It is time for business leaders to shed myths of the past, question conventional wisdom, and rethink their views on powerful personal leadership, and leading the organisation.
For the first time in history, knowledge is free and abundant, ordinary people are more empowered than ever before, and almost every boundary to communication has been lifted. The world’s largest taxi company owns no cars and employs no drivers directly. The world’s largest hotel service owns no properties and employs no housekeeping or room service staff. Communication has been Whatsapped, memories Instagrammed, jobs Bangalored, and life itself Facebooked. Almost everything we knew as normal in both business and social life has changed dramatically in the last 10-15 years.
Welcome to the 21st Century where everyone and everything is connected 24/7, and where exciting progress opportunities and daunting challenges coexist. In this century, life and business have become “open source”. In order to succeed and thrive, our thoughts and actions must also become open source. It is time for business leaders to shed myths of the past, question conventional wisdom, and adopt “open source thinking” around the following fundamental questions/challenges:
Powerful Personal Leadership
- How must leadership be redefined/reincarnated in the open source era?
- What style of leadership is best for creating breakthrough success in today’s environment?
Leading the Organisation
- How to inspire, manage, measure, and reward performance at a time when a significant section of the workforce is opting for free agency rather than traditional full-time employment?
- How can organisations innovate quickly and more often, and create a pipeline of future visionary leaders at the same time?
Powerful Personal Leadership
Most people agree that leadership is the art of influencing others using an appropriate mix of interpersonal skills and authority. As a result, the focus of leadership development has historically been on skill and personality development; someone, in a position of authority, has automatically deemed a leader. And this is exactly where the problem lies.
Despite the billions spent each year on leadership development, great leadership remains scarce around the world. In my opinion, it is because of the flawed manner in how we define and understand leadership in the first place. Leadership is neither about skills and personality, nor about position, title, or authority. Leadership is about having a burning desire to create a better future. While this has always been true, it is more so now because of the unprecedented times we find ourselves in. Unless we redefine leadership away from influencing others using positions of power to the pursuit of a better future, we will neither be able to exploit opportunities nor solve challenges posed by the open source era.
However, there is one big problem with viewing leadership as a burning desire to create a better future: any attempt to do so encounters stiff resistance. Most people want to be liked and accepted by society, so they avoid doing anything that makes them unpopular. But leadership usually requires one to be prepared for loneliness and unpopularity to create a better future. Often, this loneliness and unpopularity (caused by resistance) continue for very long periods of time. In the case of Nelson Mandela, it carried on for 27 years in prison. Gandhi fought for freedom and equality all his life, only to be assassinated by one of his own countrymen. Both chose a path of struggle, fully cognizant of the dangers involved. The main ingredient of leadership is to have enough intrinsic strength to keep going until a better future is created. I call this long-lasting intrinsic strength leadership energy, which can only be obtained through deep clarity and conviction of values and purpose.
Instead of seeking universal popularity and acceptance, great leaders declare their values and purpose to the world at large and hope that even though there will be great resistance to change, enough people will eventually support it to gain momentum.
While it sounds easy, in reality, it is very hard to become crystal clear about one’s values and purpose, and even harder to live a life of values and purpose. As human beings, there is a natural tendency to always seek comfort and social acceptance instead of hardship and unpopularity, so most of us don’t even try. Consequently, the leadership development industry also takes the easy way out by focusing on teaching on-the-surface skills. More than ever before, it is time to redefine leadership as the art of harnessing human energy towards the creation of a better future, and to refocus leadership development investments towards helping individuals uncover their leadership energy.
Another grossly misunderstood aspect of personal leadership has to do with leadership styles. On one hand, most leadership literature idealises the virtues of democratic, all-inclusive leadership. On the other hand, you see the likes of Steve Jobs and Lee Kuan Yew who created history by doing the exact opposite. So, which one holds true? We asked approximately 16,000 people in 28 countries what they thought. One of the questions required respondents to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with the following statement: “In order to drive unprecedented success for the organisation in today’s fast-paced environment, a significant amount of top-down leadership is required.” Without exception, an overwhelming majority of respondents in each of our 28 countries agreed or strongly agreed. According to this data, the Steve Jobs and Lee Kuan Yew phenomenon is not an anomaly. While involving and engaging people’s hearts and minds is vitally important in today’s complex and highly competitive world, visionary leaders need to draw a fine line between being inclusive and democratic on one hand, and staying true to their vision on the other.
