Nothing is inevitable, except change. Nothing happens in a uniform or complete manner. Every change creates the conditions for its opposite. This is where opportunities abound.
Entrepreneurs understand this and then when they reach a point of establishment, promptly forget about it. Entrepreneurs want to decentralize power in order to create new opportunities. Then they want to centralize power believing that absolute control produces efficiencies that secure the future of the business. Is entrepreneurial ‘creative destruction’ only a starting point? Or, can a business instill the practice of entrepreneurial opportunity-seeking throughout the organization? I believe that it can.
This is one facet of the tension between centralization and decentralization in society. It has grown in intensity as technologies emerged that support personal endeavors and the control of people through surveillance technologies. The context of this global dynamic I call the Two Global Forces. This post consists of selections from my book, Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative to Ignite Change, on this phenomenon in our world today. I have more to say about this at the end.
Organizations In Transition
Organizational leadership has for centuries been understood as a relationship between leaders and followers. The leader, at the top of the organizational hierarchy, leads the organization’s followers through planning, delegation, and influence. It is this structure of leadership that has guided the modern organization through the past century of global conflict and change.
When we experience dramatic change, whether personally or as an organization, hidden weaknesses show themselves. We feel it on a personal level. Fear and insecurity grow. We sense that our organization is broken, and our livelihood is in jeopardy.
Change of this kind is now being felt on a global scale. Turn on the television and we see the flaws and failures of leaders whom we once trusted. Problems are politicized. Lines are drawn. People take sides in a fight for the future. Through all this, leaders seem small and inadequate for the world that is emerging. Along with the diminishment of leaders comes a sense that the organizations and institutions that we depend upon to provide strength and security for society may not be capable of leading this transition to the future
We are at a transition point in human history. The way organizations have been structured is going through a transformation. The advancement of digital technology has enabled two parallel developments. One is the automation of skilled labor. The other is the computing power available to us. You and I have, in the palm of our hands, computing capacity that did not exist a generation ago. This change in human history is taking place on both a global scale and an individual one. The result is that our assumption that organizational leadership is about the leaders and followers is also in transition.
Two Global Forces
Two global forces are at work in this change, pushing and pulling against each other. The first is the pull to centralize global institutions, particularly those in finance and governance, into one integrated system of operation. This is the apex of the 20th-century hierarchical organization, where centralized control for planning and management efficiency is a prime organizing principle.
The other force pushes back through networks of relationships that distribute decision-making and management in a decentralized way. The scale and spread of global collaboration through networks of individuals is solving problems in the developing world, which a generation ago was not possible. This collaboration evolution creates an environment where we both lead and follow. Instead of a pyramid of hierarchical authority, imagine a web connecting people together from every direction for sharing solutions and new ideas and creating change.
In some situations, these two forces are at odds with each other. Hierarchy and individual freedom often don’t mix well. However, both forces need the other.
This figure illustrates the differences between the traditional hierarchical organization and the emerging world of global networks of relationships. They are not polar opposites. They are complementary structures that touch different aspects of how organizations function. Hierarchy represents the traditional structure of an organization. The network represents a social structure for business. We speak of this as the culture of a company or the human dimension at work. It is the relational context of an organization.
Leadership within a hierarchical structure is established by the role a person has within the organization, as seen in the above figure. The activities of the organization are focused on its institutional integrity. Within a network-of-relationships structure, leadership is based on social trust, and the relevance of an individual’s specific knowledge and experience to the current situation. The focus of the network is the impact of the relationships upon the purpose that has brought the network together.
From the perspective of the Circle of Impact, in a hierarchical business, the dimensions of ideas and relationships each serve the structural dimension. Organizational structure is the dominant dimension. Ideas and relationships serve a secondary or even a peripheral role.
Within a network-of-relationships structure, the three dimensions are aligned for the purpose of impact that defines the network. Impact is change. What is the change that a network-aligned organization seeks? What is the impact of ideas, or relationships and its structure?
