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The Leadership Payoff from Sharing Power

February 22, 2020


Sometimes we’re reading something. Anything: a magazine, a book, or an online article. And then we have what’s called a brain fart. An idea pops into our mind, only to stay there for a while, waiting to be exploited, beckoning us in increasing urgency to check it out before it disappears for eternity.

I get those a lot.

Sometimes I’m on the ball and grab that transitory idea, wrestling it into submission. By that I mean I’ve turned it into a productive leadership post worth sharing.

This post is about sharing power.

Not too long ago I read a very good book, but it became a rather weighty read, coming in at some 500 pages. However, the underlying gem was that it sparked in me a parallel to leadership and the use of power. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty has relevant applications to how organizations either foster a culture of shared leadership or create an environment of mistrust, corruption, and eventual demise.

The authors, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, talk about “Inclusive” and “Extractive” institutions when it comes to how certain countries prevail and grow to create wealth for their citizens. Countries that come to mind include Canada, America, Great Britain, France, Australia, and Scandinavia. Yet other countries for decades have remained mired in corruption, inequality of wealth, and squalor for their citizens. Examples encompass most of Africa, much of South America, and parts of East Asia and the Caribbean. Why is that?

To begin with, there’s an inherent incentive for dictators to maintain their hold on power by keeping citizens uneducated, banning elections (or if they’re held they are fraudulent) and seizing the royalties from natural resource exploitation. The Congo under Joseph Mobutu is a great example. From 1965 to 1997 he held absolute control over the economy, driving it into the ground, with a commensurate rise in poverty. Mobutu was finally overthrown by Laurent Kabila.

This was what I’ll call “Extractive Leadership” at work, borrowing from the authors’ use of extractive institutions. There was no call for involvement from citizens of the Congo, no shared leadership invited. It was about rule from the top: dissenters were severely punished and usually jailed. Or worse.

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Of course, this doesn’t happen to the same degree in modern organizations. However, the human propensity to hold power, at least for some, presents an ongoing challenge to learn how to let go. And in the wake of this type of leadership, employees–people–are excluded from decision-making, punished or fired if they push back by speaking up, or face stalled career development.

Another of the authors’ many examples used in their analysis of why nations fail is that of the former Soviet Union, which after some 70 years eventually collapsed in 1991. Various views prevail on why and how it happened, of which we won’t delve into. However, the Soviet Union, a hugely corrupt, highly unproductive and disempowering system of government, had to fail at some point. It was the antithesis of the human condition.

So what is an “Inclusive” political institution?

According to the authors, “It fosters economic activity, productivity growth, and economic prosperity.”

Extending that concept to shared power in organizations, not to mention at the community level, we can basically use the same words. Whether you work in the public service, as I did for three decades, or in the private sector (where I worked many years ago and then in post-government retirement), or in the not-for-profit sector, it’s vital to think of your organization’s end state. And the way to reach that state is to involve people at all levels of the organization and the community.

Unfortunately, a number of Western “rich” countries are at a crossroads when it comes to their long-term futures. Many of the European Union’s members are economic basket cases. However, Great Britain and France, two past juggernauts, are facing serious economic problems (not to forget Brexit). So, too, in my country of Canada. And one would have to live on a distant planet to not be aware of America’s ongoing fiscal, socio-economic and political challenges.

At the core of these problems is people: their exclusion from helping solve their countries’ problems. And the same applies to companies and governments at all levels, many of which cling to the belief that the appointed and the elected have the solutions to difficult issues.

This is the leadership challenge today for those leading governments, multinational corporations, small and medium size businesses. It’s not rocket science. It’s about enrolling people to help find solutions.

Sharing power has its inherent risks; however, the rewards are well worth the risks. And what are the rewards? As a starter they include:

• The catalyst to employee self-empowerment (only YOU can empower yourself)

• The spark to enhanced personal creativity, and in turn innovation
• Increased productivity at the individual and organizational levels
• Improved employee wellbeing (encompassing lower turnover, reduced stress and sick leave)
• Long-term sustainability of the enterprise

What have your leadership experiences been in organizations?

Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked. – Warren Buffett

We Need a Leadership Monsoon of Stewardship

February 16, 2020

Planet Earth is experiencing a whole lot of hurt.

