I’ve learned, as Joel Barker predicted, that “problems that are impossible to solve with one paradigm may be easily solved with a different one.”
I’ve explored the question: “How might we organize differently if we understood how life organizes?” I’ve looked into old patterns and problems and developed new insights.
Since organizations can’t predict where they’ll need leadership, leadership needs to be something that people willingly assume if it feels relevant in the situation. Leaders need to appear where and when they are needed. If there is a crisis, unhappy consumer, or an innovative idea, we don’t want people operating in their little squares.
As a member of the team, I can go and do my job happily; but if there’s a crisis and I am there, on the spot, I can take on a leadership role. Leaders appear everywhere, depending on whether the circumstance calls on them to exert leadership.
A leader is someone who wants to help. Someone who is willing to step forward and help is much more courageous than someone who is merely fulfilling the role. When something goes wrong, someone needs to step up or step in. You want people to feel that this is a welcome gesture and they don’t have to wait for anyone to tell them.
A major act of leadership now is to create the places and processes so people can learn from their experiences.
When we do something that creates a significant outcome, we need to look at it and learn from it. We can’t change the number of hours we have, but we can take time to reflect with colleagues.
The processes we use now for thinking, planning, budgeting, and strategy are all delivered on tight agendas. These mechanical processes do not bring out our best thinking. They are more deadening, than creative or inspiring.
We need unstructured time when we are in meetings together, and we need meetings without agendas that allow time for reflection.
Impact of Change
We now face two sources of change: traditional change that is initiated and managed; and external change over which we have no control. We are experiencing what it is like to operate in a global environment of events beyond our control that have a devastating impact on our operations and culture.
Interconnected systems are always sensitive. Activities occurring in one part affect many other parts. In an era of increasing uncertainty, new dynamics appear and old ones intensify. We need to notice how these new dynamics affect our people and core functions.
- Employee behaviors: Uncertainty leads to increased fear. As fear rises, we tend to focus on personal security and safety, withdraw, become more self-serving, and become more defensive. We focus on details—on things we can control.
- Pressure on leaders: Because of increased fear, many people turn to leaders with unreasonable demands. We want someone to rescue us, to save us, to provide answers, to give us firm ground or strong life rafts. But not even the strongest of leaders can deliver on the promise of stability and security.
- Core functions: Many of our functions—planning, forecasting, budgeting, staffing, and HR—only worked because we could bring the future into focus. The future felt within our control. When people know they can rely on each other, they perform much better.
- New capabilities: To counter negative dynamics, we must attend to the quality of our relationships. Nothing else works—the solution is each other. If we can rely on one another, we can cope with almost anything. Without each other, we retreat into fear.
Engage in Meaningful Work
There is one core principle for developing these relationships: People must be engaged in meaningful work if they are to transcend individual concerns and develop new capacities. Here are six ways to apply this principle:
- Nourish a clear identity. As confusion and fear swirls about, people find stability and security in purpose, not in plans. When chaos wipes the ground from beneath us, the organization’s identity gives us some place to stand.
- Focus people on the bigger picture. People who are stressed can’t recognize patterns to see the bigger picture. And as people become overloaded and overwhelmed, they have no time or interest to look beyond the moment.
- Demand honest, forthright communication. In a crisis, the continuous flow of information enables people to respond intelligently. People deal far better with stress when they know what’s going on.
- Prepare for the unknown. The military invests millions in developing and using complex simulations that prepare troops for different scenarios. Yet few companies engage in any simulation.
- Keep meaning at the forefront. Meaning is the most powerful motivator. We gain energy and resolve if we see how our work contributes to the mission.
- Pay attention to individuals. There is no substitute for direct, personal contact. As managers and leaders, we need to connect with those we want to retain. When people feel cared for, their stress is reduced and they contribute more.
The leaders we need are already here, emerging everywhere, among those who are stepping forward to create a future of possibility and hope.