New Normal Leadership
Keeping pace with the hockey stick curve of exponential change requires being deliberate about evolving as a leader.
by Tod Martin
The future is pulling a trick on us. It’s the same trick my uncle once pulled on me years ago when he gave me the choice between a $100 bill now or one penny today and then twice as many pennies every day for a month. Like almost any kid, I immediately reached for the crisp, new $100 bill he’d put on the table next to the lone penny. My uncle then explained to me that I’d just saved him more than $5 million. That’s the magnitude of exponential – or compounded – change.
Too many organizations are still making the $100 choice.
Too many leaders — both at the top and across organizations — are taking a linear perspective that focuses on small incremental gains, often achieved by squeezing harder on what they already know. The problem is that, in a world of exponential change, a linear path is an exit ramp.
There’s no question that exponential change creates a different, more challenging environment. Back in the mid-20th century, when the curve was rising but less steep, business borrowed the term mission from the military. Declaring a mission put an organization on a linear trajectory toward a horizon line. It’s telling that in the early 21st century, the new term businesses have begun to borrow from the U.S. Army is VUCA – which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. This language is one of the clearest signals that the normal everyday environment businesses operate in has changed and begs the question of whether leadership has changed with it.
RADAR believes that “new normal” captures the emerging truth that change and volatility will continue to accelerate and intensify. Equally important, we believe many leaders have been led to think that new normal means things will level out again, and that there will once again be stable times they can get their arms around.
New normal has the greatest implications to leaders, because it makes the role of leadership both more important and more difficult. Transforming from normal to new normal leadership is the single most important variable in sustainable success.
Leading New Normal Requires Evolving How You Lead
Evolving how you lead — you may already sense — is hard work. It’s hard for multiple reasons.
It taxes an ability that most of us have in limited supply, which is being able to
see ourselves objectively. People who have studied and worked with thousands of leaders — people like Robert Kegan and Keith Eigel — help us understand that developing this ability to put ourselves in perspective is how we progress as leaders.
Transforming how you lead is hard because leadership is a curious amalgam, different in nearly everyone, and made up of ideas, skills, and behaviors we may not know the origin or validity of.
Finally, transforming how you lead is difficult because leadership has become, more than ever, a team sport. A leadership team’s ability to become more adaptive requires not just individual change, but collective and coordinated change.
The Power of Looking Up and Out
Accelerating an organization’s evolutionary speed is a dominant concern for leaders. Without question, the ability to get relevant innovation into the marketplace at or above the pace of stakeholder expectation is a vital capability. Regaining a dominant position — like the return of IBM from its near-death episode in the 1990s — is increasingly rare; more often we see companies that miss a cycle or two of innovation slip farther and farther behind, like Motorola, who once dominated the mobile phone market.
What is important to realize is that speed is so much more than faster.
Leaders can learn from Formula 1 race car drivers, who have had to adapt to be able to handle the speeds their cars are now capable of, thanks to ever-advancing technology. What these drivers will tell you is that succeeding at faster is counterintuitive — that it feels weird as you rewire your mind to drive differently. The racer’s first rule of thumb is to look farther ahead — out of the top 1/3 of the windshield. Something makes us think that greater speed should require more intense focus on the road immediately in front of us. In reality, it is exactly the opposite.
The most powerful and dramatic shift you can make toward new normal leadership is to reset your and your team’s perspective, to follow the racer’s rule of thumb and look out of the top 1/3 of the windshield. Like in racing, focusing farther ahead is the key not only to speed, but also to both seeing greater possibility and avoiding potentially
What shifting perspective develops is not only depth of focus, but also greater peripheral vision. It’s about looking up and looking out. And, just as it is for F1 drivers, it is initially counterintuitive. It requires taking in both more and different kinds of information than you’re accustomed to or think you need. For leaders, this means spending more time focused on the edge of the present, where the future is always forming. It means paying attention to industries other than your own — even industries with no known adjacency. Some say it means focusing on how unchanging market characteristics might manifest in new ways.
A great example of a team that practices up-and-out perspective is Jeff Bezos and what he calls the S-Team, Amazon’s senior executives. What stands out most about how this team works is the time commitment they make to developing and maintaining up-and-out perspective. Bezos talks about how he and the S-Team invest a considerable amount of time — a half-day every week and a few two-day sessions each year — in talking not about the urgent, but things that are a few years out. Bezos justifies the investment of time by citing a quote from Alan Kay, the computer scientist who has shaped much of what we take for granted today: “Perspective is worth 80 IQ points.”
However, managing speed requires more than perspective. Leaders also need to develop alignment. When a car’s wheels are out of alignment, bad things begin to happen. The car shakes, a little at first and then, over time, convulsively. The car becomes more difficult to steer, with the car moving in a slightly different direction than the steering wheel. And it causes excessive wear and tear.
An important thing to notice in the Amazon example is that the time investment is actually an investment in alignment. Amazon is a model of aligned foresight. And an unavoidable truth, at any speed, is that the future favors those with foresight. In organizations, alignment is what makes foresight an accelerant. It is the equivalent of an organization looking out of the top 1/3 of the windshield.
Clarity of Possibility
Resetting perspective is the most powerful evolutionary step you and your team can make toward new normal leadership. Aligned foresight changes what an organization sees as possible and exerts itself in several ways almost immediately. It will be felt first and strongest in how it sets your strategy process, communications, and leadership development efforts on a clear evolutionary path. Both experience and observation indicate that these are three vital levers in adapting toward an organization capable of constant transformation.
What these three high-leverage areas — strategy, communications, and leadership development — have in common is that they harness leaders as sensemakers. Resetting the role of leadership in each of these areas helps the organization as a whole evolve.
With strategy, sensemaking pushes leaders back into the role of explorer rather than just decider. What is often confused is what distinguishes leadership from management. Shifting perspective changes how much time and energy you and your team will spend leading versus managing. And most of your direct reports will flourish as a result.
With communications, sensemaking lets leaders infuse a clearer, stronger point of view that makes content meaningful and relevant. In today’s world, this is the kind of content that, within your organization’s internal culture, creates deep, authentic engagement. And, across the beyond-the-walls culture of stakeholders, partners, collaborators, and customers, sensemaking creates advocacy.
With leadership development, sensemaking forces leaders to teach high potentials how to learn, rather than what they know. In Paula Champa’s article Patagonia: Everything is a Story, she’s written more about how like-me leadership shrinks rather than expands an organization’s leadership potential.
Sensemaking — especially when approached as a team with a goal of producing aligned foresight — gives an organization one of the most remarkable assets imaginable: clarity of possibility. Look at any organization with new normal leaders, and you see that they have a clarity of possibility that sets their strategy, permeates their communications, and attracts, retains, but most importantly, inspires leadership-grade talent.
Shorten Your Own Wings
Becoming a new normal leader requires that you evolve how you and your peers lead. In the simplest of terms, it requires adapting in ways that make sustained success not only possible, but also far more likely.
The good news is that you are capable of evolving. With some work, you can adapt in a relatively short time.
The cliff swallow is not so fortunate. As these birds adapt, they’ve had to seek out new places to nest. The undersides of highway overpasses are becoming their new nesting grounds. But this means they must contend with the highway traffic. What birders and biologists have noted is that shorter winged swallows are more agile and able to dodge traffic than their longer winged peers — and biological evolution will, no doubt, begin to favor shorter wings.
Unlike the cliff swallow, you have a distinct advantage when it comes to evolving as a leader. There is nothing preventing you from changing; it does not take generations. You can, in effect, shorten your own wings.
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