Human activity and its relentless push for economic growth, accelerated by emerging economies that wish to elevate their standards of living to replicate those of the West, is contributing to rising sea levels due to climate change, the rapid spread of deserts and droughts, sick babies and children from contaminated water (both in dirt poor countries and the United States), unbelievably polluted air in China, and the list goes on.

Multinational Corporations go about their business, exacting their conscience-free impacts on communities and the environment. The 2010 Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill and the devastation of the tiny Quebec community of Lac Megantic in the summer of 2013 from a run-away oil-laden freight train, which killed almost 50 people and incinerated the centre of the village, speak to the absence of senior corporate stewardship.

Corporations love to play the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) game. I recall taking a business course during my first economics degree back in 1977, whose title was just that. That’s 43 years ago. Yet the way you read marketing pronouncements from companies you’d think that CSR was the new game in town.

The way to keep the media and citizens off your back is to regularly espouse just how much your company is doing for society and Planet Earth. While there are some companies that are working diligently at being responsible corporate citizens, most could care less, preferring to create the illusion that they’re practicing environmental stewardship and taking care of their employees. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Read my post Are You Minding Yours Triple Es and Ps?

A few examples have been noted above where corporations have caused significant damage to both the environment and human lives. The other aspect is the accelerating race to the bottom of the wage barrel. Economists (yours truly worked as one for 35 years) like to talk about globalization and its ostensible benefits. And they especially love to reference David Ricardo of Comparative Advantage fame, whose theory essentially talked about countries specializing at where they’re strongest. In reality, a surprise for many economists is that Ricardo’s theory was about actually opportunity cost.

However, Ricardo (1772-1823) in presenting his simplistic theory didn’t include a dynamic, hugely complex volatile world economy, where a country such as China operates a state-run, capitalistic economy–a new concept for traditional capitalism. Or consider the massive subsidies that the United States Government, along with state governments, offers domestic businesses, in turn thwarting international trade agreements. The Doha Round on international trade agreements, which began in 2001, went off the rails in 2008 because of protectionist fighting over agricultural imports. The protection of U.S. produced cotton is worthy of a thriller movie. And more recently, the Trump administration has pushed for what’s called managed trade—essentially quota-driven requirements and limits.

In the end, the idea of open economies and free trade is a deception. Yours truly is no protectionist; however, continuing under the pretence that trade is open, that wages will find their natural level, and that national wealth creation will “raise all boats” is highly suspicious.

When it comes to ethical and responsible leadership, regardless of level and context, my two personal principles with which to set your moral compass are:

a) Do no harm to Mother Earth

b) Help elevate someone else to a better place

Can YOU do that?

Can YOU be a catalyst to advocate effective change?

Are YOU ready to be a leadership steward?

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.
– E. F. Schumacher (Author of Small is Beautiful)

Your Moral Compass: The Key to Leadership

February 9, 2020

There are lots of smart people out there–people with high IQs who seem to absorb vast amounts of information and who are capable of regurgitating just the right politically correct statements that get them noticed by higher-ups.

And then there are the normal, smart people who toil away daily under the radar who make significant contributions to their organizations, and society.

This leadership post focuses on the former: the smarties whose moral compass has never been properly calibrated. These are the people who can cause–and have caused–major damage to organizations. Witness the destruction caused by bank CEOs, whose immoral actions and poor decisions resulted in an estimated $2 trillion loss (as calculated by the IMF). These corporate debacles hurt people–lots of people–across numerous countries, not just the United States (though the pain and suffering from losing their homes reached into the millions).

But it isn’t just those in the CEO office or in senior management positions who inflict harm through behaviours caused by a poorly aligned moral compass. Let’s look at two personal examples of how two supposedly very intelligent individuals, both in middle management positions, caused harm to their subordinates and wasted significant organizational resources over many months.

I didn’t realize what I was entering into when I joined the federal public service in September 1982. I was a young greenhorn economist, with a young family, working with a small team in a large organization.
My boss, Bruce, was very intelligent and knew his stuff–technically, as a chief economist. However, his alter ego was one of deceit, manipulation, and abuse of his team. He harassed us daily, and engaged in an affair with a young female economist. His marriage collapsed, his affair was made public, and he soaked up dozens of hours of corporate resources to resolve the problem. The organization’s solution was to transfer the female economist to another city in another province.

