“The past is not dead. It is not even past.” William Faulkner
The future of leadership is not its past. Authoritarian governments are representatives of the past, not the future. Every attempt to implement an authoritarian or totalitarian regime over the past couple of centuries has ended badly for those nations. It will for those nations who believe today that this is the only route that they must take. Already the signs of failure can be seen, if you are willing to look for them.
Dietrich Dörner, a German psychologist, describes how this can happen in his book, The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations.
“Failure does not strike like a bolt from the blue; it develops gradually according to its own logic. As we watch individuals attempt to solve problems, we will see that complicated situations seem to elicit habits of thought that set failure in motion from the beginning. From that point, the continuing complexity of the task and the growing apprehension of failure encourage methods of decision making failure even more likely and then inevitable.”
Dörner breaks down this inevitable tendency to fail. An example is businesses that believe that they have an automatic customer base. As a result, they take advantage of their customers with fees and surcharges that are only discussed after the customer has decided to buy. In the past, this was possible because access to information that would benefit the customer was severely limited. Word of mouth between family and friends was about the only way to find out whether a business was trustworthy. Today, information is readily at hand. Trust is still an issue because this new access to information largely comes to us anonymously through social media. See how the buying process for both the seller and the buyer has become more complex and dynamic?
Complexity and dynamism are two of several factors that Dörner uses to help us see where we are now.
“Complexity is the label we will give to the existence of many interdependent variables in a given system. The more variables and the greater their interdependence, the greater the system’s complexity. Great complexity places high demands on a planner’s capacities to gather information, integrate findings, and design effective actions.”
Complexity is how we experience a situation. It feels like a set of obstacles that make it harder to accomplish a task or to be clear about what a situation is. Complexity can obscure reality because we can only see a portion of the complexity at any moment.
Joseph Tainter describes the effect of complexity. He says,
“..ancient societies tended to grow in complexity as they solved problems.”
In referring to his study of the collapse of civilizations, he says,
“What I learned … was that the things that caused ancient civilizations to collapse, that made them vulnerable to collapse applied to us. … the factors that make a society sustainable or vulnerable to collapse developed over long periods of time. These are periods well beyond the experience of an individual’s lifetime. I’m talking periods of decades, generations, or even centuries. … Sustainability is a function of success in solving problems … solving problems causes societies to grow more complex.”
In the presentation where I first learned about Professor Tainter’s work, he makes the point that a societal collapse is “a radical simplification of an overly complex system.” It made perfect sense to me as I saw this beginning to be played out in many of the situations that I encountered as a consultant.
In one instance a community vision program invested a lot of time, money, and community goodwill in seeking answers to a range of community problems. In the end, solutions had been identified, but there was to be no plan of action by the organizing group to implement the solutions. They falsely believed that all they had to do was present the solutions and others would take it from there. It was one of the early recognitions that leaders in prominent positions in organizations or communities often fail because they believe that their influence translates into other people’s actions. Unless there is a direct relationship, it rarely does.
Over the years, I had involvement in local community programs that became successful. They believed that the next step was to replicate their program in other cities. Again, most of these replication projects failed because there was an unacknowledged assumption that “our” program is transferable to any community context. The context is far more complex that we imagined.
The mandate of our modern, technological world is to solve problems. Every business or community non-profit is focused on solving problems. Every government agency, educational institution, consultant, coach, or motivational expert is set on solving problems. I’ve spent my career helping people and organizations solve problems. I see the increased complexity, and with it increased cost. There is a reason why we fail. It is not simply the complexity of our world. We need to recognize that there is dynamism in play.
Dynamic systems …
“… do not, like a game of chess, simply wait for players to make moves. They move on their own, whether the players take that movement into account or not. Reality is not passive but … active.”
See why we can often be blindsided by change. Things are always shifting, moving, and transforming their shape and behavior. It isn’t just machines and organizational structures. In my short book, All Crises are Local, I describe a system as “an interdependent network of functions within a social or organizational structure.”
This network of functions is like a network of people interacting with one another. A misunderstood word and the harmony of the group is disrupted. A member of an enterprise team becomes critically ill and the team has to adjust to the change of their work dynamics. If they can’t adjust, they fail.
I believe that “We are ALL in transition. Every one of us. All the time.” This transition experience is the dynamism of life. In organizations, we organized through dynamic systems. We expect them to function as designed. We set them in motion. They do their part of the work. Then a situation that seemed to be confirmed on Friday afternoon on Monday morning is back on the drawing board. The team, instead of implementing their plan are now in problem-solving mode.
Change is how we experience this dynamism. It can be disruptive and frustrating. It can also accelerate a project forward to achieve greater results than we expected.