But wait, even though the data says one needs to be autocratic, will people let a leader get away with autocratic, top-down behaviour? How can anyone be autocratic in the age of social media and the empowerment of ordinary people? It is very possible, but to do so, leaders must master the four keys of positive autocracy:
- Earn the right to be autocratic. Always live the right values and pursue a worthy purpose. People must have no doubt in their minds about who you are and what you stand for. Only if you build a solid reputation of being a better future creator using the right values, will you earn the right to be
- Master the dance of the naked autocrat. Since every word and action of a leader is in full and open view these days, s/he needs to be autocratic about her values and purpose, and at the same time, be humble and respectful with people. It is a delicate dance of seemingly opposing ideas, but s/he must master it.
- Provide freedom within a framework. Allow people to make values-based decisions, and not box them into bureaucratic rules and policies. As long as people don’t deviate from the common purpose of the organisation while living the values, they ought to be free to make whatever decisions they think are
- Listen, learn, and reflect continuously. The work of leadership is intricate. On the one hand, leaders need to be autocratic about their values, purpose, and vision. On the other hand, the speed with which change happens renders a lot of ideas and concepts obsolete in no time. Given the backdrop, leaders today must listen, learn, and reflect regularly to ensure that their values and purpose are still relevant. Again, this is a delicate balancing act that needs to be
In other words, leaders must realise that in the open source era, their lives are an open book. They must live their lives in a way that matches their stated values and purpose all the time, with no exceptions.
Leading the Organisation
It is standard practice in most organisations to encourage all employees to write stretch (above and beyond) goals each year. However, the method completely ignores the universal Pareto principle, which has held true for over 100 years. In 1906, Wilfredo Pareto told us that 80 percent of effects are the result of 20 percent of causes. When it comes to organisational performance, a derivative of the 80:20 Pareto principle is the 20:60:20 rule where 20 percent of workers are top performers, 60 percent are average, and 20 percent are low performers. As such, only 20 percent of workers actually achieve stretch goals. This does not suggest that the middle 60 and bottom 20 percent are shirkers or incompetent; their needs are different. Work is not their only means of self-expression. In today’s age of uber-connectivity-enabled gig economy, ordinary people have a lot of choices about when and how they want to work.
In the open source era of choices and freedom, why not allow people to choose where they want to be on the20:60:20 bell curve? Why not set minimum instead of stretch goals, and make it clear what the consequences will be? If someone wants to go above and beyond (and 20 percent will), let them come forward and do so. If someone wants to just do average or minimum work, so be it as long as they do it efficiently and are happy with average/minimum rewards as well.
The traditional view of innovation is one of secrecy. Typically, the R&D department spends time and money in isolated incubators to produce new products and solutions. In today’s age of breakneck speed, this might be woefully inadequate. To survive, organisations need quicker and more frequent innovation. One way to do so is to use crowdsourcing, internally and externally. A few years ago, GE aviation did just that. They ran a global contest for designs to reduce the weight of engine brackets by 30 percent and offered a prize of US$20,000 for the best design. To their surprise, the winning design came from a small town in Indonesia, which reduced the weight by a whopping 84 percent. Now, how’s that for exceeding your innovation KPI by 180 percent at the cost of just $20K? And who would have thought that the world’s biggest aviation giant based in Cincinnati, Ohio, would achieve such a breakthrough for so little, and more importantly from small-town Indonesia? Open source leadership enables the democratisation of innovation by crowdsourcing it, thereby significantly increasing the chances of success.
In summary, traditional industrial-age thinking requires a massive upgrade to meet the open source era head-on. We can be sure of one thing – the pace of change will only accelerate. Those that can adapt their own thinking and the culture of their organisations will survive and thrive. Being a lone voice is hard, but burying your head in the sand and doing nothing about the changing world around us is not an option.
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