Bruce was almost fired. I remember sitting in his living room (in an apartment he rented since his wife had given him the boots) with a co-worker, tears forming in his eyes as he tried to figure out how he was going to redeem himself. It was a bad scene all around. Bruce destroyed whatever team had previously existed, caused enormous stress on staff, embarrassed the executive head of the organization (his direct boss), and wasted countless hours of the director of human resources.

Bruce was smart, but a dunce as a leader because of a poorly calibrated moral compass.

Fast forward three decades to when I was on the cusp of retiring from the public service. By then I was living in Ottawa and working in a different federal department in its head office. As with any large organization, bad managers seem to be able to cling on. A female colleague in another branch sought my help with a serious harassment issue with her female director. Both were about the same age (around fifty).

Mary was an economist, a charming, hard-working employee who only wanted to do her job well and to serve Canadians. Unfortunately, her boss, Margaret, had a reputation for abusing her staff, or at least those she didn’t like.

The abuse from Margaret wasn’t just verbal but in emails, which Mary carefully documented. I coached Mary through a long period in terms of documenting very carefully the abuse and to create a binder with the information. The Public Service of Canada has a harassment policy, but one that is toothless and, in effect, impotent to adequately correct cases of harassment.

The abuse against Mary accelerated over the subsequent months, to the point where Margaret grabbed her by the arm one day in her office. Mary managed to keep control of her emotions, something we had talked about over several coffees. Reacting against such an affront, while tempting, would have been to management’s benefit.

Eventually Mary submitted her very thorough documentation to the organization’s senior director responsible for human resources. Two months later Mary received her long-awaited reply from the deputy minister (equivalent to a CEO): harassment complaint denied. “Go away,” was the basic message.

Mary, after looking in other departments for opportunities, finally found one. The last time I heard from her she was very happy with her work and team mates, and boss.

A sidebar comment to this story: the federal economists’ union was absolutely useless during this entire process and of zero help to Mary. Isn’t that people pay union dues—for representation?

No human being should ever be placed in such a situation. It’s degrading, disgusting and just plain wrong.

Bruce and Margaret are but two small examples of intelligent managers whose moral compasses were not functioning. It doesn’t matter the reason why; the point is that these behaviours should never be tolerated by senior management. And what is especially appalling in the case of Mary is that the organization’s top dog, the deputy minister, rejected her well documented complaint.

When the senior leaders of an organization have poorly functioning moral compasses this presents an extremely serious threat to its existence. In the public sector a department won’t shut down, yet it is citizens and taxpayers who pay the price in the end.

In the private sector where global competition is increasing, those who are leading companies need to ensure that their moral compasses are aligned with employee engagement strategies, teamwork and management development. Ignoring your moral compass as the senior leader will in the end destroy your company.

Take some time to reflect on your own leadership experiences.

Have you ever struggled with your own moral compass?

How would you help a colleague or manager whose moral compass was not aligned?

You never find yourself until you face the truth.
Pearl Bailey

Build Your Organization’s Social Capital by Keeping Good Company

February 2, 2020

Society at large has been hijacked.

We’re consumed with the newest gadgets, whether it’s the thinnest most dazzling smart phone or tablet; the automobile that can find its way to a parking space by itself while you scurry in with your date to watch a concert; a flatscreen TV less than an inch thick through which you think you’re looking out a window; a vacuum cleaner that independently cleans your house. The list goes on.

However, we’re collectively forgetting one thing: it took the creation of national wealth to get us to that point on the consumption ladder. For Western economies it took many decades of hard work by our parents and grandparents. Today, consumers in emerging economies want the same wealth and same gadgets. And they’re working their butts off to get to there. Global competition is taking on new meaning as a result of these new entrants.

A country’s greatest competitive asset is its human capital and how it develops it. That’s economist speak, from yours truly, for educating and training a country’s citizens. It’s a never-ending process, beginning at birth and continuing to the senior years. The notion that people “check-out” of the labour force when they “retire” is bullshit. Pure and simple. One of the huge mistakes made by countries like Canada and the United States is the tradition of ignoring the knowledge and know-how possessed by those who’ve “checked-out.”

