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The End of Leadership Development: From the Factory to the Greenhouse

22 Jan

I have a radical hypothesis. Is it possible that the real reason why leadership development programs fail is because we don’t actually need them? Is it possible that we’ve inserted ourselves into a process that we have no business in? Traditional experts would like you to believe that there are all sorts of tactical reasons why our efforts to create better leaders fails (see here), but I’m starting to suspect that was once a small problem got a lot worse when the leadership development industry got created. Let me explain.

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Organizational boundaries are like glass. Employees can see right through them. They will stay only if its a good place to grow.

The best metaphor I can come up with for the future workplace is a greenhouse. Our current management model comes from the industrial revolution in which managers focused on improving the factory’s efficiency. Even today, many companies still focus on efficiency and logistics. They measure, measure, measure, and write reports and we analyze and predict. People are getting really excited about Big Data in HR and the truth is….it’s all bullshit (well it may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient). OK, maybe it’s not ALL bullshit, but it’s mostly bullshit. It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Sure that chair might be out of place and sure we might be about to measure the exact layout of the deck and the size of the chairs and come up with an optimum layout, but we would be missing the big problem…our ship is sinking.

The big problem for us is simply that human beings (and even more so social systems) are inherently chaotic and non-linear. Therefore, we simply cannot accurately predict or control how they will behave. No doubt you’ve heard, “a butterfly flaps its wings in New York and there is a hurricane in Japan,” or some variation. The point is simply that we shouldn’t blame the butterfly for the hurricane. In fact, there would be absolutely no way of ever making that connection empirically (see Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, 2006). And yet, people seem to have a real problem with acknowledging this in our work (known in philosophy as the problem of induction). Now, on a psychological level, we are all prone to make these inductive errors in judgment, but for precisely this reason we should be very careful about assuming the precision of our models. What does all of this mean for our work? Well, a few things.

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We can do lots of things, but we can’t make a plant grow. Only the right conditions and time can do that.

We don’t MAKE the plants grow. We simply set the conditions for them to grow and hopefully they grow. As Woody Allen said, “’Only God can make a tree,’ probably because it’s so hard to figure out how to get the bark on.” People are organic. Social systems are chaotic. Why in the world would we perpetuate the myth that we have any control over the learning or leadership process? It happens or it doesn’t happen, but we don’t micromanage it. All we can do is set the conditions for it to happen. We already know that most learning is informal and yet we keep pretending as if it wasn’t. Or if our little bit of formal learning (maybe 10%?) is actually really, really, really important. Managers, HR professionals, and learning “experts,” have been trying to interject themselves into the organic process because they want to get credit. If more people thought about this, then we could tackle the whole notion of corporate training and development in a completely new and more effective (and empowering way).

Think in terms of effectiveness not efficiency. I have come to hate the word “efficiency.” I used to think that effectiveness came first (you got something done) and then you worked on being efficient (you got the same thing done with less resources). It seems that most people still think this way (or at least the good ones, the bad ones don’t even realize the difference or the necessary sequence). The problem is that reality doesn’t work like that. At least not outside of highly structured mechanical systems (efficiency is important when you are talking about engineering problems, but organic systems are so focused on survival that they don’t have much time left over for discussions about efficiency). So, given this, I’d like to ban the word from our vocabulary. Certainly there is a lot of talk from the innovation and start-up community about “lean” approaches. I actually love these approaches, but by how I define the terms, they are actually focused on effectiveness not efficiency. In the real world, if you are playing the game to win, you never actually get a chance to move past effectiveness; the rules and the structures of social systems are never static or consistent.

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Individuals want exactly what they want. Can’t provide that kind of learning customization? We know. Instead focus on what you can provide.

There is a move towards extreme personalization. I’ve been noticing this trend for years, but this really jumped out at me when I was doing my mobile leadership development research. As organizations integrate more and more information and more and more users they risk becoming more and more depersonalized. If the employees are now in the driver seat, then it isn’t enough to say, “Hey 90% of employees liked this,” because the other 10% are going to feel left out. This means that we need to focus more on building conditions that allow a variety of different individuals to flourish. One of the biggest problems with competencies is that they aren’t personalized. We err on the side of the organization rather than the employee. We need to create learning platforms that allow for the greatest personalization not the greatest “efficiency” (which I shall henceforth call, “the E word”). The greenhouse will allow the greatest number of employee to flourish. They will still need pruning and some won’t make it, but that’s the whole point. We’ll have more energy to focus on the gardening and less on trying to make the plants grow (which only the Universe can do). This also has big implications for technology, but I won’t get into that here.