The dynamism of systems and life forces us to be adaptive people. Fail to adapt well and we fall out of sync. We feel that we are always running to catch up. With the added complexity, is it any wonder why people look nostalgically back to a simpler time for comfort and reassurance?
The Future of Leadership
As I read and listen to people like Dörner and Tainter, I realize that we have crossed into a stage of decline as a society. Tainter remarks,
“the factors that make a society sustainable or vulnerable to collapse developed over long periods of time. These are periods well beyond the experience of an individual’s lifetime.”
I realize that our leaders either don’t understand or ignore this. They are captured by short-term thinking and apocalyptic fear. They believe that they must take absolute control to manage the crisis at hand. Complexity is not just a function of organizational systems. It also creates its own moral complexity for leaders. Choices become less clear. Knowing what is right and wrong more difficult. When it does, we need to remind ourselves of the values that matter to us, so that we can maintain a long view, both of the past and what we want for the future.
Complexity and dynamism are forcing our world to change. Our society has suddenly shifted from advancing prosperity and peace on a global scale to a growing conflict between leaders and their people. When political leaders blame the people they lead for the problems that confront society, it is a clear sign that the dynamism of the situation has complicated things beyond reason. Their world of perception has become too restricted to manage a complex, dynamic world. This is why we need to focus on connection to our local communities. There we can have a direct, tangible impact as local citizens.
In my book, Circle of Impact, I write about the Two Global Forces. Selections can be found here. What I saw years ago that led to the thinking that produced the Two Global Forces was the growing isolation and detachment of leaders within their organizations. Their marginalization as leaders contrasted with the growing capacity of their people to see what they could not. I realized that the growing centralization of governance and finance in global institutions was leading us toward a global crisis.
This is not the only effect of the complexity and dynamism of the past several generations. I saw it emerge over the past fifty years. The most visible form of this development is the growth of entrepreneurial businesses. This is but a segment of a larger phenomenon that I see where personal initiative is prominent in the establishment of a new business or project.
In most communities over the past half-century, there are people who have stepped up and started programs to support and aid people. They focus on problems and opportunities that in the past, the local government would handle. In some of these communities, this leadership initiative came from local businesses. As a result, there is a shift in the understanding of what it means to be a local citizen. It does not primarily mean that they will run for public office. This kind of leadership is not primarily institutional. It is personal and relational. They set themselves apart by taking responsibility to care for their communities.
This is one of the pictures of the future of leadership. In the years to come, we will see more people taking personal initiative to create impact that makes a difference that matters. It is already happening where you live. Though you have to be away from your computer screen or television to learn about it. Walk the streets of your downtown or go to a local coffee shop or breakfast spot. There you will hear people telling about the small acts of service that are happening.
Another Picture of the Future
As many of you know, much of my work over the past two years has been with people and organizations in Africa. Two of my African colleagues commented to me recently about their optimism for the future of their continent. One told me that 70% of Africa is now under 30 years of age. The other said that by the year 2050, there will be one billion people in Africa under the age of 25.
As I try to make sense of what these numbers mean for the future of Africa and the world, I realized that it points to a dramatic change in how we look at organizational design. It is another recognition that the days of the centralized organization are diminishing. The alternative is to decentralize by equipping young people to take personal initiative. They don’t spend their days following those who perform in the role of leader. They lead and follow with those who share with them a common belief in the power of their collaborative actions. This is how a billion young people in Africa can find purpose and meaningful work. They create it.
Past conceptions of leadership have more to do with managing systems, not leading people. It is a role and a title within an organization’s structure. There will always be these organizations, and always be people who are managers. But the world within their organizations will change as the grassroots leadership of personal initiative grows from the ground up to disperse the potential impact of the organization throughout the territory that they inhabit.
What then are we to do? Here are three thoughts that I have.
Collapse is inevitable. The past century or more set the conditions in motion. As a result, what we must prepare for is to become people who act to restore our local communities.
Determine that you want to be a leader of impact for your community and workplace. Look for ways to take personal initiative to create impact that makes a difference that matters. If the place where you work won’t allow you to practice leadership initiative, then go somewhere you can. Persons of impact in the right organization are highly valued because they make a difference that matters.
Prepare young people to be leaders of impact. This is not primarily an educational venture. It is a relationship one where we mentor one another. We practice leadership initiative together. We put our heads together to see what we can do together to restore what is broken.
To get to the future of leadership that I see, we must go through this decline and collapse in our society. I am convinced that it is going to be hard, but not the end of things. For those who prepare themselves, the other side offers opportunities for impact.
If you want to talk with me directly about this, and how it applies to your situation, contact me. We’ll schedule some time.