Similarly, but at the opposite end of the age spectrum, are young children, of whom far too many live in abject poverty, whether in North America or in Australia, Europe or Great Britain. Canadians, in particular, should hang their heads in shame for ignoring this lingering problem, especially relating to its indigenous peoples: Inuit, First Nations and Metis.

Very few “experts,” whether economists, leadership gurus, business analysts or geo-political observers, talk or write about one critically important aspect of building an organization’s–and a nation’s–competitive strength. And that is Social Capital.

Fortunately, there are a few bright lights who understand the role that social capital plays at the micro and macro levels. I dusted off one of my management books recently to re-read and to reflect upon how social capital can enhance an organization’s effectiveness.
Meet Don Cohen and Laurence Prusak, authors of In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work. Cohen’s a writer, consultant and research associate with Babson College. Prusak teaches at Columbia University and earlier on founded the Institute for Knowledge Management. He’s also the author of the excellent book, Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know.

A lot has occurred in the social media space since this book was published in 2001. However, despite the massive growth and global penetration by such social players as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, they’re still just tools, digital mechanisms with which to connect people close to home and in distant countries, sharing ideas, information and, increasingly, events such as social uprisings in totalitarian countries.

So what is social capital, an expression that first appeared in 1916?

Definitions abound, some quite elaborate. According to the World Bank, it defines social capital as: “…the norms and social relationships embedded in social structures that enable people to coordinate action to achieve desired goals.”

Harvard political scientist and author Robert Putnam expresses it as : “…the features of social organizations such as networks norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit. ”

Here’s my own more minimalist definition: “Social capital is the relationships formed by people to accomplish a shared purpose through commitment and passion.” Hmmm. Not too shabby.

Regardless of which definition resonates with you, social capital is extremely important to how a society functions and, in turn, how it creates wealth to improve people’s standard of living. It’s about connecting across socio-economic levels, age, gender and race to share knowledge, talent, and both similar and opposing beliefs. It fosters creativity and innovation, vital ingredients to the creation of a country’s wealth.

Within the walls of an organization, social capital has an important role to play. Call it the glue that helps cement relationships, in turn spawning the generation of new ideas. However, what we’ve seen over the past decade is the dismantling of the employment contract as the outsourcing and offshoring of jobs has accelerated. In addition the growth in virtual work, with workers distributed around the world, presents a challenge for creating social capital. Cohen and Prusak comment on “virtual social capital” and the role that technology can play to support it.

However, the relentless pressure to distribute work, employ contract workers and reduce wages through bidding processes is contributing to the increase in detachment in attitude and loyalty. Gen Y, in particular, has been whacked as a consequence of the death of the employment contract and the fall-out from the Great Recession of 2008-09. Part-time or contract work is increasingly the norm, not to mention under-employment, for a generation that will one day advance to senior management positions.
In 2001 Cohen and Prusak made the comment on how cynicism is bred in organizations through management’s contemptuous lip service to employees through the use of such terms as “associates.” Hypocrisy, they note, has no place in an organization.

Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to engaging people and treating them with respect and valuing what they bring to the organization. Indeed, just think for a moment on the much overused and abused expression “employee engagement.” The creation of social capital and true employee engagement are tightly inter-woven. And at the core is one word: TRUST.

Cohen and Prusak call trust the “essential lubricant” to all social interactions, supporting collaboration in organizations. Without trust, and I would add mutual respect, one risks the emergence of a “what’s in it for me” attitude, producing bureaucratic games-playing.

So how do you get there?

Senior leadership must invest the necessary time to build and sustain trust within an organization, starting with creating a respectful workplace. One tangible outcome of this is the open sharing of information through collaborative work relationships. This leads to collective creativity and innovation, supporting improved productivity, and finally stronger competitiveness. Or in the case of the public sector, more cost-effective service to the public.

In a circa 2013 economy characterized by escalating global competition, driven by new entrants; the growth of virtual work spurred on by technology–read this as your job can outsourced to anywhere on this planet; and a race to the bottom of the wage barrel, developing and nurturing an organization’s social capital is a very smart strategy.

The concepts in In Good Company are more relevant today—2020— than they were 19 years ago. If used intelligently, social media may contribute importantly to enhancing the use of social capital in organizations, public and private, and in communities.

Take some time to reflect on the ideas and concepts in this post. Then ask yourself this question:

Am I keeping good company?