The problem of induction can be moderated by approaching learning and leadership from the greenhouse, not the factory. I’m seeing more and more talk about Big Data in HR and I think this is a good example of where I think we are going wrong. Fundamentally, we can’t predict or control people, but that doesn’t mean that we should double-down on the “mechanical, linear, conventional, positivist, quantification, measurement-obsessed” approach. I think we need to realize that the solution requires a new type of thinking (other than the one that got us into this mess). A type of thinking that not only recognizes that we don’t know, but that we CAN’T know.

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Big data is fascinating, but Moneyball approaches don’t apply to non-game systems. Even if they did, it’s not like baseball got rid of all their scouts.

Our models are always going to be hilariously inaccurate and yet we keep making predictions about hiring and performance (and almost everything in politics, finance, etc.) and we keep being wrong. I don’t think the solution is to keep coming up with new ways of predicting, but to take a sober look at our deep (and faulty) epistemological assumptions and move forward from there. We can make the situation better, but not by furthering the illusion that we have control (we don’t want that kind of responsibility anyway). This belief in turn actually makes us and our clients more vulnerable. In our lust for efficiency we seek out and destroy the types of redundancy and chaos that all organic systems need to survive and grow. The “Moneyball” approach might help with some small issues, but baseball still finds itself in the same situation it did before (Sabermetrics introduced a new tool, but didn’t solve the real problem). So, we can look at Big Data in HR and I’m sure we will learn some things. Awesome. There is no doubt that these analytics will become new standards, but while they may be necessary, they are not sufficient. Like the deckchairs, analytics isn’t going to solve the real problem. When we recognize that we can’t predict, we actually liberate ourselves. We have more energy and focus on the things that we can control.

We don’t make the plants grow and we don’t make someone a better leader. All we can do is set the conditions. Just because something can be learned doesn’t mean that it can be taught. Individuals have to figure things out for themselves. We should focus on providing the requisite structure and tools…and then leave well enough alone. I’m not advocating for nihilism, but a radical shift in how we think about our role in the change process.

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The world’s medical experts used to believe in bloodletting.

Did you know that the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer, is iatrogenesis? What is this horrible word? It means the preventable harm caused by medical treatment. Think about that for a second. That means that we are killing roughly 220,000 people a year in our attempts to make them better. In fact, some medical historians have claimed that our medical treatments have only recently starting saving more people than they were killing. And it makes me wonder if this kind of arrogance comes from a discipline whose first principle is “do no harm,” then what kind of harm can we perpetuate in leadership development when we don’t even have that Hippocratic foundation? Is it possible that we are actually making leadership problems worse? Is it possible that the solution to our leadership challenges is actually to get rid of leadership development?

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Leadership and Vulnerability

6 Dec

I read a lot of books. Most of them are good. Some are crap. Some are amazing. When I read Daring Greatly by Brene Brown I marked it down in a new category; “life changing.” Among the many great insights she provides about the power of vulnerability, I wanted to share this nugget because it is specifically about leadership.

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The Courage to be Vulnerable

I recently game a talk at the University of Houston’s Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship. The program, which pairs thirty-five to forty elite undergraduate students with mentors and offers comprehensive business training, is ranked as the leading undergrad entrepreneurship program in the United States. I was asked to talk to the students about vulnerability and the power of story.

During the Q&A session after my talk, one of the students asked me a question that I’m sure is often on the minds of people when I talk about vulnerability. He said, “I can see how vulnerability is important, but I’m in sales and I don’t get what that looks like. Does being vulnerable mean that if a customer asks me a question about a product and I don’t know the answer, I just say what I’m thinking: ‘I’m new and I really don’t know what I’m doing?'”

The students, who were all turned around listening to him, turned back in their chairs and looked at me as if to say, “Yeah, that seems lame. Are we really suppose to do that?”