It is the question about the impact of the structure that separates the network from a hierarchical organization. Take any vertically integrated business and ask what the desired impact of its structure is. Is it to produce efficiency? Or to maximize profit for shareholders? Take any organizational structure, of any kind of organization, and ask this question, “What is the impact that the design of its structure is to produce?” In my experience, very few people can answer this question. My conclusion to what I have seen for four decades of life in organizations is that this lack of an answer marks the transition to the next era in organizational purpose and its design.
The importance of this organizational transition is found in the transition that was described in the previous two chapters. The role of leadership is shifting from it being a function of organizational structure to one of human character and performance. This means that the future of organizations is in their transition to being leader-rich structures. By this I mean, even a hierarchical structure can create a leadership culture where each member is free and equipped to take personal initiative to create impact that makes a difference that matters.
Two Global Forces of Change
Think about the transition that we are experiencing as the product of an increasing capacity of people and organizations to do more, reach further, and solve problems that have been present for millennia. This historic moment of transition is represented by two global trends. One is older, more institutional, now reaching its apex, the other is just emerging to become the guiding trend for the future. I described these two forces of change earlier as between structures of centralized control and decentralized networks of relationships.
The older force of change is that of global institutions of governance and finance. These are the organizations that were created in the aftermath of two world wars to promote prosperity and peace in the world. These global organizations came into being because world leaders lacked the confidence that their nations could, on their own, create a peaceful, prosperous world.
The other force of change is found in networks of relationships, where personal initiative for impact finds its best expression. The emergence of digital technology is a key element in the capacity of you and me, and billions of people around the world, to interact in ways that advance our shared commitment to make a difference in the world. Today, national and geographic boundaries are no longer obstacles to our individual desires to also bring peace and prosperity to the world.
The interaction between these two forces is a historic moment of transition. It is important that we understand why this transition is taking place.
The Force of Global Integration
For the past century, integrating national efforts for peace and prosperity into global organizations has been an ongoing process. The aim is to integrate as many functions of society into a seamless efficient system operating through global institutions of governance and finance.154
As these organizations grew larger and more expansive, their connection to people in the localness of their lives became more distant. The larger the organization, the more difficult to recognize the individual differences that distinguish people, communities, or nations. Whether intentional or not, the system’s impetus is towards a one-size-fits-all approach to the solution of problems. As a system of development, it succeeded in places where local cultures were ready.
The limitation of these organizations is in their hierarchical nature. Whether the hierarchy serves a thousand people or seven billion, all hierarchies are dependent on a small group of leaders to have the knowledge, the skills, the wisdom, and the character to make decisions that are in the best interest of the constituencies they serve. For several millennia hierarchical structure has defined the nature of leadership, where we find a few leaders ruling over their many subjects. The inherent weakness of hierarchy is that it is only as strong as the wisdom and character of the senior leader.
Hierarchy requires order to succeed. To create order on a large scale requires a structure for control over the hundreds or thousands of people under its leadership. To release control creates an opening for individual initiative and collaboration. This is the transition point that modern organizations have been passing through for at least a generation. The world we are living in today is one where the knowledge, skills, tools, and, to a certain extent, the resources for personal initiative, have become available to everyone. Today, institutional control over all the facets under your authority has become more difficult and less certain as the opinions of people through social media can overnight cause the termination of a leader or prominent cultural figure. This loss of control is a mark of a transition that is irreversible in my opinion.
The Force of Personal Initiative
The second force of change is reflected in the native desire of individuals on a global scale to live lives and do work that matters to them and for their communities. Their acts of human initiative operate within the context of relationships of trust and mutuality. The difference between these relationships and those within the institutions of global governance and finance is that these networks of relationships have no institutional mandate. Their relationships are free to form, to grow for a season, and then to recede or disband as other relationships emerge to take their place.
For many of us, these relationships originate online through social media platforms. We gather around common values, shared experiences and perspectives about life and work that transcend our national and cultural boundaries. This is my own experience as a global citizen. It is not that we rally to a global cause, but rather we move toward people and opportunities where our desire to be persons of impact can be realized.
