A Strenuous Voyage of Responsible Leadership to Reshape Our Future
This is the evolving transcript of a presentation offered at the global RESHAPE20 Virtual Summit, building on my previous article on Agile Learning Organisations. I have mainly added reflections about Responsible Leadership in the second part of the article and sharpened the personal development pathways. The presentation (with all notes) can be retrieved here and the recording is visible here. Please do provide your feedback and comments!
Thank you very much! What a wonderful session with Malcolm Turnbull (19th Prime Minister of Australia) and Adam just now! It is a great pleasure to be here today with all of you, fellow travelers on a journey to reshape our future!
For those of you who don’t know me, I am passionate about personal and organisational transformation. During the last 25 years, I have worked in non-profit, start-ups and major global companies and I have made it my purpose to create better organisations. And I do feel there is still a lot for us to do.
- Whilst this so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution is literally “taking the world by its ears”, our organisations have collectively produced numerous outcomes that nobody really wanted — burnout and loneliness, hunger, inequality and ecological collapse. And by some estimates, more than 7 trillion dollars are wasted every year, globally, due to employee disengagement.
- But I believe there is also hope. The winds of change have started blowing forcefully. This current crisis is bonding us all together, like never before, and is allowing us to collectively reflect: could we learn to make a difference, to people and planet, through our daily work? Can we maybe reshape our organisations to bring forth a more sustainable future? And, indeed, could we save the world and still be home for dinner? Join me on a momentous adventure to give it a try!
Rather than polished slides, I want to share with you a few reflections from the many, many notes of my personal diary that I have written over the years; based on my own experiments, struggles and lessons learned; often facing my own demons and the powerful forces of old mindsets seeking to prevail over those delicate sparks of the new. I wish my personal learnings may provide convenient provisions for your own journeys and maybe allow us all to join forces in an attempt to reshape our future.
A Call To Adventure
Now, without further ado, let us weigh our virtual anchors and set forth together towards the mysterious seas of personal and organisational change, and like humble sailors, ride the waves towards six “ports of reflection” along our journey. These relate to the why — our values; the what — organisations, individuals, teams; and finally, the how — leadership, from purpose to wider ecosystem impact.
As always please do bear in mind this is MVP #1 and as we typically say in Agile: “If you look at your first MVP and you are not sincerely embarrassed; you are doing something wrong!” So please be forgiving and add your thoughts to help me make it better.
Port of Call 1: Values
Alas, before we even set sail, we are already at our first port of call! As Steven Covey suggested: “Start with the end in mind”. If we embark to reshape our world, we should first check our bearings. I very often encounter people who tell me very earnestly that they deeply desire to become Agile or “Teal”, without ever asking themselves the question why.
And that is not surprising. We have created a seductively materialistic and individualistic narrative in our western society, where self-interested growth, productivity and stock prices have become ends in themselves. In a “pandemic of busyness” we have often succumbed to that hedonistic treadmill of money for money’s sake. People start to work ever longer hours to attain status and wealth, just to find out that it does not really make them happier. And in creating ever greater riches, for far too few, we have often ignored ecologic externalities, just to discover that our mother planet is at the brink of bankruptcy and the collapse of global climate will threaten the livelihoods of millions.
So, what do we really believe in? What do we stand for? These questions are both existential and fundamental. We create organisations for a purpose, to achieve something together which individually we could not achieve. I believe that in the future personal and organisational success must transcend a quest for money and shareholder value.
- As Colin Mayer maintained at the WEF this year, the true purpose of organisations is to “solve the planets problems, profitably”. It is not just about profit and endless growth, but also about an inclusive and sustainable future for all stakeholders. Not bigger, but better.
- Not as a question of marketing or charity, but as a matter of morality and justice. Exploitation and inequality are not economic laws, but inherent failures of our economic system. Here I want to strongly condemn all forms of discrimination.
- And in a world where traditional communities of churches and neighbourhoods have been eroded, where scientific management has filled gaps of meanings with a gospel of growth, and where work has become so central in our lives, where organisations are like small states, I believe businesses have to step up. As Immanuel Kant warned us already a century ago: “human beings must always be treated as an end in themselves, never as means”, never as cogs in a machine. Today, we need human-centric organisations more than ever to provide a place of meaning and community, where people can grow and flourish.