My answer was no. And yes. In that scenario vulnerability is recognizing and owning that you don’t know something; it’s looking the customer in the eye and saying, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll find out. I want to make sure you have the correct information.” I explained that the unwillingness to engage with the vulnerability of not knowing often leads to making excuses, dodging the question, or – worst-case scenario- bullshitting. That’s the deathblow in any relationship, and the one thing I’ve learned from talking to people who sell for a living is that sales is all about relationships…

…In business school, faith communities – any system, even families – we can tell a lot about how people engage with vulnerability by observing how often and how openly you hear people saying:

I don’t know

I need help

I’d like to give it a shot

It’s important to me

I disagree – can we talk about it?

It didn’t work, but I learned a lot

Yes, I did it

Here’s what I need

Here’s how I feel

I played a part in that

I accept responsibility for that

I’m here for you

I want to help

Let’s move on

I’m sorry

That means a lot to me

Thank you

For leaders, vulnerability often looks and feels like discomfort. In his book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, Seth Godin writes, “Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead. This scarcity makes leadership valuable…It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers. It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail. It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo. Its uncomfortable to resit the urge to settle. When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed. If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.”

As I looked over the data and read through my notes from the interviews I’ve done with leaders, I wondered what students would say to teachers and what teachers would say to their principals if they had the opportunity to ask for the leadership they needed. I wondered what the customer service representative would say to his boss and what she might ask of her boss. What do we want people to know about us and what do we need from them?

As I started writing down the answers to these questions, I realized that they sounded like a mandate; a manifesto. Here’s what emerged from these questions:

The Daring Greatly Leadership Manifesto

To the CEOS and teachers. To the principals and the managers. To the politicians, community leaders, and decision-makers:

We want to show up, we want to learn, and we want to inspire. We are hardwired for connection, curiosity, and engagement. We crave purpose, and we have a deep desire to create and contribute. We want to take risks, embrace our vulnerabilities, and be courageous. When learning and working are dehumanized – when you no longer see us and no longer encourage our daring, or when you only see what we produce or how we perform – we disengage and turn away from the very things that the world needs from us: our talent, our ideas, and our passion.

What we ask is that you engage with us, show up beside us, and learn from us. Feedback is a function of respect; when you don’t have honest conversations with us about our strengths and our opportunities for growth, we question our contributions and your commitment.

Above all else, we ask that you show up, let yourself be seen, and be courageous. Dare greatly with us.

-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly (pages 206-207, 210-212)

As leaders too often we lead with our head and not our hearts. We come off as rational and cold. We say all the right things, but somehow just don’t seem to connect or inspire people. We keep our guard up, we deflect, we rationalize, and we bullshit. We scheme the politics and our relationships. We don’t want to be seen trying. We manage our image and our reputation. And the whole time we think we’re being clever. The truth is we are scared to death. We are scared of being judged. We are scared of showing up and just being ourselves. We’re scared of being seen. Fearless on the outside and scared to death on the inside. Why would others trust us when we don’t even trust ourselves?

To the Heroes that Never Were

22 Nov

For all of our intelligence we human beings are hugely unfair. Worse still, we actually think that we are fair. Which means that we are also hugely ignorant. When combined these two facts set us up for some horrible injustices. One of our most obvious acts of  injustices is how we glorify the firefighters who rush into an apartment building to put out a fire, but we don’t even mention the landlord who replaced the batteries in the smoke detector – a device that prevented a manageable fire from growing so large that it needed the fire department. In short, we glorify the person who intervenes , but not the person who prevents and the obvious reason we do this is because we are never aware of the things that never happen. Our cultural myths around leaders and heroes are oriented around the person who dramatically saves the day, not the person who simply and cleverly manages the antecedents to the problem.

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This has two effects. First, we are encouraged to create problems to solve so that we can be the hero. After all, if there is no way for me to get credit for preventing something that never happened, then the social incentives are for me to let things go. Let things get bad so that I can put on my cape and mask and come to the rescue. It is a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy that the more we see the world according to the drama triangle (i.e. the hero, the villain, and the victim) the more evidence we find to support it. The impact of this simple and fundamental error in judgement on the overall effectiveness of an organization is profound. If your performance management system and your culture is geared only toward problem-solving and not problem-prevention (or polarity management), then you better believe that your people are unconsciously creating a lot of their own problems. After all, every hero needs a villain. This is a problem for all individual people, but when it comes to thinking about people working together in organizations, it suddenly becomes a much more pernicious and profound issue.