Space and time for people to gather and make connections with one another are the seedbed and sunlight of social capital. By providing them, leaders can foster conditions that help social capital thrive.
– Don Cohen and Laurence (In Good Company)

Are You Minding Your Triple Es and Ps?

January 26, 2020

Capitalism has been having a rough time lately—witness the attacks from some of the candidates for leadership of the Democratic Party. The financial crisis 12 years ago, originating in the United States, led to a near global financial meltdown. The ensuing economic downturn was dubbed The Great Recession. Workers’ pension plans since then have largely gone up in smoke, not just in the U.S. but also in Canada and numerous other countries. Young people are unemployed in huge numbers in Europe, while in North America their unemployment and underemployment rates remain stubbornly too high.

Environmental pollution from oil spills into waterways and the steady rise in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from carbon dioxide and methane emissions are harming the planet, which while having the capacity to re-generate is not being given the chance. The gradual rise in sea levels, combined with what appears to be an increase in the volatility of storms, presents enormous challenges to governments, ranging from national security to the displacement of hundreds of millions of affected citizens in the coming decades.

What has been largely missing within the hyperbole of proclamations by elected politicians to address climate change and environmental degradation is the recognition that we’re all in this together. Those companies that get it and that are working towards reducing their carbon footprints are being drowned out by individuals who argue that all is fine with the planet, that climate change is some form of witch craft.

Not quite.

It’s unfortunate that one segment of the business community, aided and abetted by certain politicians, has contributed to capitalism’s negative public perceptions. There is, however, a business case for what could be called responsible capitalism. And the best way to look at it is through what’s commonly referred to as The Triple Bottom Line.

The Triple Bottom Line comprises three essential elements, which form a three-legged-stool: remove one leg and a company has compromised its mission and internal integrity. Three Es and three Ps make up the Triple Bottom Line, each with specific characteristics:

1. Economy – Profit: Sustainable Business
~ Economic prosperity
~ Jobs
~ Training
~ Productivity
~ Core values

2. Environment – Planet: Eco-efficient Business
~ Environmental stewardship
~ Eco-efficiency
~ Supplier eco-inspections
~ Life-cycle product responsibility
~ Product eco-characteristics

3. Equity – People: Ethical Business
~ Social responsibility
~ Respect for diversity
~ Health and safety
~ Empowerment and caring
~ Corporate relations

It’s the companies that have top leaders who get it when it comes to acting as responsible stewards for the planet. They understand what the Triple Bottom Line means and are committed to moving their organization forward in a never-ending journey of improvement.

Companies are on a Triple Bottom Line continuum. Most are somewhere in the middle, making half-hearted efforts to reduce their carbon footprint and engage their employees. Profit maximization is still the key driver for the business. A smaller percentage of companies are those that give capitalism a black eye; they step on employees, pollute at will, and don’t give a crap.

The late Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Inc., understood this and earned the reputation as the greenest CEO on the planet. His unfortunate death from cancer in August 2011 prevented him from seeing his company move further towards his vision of a zero carbon footprint. Take a moment to read about what Anderson called Climbing Mt. Sustainability.

Climbing Mt. Sustainability

Atlanta-based Interface Inc. is one of the world’s largest interior furnishing companies, with plants in the U.S., Canada (Belleville), England, and Australia. In 1994, company founder and chairman Ray Anderson initiated a process to transform the company using nature as the model. His QUEST process (Quality Utilizing Employee Suggestions and Teamwork) focused on eliminating waste from cost and measuring workers against perfection. For example, it was found that 10% of each sales dollar went to waste. Between 1994 and 2004, Interface calculated that the elimination of waste (“the savings”) represented 28% of its operating income. Anderson, in a 2004 interview, stated that the company was only one third of the way to eliminating waste: “It gets close to doubling your profit if you can eliminate waste.”

Anderson and his management team were inspired by Janine Benyus’s book Biomimicry. The manager of product development was so inspired that he took his design team into the forest to study nature to determine how floor covering could be produced using nature’s design principles. The outcome was new flooring, which when installed has virtually no waste since cut pieces are reintegrated.