Hence our quest shall be to transform our organisations to create greater value, attaining both collective purpose for all stakeholders and individual development and meaning, profitably.
Port of Call 2: Organisation
But let us lay on even keel just a bit longer to examine what such a reshaped organisation of the future could look like.
We live in an ever more complex world — facing ever-faster changes, advances in technology and data, shortening half-life of knowledge, and ever greater interdependencies. As they say, “today is the slowest day you will ever experience” — from now on. Hence, in these New 20ies we need to let go of the illusion that work can be predicted or planned in detail. As BCG suggested, the companies that will win in the 2020ies are those who can “compete on learning”. From a paradigm of “scalable efficiency” that has dominated our businesses since the industrial revolution we need to transition to a new world of “scalable learning” and development. From competitive to “adaptive advantage”, and from closed systems to boundaryless ecosystems.
- The simple truth is that our world has become too complex to be controlled through bureaucracy. We cannot “stand on a mountain top and preach strategy down the hills” to achieve successful execution. Today, in order to thrive, we need to embrace uncertainty and maximise human flourishing at work, rather than just driving efficiency and productivity.
- Hence, organisations of the future must harness ideas from everywhere and create an environment where people can and want to make a difference. Tearing down ivory towers and replacing our traditional hierarchies with increasingly fluid and modular structures — moving from centralised and “extractive” to regenerative and “distributive” designs.
- Where influence and authority is different from rank and position. Where deep emotional bonds of community and trust prevail and employees have freedom to experiment — where many more people become their “own CEOs”.
Yet, more than structures, methodologies or tools, the difference lies in core principles. In Humanocracies, “the business of business is people”. We cannot resolve the future of work with utilitarian thinking, just as we cannot understand quantum physics with Newtonian principles.
Port of Call 3: People
Now we are plain sailing in open waters — on the lookout for our first true island of reflection. Our people. How can we unleash the creativity of our people? How to turn office workers into self-actualising innovation “privateers”?
For decades, we have been trained to see humans as strictly rational consumers in economic markets. In our businesses, we have treated people like easily replaceable human “capital” or as exchangeable “resources” to be controlled. As a result, more than 75% of employees feel disengaged.
Going forward, we truly must put people first. We must re-learn to cherish their uniqueness and design our organisations to fulfill their human needs: their sense of orientation, belonging, autonomy, self-esteem. Success is when every human being at work has the ability to develop, use their creativity and have impact. When agency becomes activism.
- This won’t be automatic. In a world where we are ‘required’ to wear many different masks, our public identity has become disengaged from our inner life and it has become challenging just to ‘be’ with ourselves and with each other, resulting in dualism and tensions.
- Therefore, in deliberately developmental organisations we must help individuals to recognise their own biases and needs, anxieties, attachment styles, defense and copying mechanisms — in order to attain self-esteem and agency, and to grow their ability to work with and care for others, and generate meaning and value in service of the community.
- Our “inner game is our outer game”. Or as Frederic Laloux says: “We can only go far into the “we” if we fully inhabit the “I””.
And by matching desires and competencies of individuals with meaningful activities we can enable “flow”, personal development, and ultimately happiness @ work. Yet, happiness, as Aristotle suggested, is not about pleasure, wealth, income, how many followers we have on twitter, always getting all we can — but a matter of growing our character in a lifetime of personal development, the cultivation of those virtues that make us good human beings.
Port of Call 4: Teams
But happier individuals won’t be enough — organisational learning is a team sport. How can we channel the creativity of individuals into collective organisational learning and evolution at scale?
Now, let me ask you, do you feel you can truly bring your ideas to the front rows of your organisation? If not, you are not alone. Only 20% of people feel their opinion counts and 70% report new ideas are met with hostility! And that is no surprise, is it? Imagination often requires us to operate outside the rules of the game, which is a deeply political act. Blimey, here we are truly in the doldrums!
