Every organization has a culture. It may be a culture of competitiveness or fear. Cultures that pit people against one another are not well-positioned to address the challenges of living in the midst of transition. Most of these organizations are starved for leadership. For leadership is not simply what the senior executives may do. Rather, leadership is how people function within the context of their work. This means that the culture of the company is not a corporate initiative passed down to employees. It is rather how the company functions as a network of relationships.
Since the publication of my book, I have come to speak of these relationships as “a persistent, residual culture of values.” The values persist because they reside in the relationships of the people of the organization. As I commented to a woman who works in a company that is struggling in the midst of its own transition, “A company is not defined by its tragedies, but by the persistent, residual culture of the network of relationships that exists within the company.” To have this kind of culture requires creating a culture for leadership.
This is the fourth of four posts of excerpts from my book, Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative To Ignite Change. These posts are about the transition that I see taking place within organizations in particular, and global society in general. If you or your business is in transition, you may find that many of the ideas and tactics that you used to manage change are no longer effective. You need not only a different perspective but new tools for living in the midst of a global transition of unprecedented proportions.
CREATING A CULTURE FOR LEADERSHIP
What happens when the past is no longer an accurate predictor of the future? Some of us cling more closely to the proven ways of past, resisting the future as a threat to the security that we have built. Then there are people who opportunistically play a different kind of game. They defend the past hoping that it is sustainable into the future. They do so even as they plan to take advantage of the changes that they see coming. Their rationale is that the past is known and is more certain, secure, stable, and comfortable—until it isn’t. Their game of finesse, playing the future off against the past, is no more predictable that the person firmly rooted in the past.
Our world is in the midst of a historic transition. For some people, their past success is an obstacle to future success. They cannot see beyond their own past experience to what might be possible in the future. They continue to approach problems and the function of their businesses as they always have. Their once strong position erodes as their once privileged position makes it hard to adapt to the changes taking place. They wonder what went wrong, looking to blame others or society at large because they cannot see how their choices are the source of their failures.
Many of us are experiencing this transitional point in history as disruptive and disorienting. The social and organizational structures that we have depended upon for strength and stability over the past century no longer seem so stable. We hear world leaders lamenting the end of world order because they can’t see that they, too, are in transition. Like many, they cannot see that the signs of change are also ones of opportunity.
It is a particular mark of this transition that our vision of the future is so dependent upon seeing the past as a predictor of the future. I saw this in particular during the global recession at the end of the first decade of the 2000’s. People could not see the event as a transition to a new era. It was only a painful time to endure. Our view of the future is far more retrospective than prospective. We can imagine what we want for the future, only as a reflection of what we’ve had or not had in the past. However, if we can’t see that the conditions for our lives and organizations are changing, then the path forward is unclear.
When I speak about structure-centric organizations of change, this is what I see. The resistance to change makes it hard for us to see the tension between the two global forces of centralization and decentralization, as described in chapters six and ten, as a key understanding the future. By not seeing that the growing opportunities for personal initiative to make a difference are not dependent upon the dominant structures of the past, is to end up becoming prisoner of our past decisions.
Then there are those who never found success in the past, and for whom the changes that are taking place are felt as liberation to a new world of opportunity. They use all the new tools of the digital age to build networks of relationships and enterprise that are not dependent upon historic structures. For them, the chaos of change that the world is experiencing is fuel for building a future of success that was never possible for them before.
To see change as a transition is to also understand where this transition is taking us. Time is no longer a luxury. Long arcs of development become more problematic. As a result, we each need to be agile and open to taking advantage of the opportunities of the moment. As soon as the change we should make becomes clear, we must take the initiative to do so. This transition begins with a change in our own self-perception. To embrace the future that is emerging is to accept that each of us can become persons of leadership impact right now.
For example, no one really believes in heroic leadership anymore. We no longer expect our leaders to be all-knowing, wise, and decisive in battle. Instead, we are satisfied if our leaders are simply honest and hardworking, not making dumb mistakes that make our lives more difficult. It is not that we just know more now about society’s leaders. Instead, and more importantly, it is that the world changed and the kind of leadership that we celebrated in the past is no longer adequate to the challenges we face.
In the not too distant past, everyone’s relationship to an organization was mediated through its structure. Titles and departmental structures determined what you did and who you could talk to, and businesses operated in a straightforward way. Everyone knew their place and the delegated expectations that came with their role. Enter the information age and the computer, and now the smartphone and the cloud, which are changing how organizations function. They are less structured in the traditional sense, and more open and relational. A premium is now placed on the skills of human interaction. Personal interaction is replacing the formality of structural boundaries. How many leaders were prepared for this?
Where once the structure of an organization dictated a relationship of followers to their leader, now networks of leadership initiators are changing organizations. As a result, the possibilities for an individual to make a difference in life are growing.
Releasing Hidden Human Potential
Over the past half century, much of the leadership literature has been filled with simple, inspirational ideas that provide tactical advice for improving organizations. The problem is that too often simple ideas are not practical. They may have an inspirational quality to them, but at the same time they lack a sense of reality. When I describe leadership as beginning with personal initiative, it is a simple idea that may not be very clear, but I can make it inspirational. Complex ideas, on the other hand, require engagement in real situations to understand. In our changing self-perception, we need to see that we are already learning to master these complex situations.
If I say, “Leaders take initiative to create impact with ideas, through relationships and within social and organizational structures,” I’m presenting a more complex idea that may cause you to stop and think for a moment. This description of Circle of Impact Leadership challenges us to look beyond what is simplistic and superficial to an underlying reality that we already know. Simple ideas validate our perception of the world when we feel insecure. Complex ideas challenge us to look more deeply into why things are the way they are, and how to work within that complexity. We can work through these situations to discover simple, practical ideas that can guide our steps. We are already doing this every day. The Circle of Impact is a tool that can help us do it better.
When I say that being a leader is possible for every individual, regardless of who they are and their life situation, I am not being idealistic. I am speaking about what I already see. I see people already taking personal initiative to improve how their office functions. Others are transforming the way they relate to clients. All these hidden leaders may get no pat on the back or improved standing for doing this. They do it because it aligns with their values. They become Circle of Impact Leaders and their businesses and communities benefit because the structure works better.
Many of the businesses that I’ve worked with over the years have ways of measuring the efficiency of their processes. Few, if any, have ways of measuring the potential of their employees. When I ask them the question, “What percentage of your employees’ potential are you realizing?” it isn’t that they don’t have an answer. They don’t even know where to begin to find the answer. There is not a category of measurement defined as “unrealized potential.” If it is not clear what the potential impact of your people is, then how do you know what the potential impact of your company is? Potential is a question of scale. How do you scale your business for impact? How do you scale the social culture of your business to free people to pursue the fulfillment of their potential impact? This is where we can begin to grasp a picture of the future that is not simply a replication of the past.
From Chapter 12: Creating A Culture For Leadership, Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative To Ignite Change, pp. 187-192.