“Everything stays in the flow, the material loop. All of that is basically emulating nature in an industrial system, and that remains our goal,” asserts Anderson. One of Interface’s measures is carbon intensity, the amount of petroleum removed from the earth and then processed through the supply chain to yield one dollar of revenue. The company’s carbon intensity fell by one third over nine years, and it closed 39% of its smokestacks and 55% of its effluent pipes. This was achieved by such means as eliminating certain processes or redesigning others to produce a waste-free, emission-free, effluent-free production line.

Anderson refers to climbing Mt. Sustainability in Interface’s pursuit of sustainability. Understanding how to climb each of the seven “faces” to the peak will yield a zero environmental footprint.

1) Eliminate waste: eliminate all forms of waste throughout the business.

2) Benign emissions: eliminate toxic substances from products, vehicles and facilities.

3) Renewable energy: use all forms e.g., solar, wind, landfill gas, geothermal, biomass.

4) Closing the loop: redesign processes and products using recovered and bio-based materials.

5) Resource-efficient transportation: transport people and products efficiently to reduce waste.

6) Sensitizing stakeholders: integrate sustainability principles to improve people’s lives.

7) Redesign commerce: create a business model that supports sustainability-based commerce

Although Interface made significant progress up to his passing, Anderson worked diligently at transforming the company’s corporate culture and ensuring that new employees share his vision. One major benefit Interface experienced was that it became a “magnet” for attracting talented people as word spread about the company, a notable occurrence in an industry with a poor reputation.

The Triple Bottom Line is not just about the manufacturing industry. All sectors of the economy need to get engaged. One excellent example of a company that has always remained committed to the three Es and Ps is Vancouver-based Mountain Equipment Co-op. Referred to affectionately as the MEC, this retailer of high quality recreation wear has had explosive growth across Canada. MEC’s belief is succinctly stated as:
Count on us to act with integrity. We’re driven by passion, not profit. We continue to look for ways to protect our wild spaces and reduce the ecological footprint of our business.”

As you go about your own work, reflect on how you could contribute to improving your organization’s Triple Bottom Line. In a global economy characterized by speed and the bottom line it’s too easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. This is the primary role of senior leaders, yet all of us need to play a constructive role in helping our organizations be responsible stewards while business is carried out.

What examples of progressive organizations can you share?

There is no more strategic issue for a company, or any organization, than its ultimate purpose. For those who think business exists to make a profit, I suggest they think again. Business makes a profit to exist. Surely it must exist for some higher, nobler purpose than that.
– Ray Anderson
(Address at Saint Francis Xavier University, June 2005)

From Chaos to Clarity of Purpose

January 19, 2020

Do you like a world that’s orderly, where at work you know what’s about to hit you–basically a predictable environment?

Or do prefer the unknown, never quite sure what each day will bring, and not just at work but your personal and family time?

Older folks will remember the comedy show Bob Newhart. In one episode Bob and his wife, Joanne, are going to take an impromptu vacation. Joanne discovers Bob secretly planning the trip in the middle of the night. Your faithful correspondent also pleads guilty! My wife, Sue, of 43 years is far more spontaneous, like Joanne Newhart.

On a serious note, especially as it relates to how we react to unforeseen and largely anticipated events, the ability to become change agents is one of the greatest competencies each of us can development.

This is important stuff. Why?

For example, Gen Y (23-38 years of age) have been hammered due to constant corporate downsizing, offshoring to countries that are hungry to succeed, and technology advancements in communication and production. Older workers have faced the same, though in a different context. The one common skill you can develop and continually strengthen is that of being open to change and not attached to a particular outcome.

British management thinker Charles Handy talked many years ago of “Discontinuous Change,” that change happens in unpredictable bursts. Others since then, including author Nicholas Taleb approached the topic from another angle, using the Black Swan metaphor. However, Handy is down to earth in explaining how to deal with relentless, unpredictable change.

Let’s face it, organizations are messy beasts. They’re constantly evolving to the latest management fad or the new CEO’s vision of the future. It doesn’t matter whether the CEO or president has it right; he or she probably doesn’t. If you work in the public or non-profit sectors, the same applies. As an employee, be prepared for things to go off the rails. Be ready for the “We weren’t planning for that event” response from senior management. Or the whoops moment due to taking one’s eye off the ball.