In my experience, if we want to enable self-organisation and organisational learning at scale, we need to adapt the context for our teams at multiple levels, in terms of structure and management processes, and team dynamics -
- Above all, we need to pay careful attention to distribution of information, knowledge and power. Existing systems often distort or suppress information. In the future, radical transparency should prevail — as the say at Viisi: “Everything is public unless its harmful”. Strategy becomes a firm-wide conversation. In terms of power, central authority does not lend itself to decentralised experimentation and learning. Self-generative complex systems need boundaries, but will be stifled if positional power is imposed. And I have seen many agile implementations struggle because they never dealt with existing power structures.
- I believe we will see more “ambidextrous” organisations that can enable exploitation of the existing and exploration of the new, but it won’t stop there. We are already witnessing experiments with meshed and adaptive networks of teams, market-oriented ecosystems, and interconnected circles in holacracy and sociocracy. Zhang Ruimin, CEO of the Chinese white good manufacturer Haier, claimed that “the future will hold only two types of organisation: online platforms, and those that rely on them”.
- In terms of management processes — organisational learning requires both order and freedom. Bill Torbert speaks of “liberating structures”, like principles, roles, routines, rituals, methodologies — to enable and host generative dialogue involving as many people as possible, supporting both single and “double-loop” learning.
- And learning entails mechanisms to manage tensions — by its very nature, total consensus would overwhelm complex systems and we need procedures to attain not consensus, but consent.
- It also requires adaptation of HR and finance practices. Focus moves from individual high performers towards group dynamics. Compensation needs to correlate with team impact on collective purpose. Influence must become the product of competence, not position.
I envisage that over time, our entire organisation will become a laboratory of ideas, integrating “action and inquiry” into everything we do, to always keep sensing and exploring and experimenting whilst we are moving — in teams and “peer communities” of learning.
Port of Call 5: Leadership
Sounds like a plan? Full sail ahead, adventurers and business leaders, there’s land in sight!
Alas, this story wouldn’t be truly exciting if it was simple to reach our destination. Indeed, with increasing complexity and urgency, leadership has become more difficult.
- Business schools have for decades been training generations of managers and leaders in that seductive and simplistic logic of principle-agent theory. Where a leadership elite who has the power instructs the masses of reluctant workers — who have little power — on what to do. Deploying sticks and carrots as necessary to adjust their behaviours. Unfortunately, to move us forward, leadership must radically change.
In a world of self-organisation, there is no place anymore for patriarchal Commanders in Chief, narcissistically ruling by positional power and dominance.
- Agile leaders “set destination, not direction”. They focus on the why, not the how. Decisions are always made at the lowest possible level, close to the customer.
- Rather than telling people what to do, leaders today need to become experts in building, sensing, caring for and influencing organisational systems; coaching individuals and teams; and enabling co-creation and emergence of shared purpose.
- In such a new world we need Chief Communicators who earn the respects of their people by making personal sacrifices to serve the collective good.
- And Chief Connectors who can create a cultural force field of energy — fostering psychological safety and trust; Reinforcing transparency and embracing failure; displaying gratitude, compassion and kindness.
Such a new “transpersonal” leadership paradigm is more than just EQ — it integrates intellectual, emotional and spiritual intelligence.
- Future leaders will truly understand, with heart and mind and soul, how all hangs together in a “web of life” including their own self. They “lead beyond the ego”, as John Knights writes. Allowing time for awareness and reflection, rather than jumping into action. Letting go to become vulnerable “imperfectionists”. Hearing their “soul knocking at the ego’s door”.
- Bill Torbert calls these leaders “Alchemists” — leaders who can access the magical mutual power of transformation, developing people to have more self-mastery and meaning and providing a “maternal holding space” for “liminal” conversations.
For me this has probably been the most difficult, but also the most eye-opening part of a continuing journey. My job is not to be a hero, or the person with all the answers, but to create a collective context to “presence” an emerging future — as John Quincy Adams once said: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
Port of Call 6: Eco-Leadership
And, I believe this is unfortunately where most of our ships are dead in the water. The maturity of an organisation can never transcend the maturity and consciousness of its leadership. Leaders create culture, with every move they make. If greater consciousness doesn’t operate, a system does not possess the stability to let go of the past and transition to a new model, without losing its sense of identity and cohesion. Hence, leadership is our forgotten SDG #18 and our most important port of call.
For traditional leaders who have risen the corporate chain by being in control, this is a difficult challenge: “what brought us here, won’t bring us there” -
- If our definition of success is going up that ladder from VP to SVP to EVP, hierarchy prevails.