The second issue is that we completely miss the qualities in leaders that are ACTUALLY important. We are so distracted by the dramatic story-telling of the latest and greatest feat of Inc. Magazine’s CEO of the Year that we completely ignore the subtlety of true leadership. Given our fundamental human ignorance that orients us to reward intervention more than prevention, true leadership requires a strong internal compass that is not dependent upon the recognition of others. That is the only way to offset this blatantly unjust system. And this is more than just simply calling something “servant leadership” or “humility;” it gets down to how individuals experience the world. I’d like to suggest that, by definition, if you are striving to be recognized for your accomplishments then you are not just “a realist” or “a good salesperson;” you are also likely to be a bad leader. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t consider others or manage your brand or anything like that. What I am saying is that it is a matter of priority. Those things are important, but the MOST important factor is that a leader is driven clearly and consistently by his or her own values.

In the end, everyone knows that “…a pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” so why do we rarely reward acts of prevention? We don’t reward them because our minds are not set up to understand them. We simply cannot see something that did not happen and therefore, all of the subtle acts of preventative heroism go unnoticed. The philosopher+businessman Nassim Taleb describes the problem in his book The Black Swan

Who gets rewarded , the central banker who avoids a recession or the one who comes to “correct” his predecessors’ faults and happens to be there during some economic recovery? Who is more valuable, the politician who avoids a war or the one who starts a new one (and is lucky enough to win)? (Prologue xxviii).

So today I’d like to publicly recognize (in my own small way) all of the heroes that never were. I can’t give you a medal or a bonus. I can’t put your name in the paper or on the cover of Inc. Magazine, but I can acknowledge that the world has been unfair to you. We have been ignorant and unjust. I can’t know exactly what the world would be like without your small acts of everyday leadership, but I can assume that I’d be worse off without them.

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Do Wild New Shit

16 Oct

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“Lewis and Clark were lost most of the time. If your idea of exploration is to always know where you are and to be inside your zone of competence, you don’t do wild new shit. You have to be confused, upset, think you’re stupid. If you’re not willing to do that, you can’t go outside the box.”     -Nathan Myhrvold

We could all use a little encouragement…

14 Oct

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The following letter was written by Albert Einstein’s father.

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13 April 1901

Professor Wilhelm Ostwald
University of Leipzig
Leipzig, Germany

Esteemed Herr Professor!

Please forgive a father who is so bold as to turn to you, esteemed Herr Professor, in the interest of his son.

I shall start by telling you that my son Albert is 22 years old, that … he feels profoundly unhappy with his present lack of position, and his idea that he has gone off the tracks with his career & is now out of touch gets more and more entrenched each day. In addition, he is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden on us, people of modest means….

I have taken the liberty of turning [to you] with the humble request to … write him, if possible, a few words of encouragement, so that he might recover his joy in living and working.

If, in addition, you could secure him an Assistant’s position for now or the next autumn, my gratitude would know no bounds….

I am also taking the liberty of mentioning that my son does not know anything about my unusual step.

I remain, highly esteemed Herr Professor,
your devoted

Hermann Einstein

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From The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume I. No answer from Professor Ostwald was ever received. Who in your life could use “a few words of encouragement?”

Do Things the Long, Hard, Stupid Way

6 Oct

Frank Chimero provides a great reminder that looking for short cuts is a sure sign that you’re doing it wrong.

 

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Who Would You Be Without Your Story?

18 Sep

You have to check out this video of Byron Katie working with a lady who believes, “my mother shamed me.” I am always encouraged and liberated after watching these videos. All of my bullshit stories…”I should be successful,” “people should love me,” “I should be treated with respect,” “people should be nice to me,” blah, blah, blah….all of these stories running through my mind. And as soon as I drop the story and accept reality as it is…I find that things begin to change. I can take action without striving for approval. I act out of a sense of abundance not lack. I act out of freedom and not dependence.

These videos make it beautifully clear how our beliefs constantly get in our way. “Who would you be without your story?” Katie always asks. I’m still exploring that answer and I look forward to sharing that exploration with others.

The video is a bit long, but if you have the time, it’s a great way to sit in some truly transformational practice.

*Note: if you’re not familiar with Byron Katie’s work, then she might come across as a bit harsh or judgmental. Understand though that the people who attend these workshops are there to get the truth. They’ve reached a point where they are tired of their story and they a re brave enough to ask for some help. The questions that Katie asks, and the responses that she gives are always intended to help the other person realize their truth.