 In contrast to conventional thinking, working in a volatile environment can be both exciting and mentally stimulating, the latter providing resume-building experience. Younger generations are encouraged to not follow the Baby Boomer risk-averse approach to careers. Indeed, more young people are creating their own businesses compared to Gen X and especially Baby Boomers.

The evolving and often messy management structures in which people often work, typically masquerading for participative leadership, are a turn-off to the human condition. Yet we keep coming back for more. Boomers (the youngest of whom are now 53) linger in the labour force for a variety of reasons, including financial and an ingrained sense of needing to be wanted. Gen X (39-52) is steadily working its way up a management ladder created a century ago, one reinforced by Baby Boomers who obediently followed their parents. Gen X just wants Boomers to retire and to get out of the way. Please!

Gen Y was devastated by the 2008-09 Great Recession and financial meltdown, and has been trying to figure out where it sits in a world of upheaval and mounting global competition. All the while they’re dealing with massive student loan debts and insane housing costs. This was not the storyline to which they subscribed.

As Rafael Gomez, associate professor of employment relations at the University of Toronto, puts it bluntly: “It just took that final knockout punch of the Great Recession to tilt everything away from easy progression up the socio-economic ladder for new labour market entrants or for someone who had lost a job in a displaced industry.”

As citizens in democratic countries, we tend to lose sight of how messy democracy can be. Yet it produces longer-term sustainable outcomes embraced by citizens. And the same applies to the private sector. The alternative is either a complete state-run economy, of which that story had a very bad ending (eg, former Soviet Union), or what some have called (politely) state-run capitalism in China, a country that is rapidly becoming a surveillance state of strengthened totalitarianism.

The beauty of un-predetermined results is the concept of being open to outcome, and which is accompanied by quickly adapting to the change. And from this will emerge the true purpose.

Don’t let the past stand in the way of your future.
– Charles Handy

Are You a Leader or a Follower?

January 12, 2020

Human beings perceive themselves as Planet Earth’s supreme beings.

Just look at what the human race has introduced to the world since the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s: the steam engine, electricity, the telephone, specialization of production, air transportation, efficiency in warfare killing, digital communication, smog, acid rain, and climate warming.

Not much to hang one’s hat on, is there?

Much of recent human (industrialized) history has been predicated on bosses, those with positional authority. Do what I say. Screw up, and you’re toast.

As human beings we’ve achieved a greater level of self-actualization especially since World War Two. Accelerated by the “Me” Baby Boom Generation (53-72 years of age), people have slowly asserted themselves. They want a say in the action–read today’s Generation Y. The gyrations of the labour market periodically slow this trend, in which individuals retrench as worker surplus exceeds employer demand.

The point is that people want to share in the leadership, whether it’s in the private, public or non-profit sectors.

This brings to mind the idea of what do non-management employees offer in the way of leadership?

To begin with, management is a position of appointment. Leadership is a completely different ball of wax. Leaders must earn a followership if they wish to be considered in the ranks of leadership. You may be a hot-shot vice president with 500 people under your command. But if your subordinates aren’t following you, I’m sorry to inform you but you’re NOT a leader.

I was in the work force for almost 40 years. I can count on both hands true managerial leaders I encountered, up to the ranks of CEO equivalents. However, I met and worked with dozens and dozens of true leaders who held no managerial appointment. I respected and trusted these people, and followed them.

Is that weird?

Tell me if I’m wrong. Should I have succumbed to the organizational eroticism of following only those in positions of managerial authority? As political activist Thomas Paine stated over two centuries ago: “Lead, follow or get out of the way.”

Take some time to reflect on your own leadership journey and experiences.

Which people have stood out in your career?

How many were in positions of management, and how many in regular employee positions?

Are YOU are a leader or a follower?

At many points in our lives we’re all followers, and we’re all leaders.

I recall listening to a CEO talking about leaders and public speaking. He nailed it when he spoke about how he saw his administrative assistant in his international firm as a key leader. And he followed her when he knew she had the knowledge and know-how.

How many CEOs can let go of their egos, however briefly, to let a subordinate–a non-managerial employee–take the lead on an issue?

One distinguishing trait of a real leader is having the ability to let go of one’s ego and self-perceived brilliance to let others show the way.

Have you encountered people like this?

Take a moment to share your story.

Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.
– Theodore Roosevelt