- If we dominate others to uphold our own ego, people around us won’t flourish.
- If we seek to control an uncertain environment with ever more rigidity, self-organisation will perish.
- And, finally, if we try to shrink the complexity of the world to our own cognitive limits, we will fail.
But how can we transcend? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but in my experience, progression requires vertical development, facing our own shadows and letting go of restrictive mental models, rather than intellect or leadership trainings. Responsible leaders, says Manfred Kets de Vries, are not only born — but “twice born” through a process of painful individuation — where every victory of the self feels like a “defeat for the ego” — until we compassionately see all the facets of an interconnected whole.
But above all, I believe it is about tapping into what really matters to us. If you close your eyes and listen hard enough and for long enough, you will understand what truly drives you, what are you leading for, what life asks from you. Exploding with passion, without shame. Loving without measure. Sensing the wonder of nature. Serving others beyond the confines of yourself. Connecting to that essence of who you are and what you stand for allows you to let go of your protective ego, fear and the desire to control. And once you definitely commit yourself to serve a greater purpose, to serve all life — magically, synchronously the world outside you changes, too.
Suddenly, leadership is not a tribe of special individuals with special traits, and not even a role, but about developing the leadership potential in everyone. About people no longer being victims of circumstances but participating in the creation of new possibilities. About learning together how to shape a more responsible future. Ultimately, leadership is an inter-relational “eco-centric” capability — what we, collectively, are able to create. Not by top-down transformation or big bang organisational restructuring, but evolutionary through networks of teams and continual co-creation everywhere.
I know what you think now. That’s utopia. Yet, Oscar Wilde once wrote: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” The truth is that we all have the power to reshape our relationships and organisations from who we are. Wherever we live in an organisation, we can act within the envelope of our own permissions to create energy. We can go sideways and connect our network to create experiments. If we show vulnerability, courage and compassion, and selflessly address challenges bigger than ourselves, people will follow. As Chenoweth has proven, social change requires 3.5% active engagement in any total population. Hence, if we collectively believe in the power of a new model, and if we are willing to become part of its evolution, it will arise!
What would you do if you weren’t afraid
I have learned over the course of my career that transformation is always extremely personal. Through my strenuous journey my relationships became richer, I am more at ease with myself, I have accepted fear and I have grown. But I also had to learn that true purpose is not only beautiful poetry, but also what we are personally willing to give up, or to struggle and to suffer for.
It is about how much we dare to hope and how far we decide to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone. As St. Augustine said: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” And if you are already courageous, but still feel comfortable, make another step!
This truly completes our short travels together. Personally, I was already convinced before this crisis that we had arrived at an existential moment and it was urgent to act. With the current pandemic, I do believe the urgency is even greater. The virus lays bare the frailty of our social contract and the economic lockdowns shine a glaring light on existing inequalities — and even create new ones. Today is a time where we have to occupy the “front rows of our lives” and make choices.
- I believe that through our own transformations we can gradually spark the liberation of our organisations — crafting the structures, processes, and cultures needed to attain an environment for both individual development and the evolution of an emergent collective purpose.
- And, together, our collective works can give rise to a new unifying cultural narrative, a new social big dream, that will overcome the limitations of the social materialism we have today. Where success is not only about money, but compassion, community and character.
- Why will it work now, I hear you ask, if it has never worked before? Because I believe, for the first time in a generation, we are here and willing to look at ourselves in the mirror and see how we are all intrinsic part of a living ecocivilisation that needs change. And to start with ourselves first.
So, let us together show the spirit of pioneers and adventurers and stride forward on this quest to re-imagine ourselves and reshape our organisations for a better future. Let us together save the world and still be home for dinner!
A big thank you to all those who have stimulated my journey to date and to Steve and the whole team and partners for organizing a wonderful digital conference. And, of course, to the over 3500 participants — in case any of my thoughts resonate with you, please do connect online and let’s take it further.
I truly hope I have inspired some of you to pack your virtual seabags and join us on this adventure! If not us, then who, if not now, then when. Good luck and be safe!
Further information here: https://reshapesummit.com/
Please pay it forward and donate to the COVID-19 Response Fund: https://fundraise.unfoundation.org/fundraiser/2769191