These global networks of relationships are possible because the technology of handheld devices makes it possible to communicate with anyone anywhere there is a Wi-Fi connection. The obstacles to having personal impact in the lives of people globally have been reduced to a minimum. Networks of relationships, as a result, thrive in the context of interaction where we can contribute to one another’s lives. 156
A core principle of the Circle of Impact is that all leadership begins with personal initiative. Its purpose is to create impact for the benefit of our local communities. Looking at this idea in the context of the relationships that social media fosters today, it is apparent that we are only in the first stages of recognizing the value of having boundary-free global relationships. I am convinced that this is because we are also in the first stages of people beginning to see that their lives can be defined by their actions, rather than by their association to an ideology or movement.
Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei aptly describes this perspective of living today. “Your own acts tell the world who you are and what kind of society you think it should be.” This is the transition that is taking place which is entering us into a world far different than the one our parents and grandparents knew. Through the power of digital technology to connect us together, we can find the advice, the resources, and the motivation that we need to initiate positive change in the world.
Many of our acts of personal initiative are done without recognition.
- The gift of a meal to a hungry person.
- The mentoring that takes place in schools, sports, and in youth club programs.
- The volunteering that takes place in local communities through religious congregations and community nonprofits.
- Entrepreneurial programs to train and develop the leadership of new businesses.
- Event planners and consultants who bring people together to raise financial support for local programs. The Structure Dimension—Creating Impact That Matters 157
- Meetings over coffee where community understanding and healing can begin to take place.
In each situation, it starts with a person taking initiative. Then it grows through the networks of relationships that emerge at both the local and global level.
For organizations, small and large, local or global, the character of people is becoming a leadership differentiator. When we take leadership initiative to solve a problem, to collaborate across institutional boundaries or create new processes of work, we are taking action to create a better future. When an organization encourages and creates the space for people to take personal initiative, a release of energy and productivity takes place. The potential hidden in people can be tapped into to advance a business. Instead of leadership being a top-down role within the structure of the organization, this is where a bottom-up culture of leadership grows to define the company or a community.
We are in the midst of a great transition as a global society. The hierarchical nature of global society that has existed for many millennia is changing to one where each of us can be persons of impact as leaders both in our local communities and through our relationships with people globally.
Preparing For Opportunities
I wrote the above words in 2017. The world has changed dramatically in these four years. Yet, the Two Global Forces provide a more accurate picture of the world today than even back then. What are the opportunities that we have today? Let me suggest three steps to help you decide for yourself.
1. Never take any statement or action on face value. Be skeptical of people who present themselves as the expert. Take the time to look deeply into their rationale, the motivations, and the impact that they predict. Banish all tried-and-true assumptions. Question all opinion that is presented as truth. Remember expert opinion is still opinion.
2. Decide what is most important for you, your family, and your business. Decide what you are willing to give up in order to maintain your situation. Decide what it is that you are willing to make sacrifices in order to preserve. There is a purging of nonessentials taking place. Do you know what is essential and what isn’t? Don’t wait to be forced to make that decision hurriedly. The opportunity is at hand to simplify everything. Simplification is hard. It means that there are some problems that we refuse to address, even if we can fix them.
3. Daily read something that is difficult to get through. I’ve spent my life reading a paragraph at a time. The first time I read one of my now favorite authors I read the first 50 pages five times. It finally dawned on me that he was not promoting a perspective. He was describing something he saw. Then he began to make sense. Read daily. Read deeply. Read to understand. Don’t read to be cool or part of a crowd. Don’t read because you think it will give you something to say over dinner or at cocktail parties. Read to discover your own mind. Read to find what you believe, disbelieve, what you value, and what you are willing to give up in order to secure a future life of opportunities. The more you read this way, the more you can be skeptical and not lost. The more you read this way, the more you will know what you value. When you realize what you value, it will open up opportunities for reading that you did not know existed. If you need a place to start, try one of my books. You can find them at Amazon.
This is how we approach the Two Global Forces.