses its wisdom to avoid this. History is not a source of optimism. And here, there is a rubicon. It’s not a physical boundary but a philosophical one. Can we – with all our knowledge and facts – abandon the concept of certainty?

If we have the courage to admit we may be wrong and that there is potential for all outcomes, we can finally recognize opinionated certainty for what is – the enemy of true progressive leadership. It is the inability to admit failure that prevents us from studying and learning from it. If there are two thing leaders must learn from all the cataclysms outlined here, it is that mediocrity can be the only provenance of certainty and above all else – change is our opportunity. We must abandon all we know to embrace it.

Author : Chris Lewis is co-author, with Pippa Malmgrem, of The Leadership Lab: Understanding Leadership In The 21st Century.
Connect : Chris Lewis
Follow : @largeburrito
Visit : www.koganpage.com/theleadershiplab
With permission from : HR.com
Magazine Name : Leadership Excellence October 2018
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