Are you a CEO or executive manager and confused about the meaning of the word leadership? Are you wondering why it has become so difficult, exhausting and expensive to run your company, and why management practices that used to work do not work anymore? Do you find yourself wanting for the problem to go away, yet sensing deeply there is a cultural change that is here to stay?
The work floor has been shaken up by the arrival of Millennials and Digital Natives: a new generation with an entirely different set of expectations than the generations before. As it turns out, Millennials and Digital Natives are not interested in traditional career ladders. They want to be valued and take it for granted that this must be possible within an organization. They possess a wealth of information from inside and outside of the company, impressive skills to deal with data, and they want to be rewarded for their contributions, not for waiting their turn. And, when they see a problem, their natural allergy towards hierarchical models will make them go straight to the decision makers. Younger generations want autonomy and collaboration and will not fit in a company that sees employees as interchangeable parts of an HR machine. If their desired outcomes are not there, they will most likely change jobs.
What is one to do about leadership in the middle of this all?
Just recently, President Obama clearly articulated what leadership is not anymore in 2016.
President Obama on leadership
During the 2016 Democratic Convention, President Obama clearly stated the current state of affairs regarding the word leadership: We don’t look to be ruled!
Just like that. What a breath of fresh air, I truly appreciate those who easily name the elephant in the room.
He went on to elaborate:
“We’re not a fragile people, we’re not a frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared saviour promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way […] Our power comes from the fact that all men are created equal, that we, the people can form a more perfect union… The capacity to shape our own destiny is our birthright”.
Obama’s words reflect a stance that is not only having an impact on our societies but in our organizations as well.
If you hold a leadership position in an organization, I could imagine the word “equal” in Obama’s speech possibly making you frown in disbelief, thoughts of anarchy racing frantically through your mind. But please, stay with me. A different way of doing things is truly possible, and luckily, it doesn’t involve any anarchy.
Schoenberg: And now… for something else…!
Did you know this exact leadership issue played out some hundred years ago in the classical music world when the tonality that had prevailed for centuries had, just like our current organizational models, reached a break down point? I am referring to a hierarchical way of composing (aka organizing sounds) that systematically made some pitches or chords prevail over others. Each piece of classical music was in fact a long marching of two recognizable chords in endless variations. If one of them, the dominant, made the listener feel “unheimisch”, the other, the tonic, rapidly provided a feeling of resolution. After uncertainty, certainty would always return.
If you are not sure what I am referring to, comedian, actor and musician Dudley Moore did a brilliant parody on the long standing tyranny of the dominant – tonic relationship. You can watch it in the video below. At around minute 3:05 you’ll most likely start finding yourself longing for that final tonic, except that Moore doesn’t give it to us. He keeps us in suspense for one and a half more minutes until he simply closed the piano lid. And when closing that lid, he opened a door, a dream door into new possibilities of organizing sound. Because, remember Obama?, sounds didn’t look to be ruled by the tonic, that self-declared saviour of the classical music tradition!
Somewhere around 1920 Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg, the “Millennial” of his time, showed up. He decided to treat all musical pitches as equal. With this atonal thinking he brought about an earthquake that changed classical music forever. From that point on, composers went on to treat other musical parameters in the same way. Stockhausen, one of contemporary music’s own “Digital Natives”, described it like this:
“Use all the components of any given number of elements, don’t leave out individual elements, use them all with equal importance…It’s a spiritual and democratic attitude towards the world. The stars are organized in this way…”
If the word “equal” in Obama’s speech had possibly turned out to be difficult to hear, I could imagine Stockhausen’s words “democratic attitude” simply adding insult to injury. How can we be putting the words equality, democracy and leadership in the same sentence? How do their words relate to our current organizational models?
The big mistake leaders are making today
The management legacy of the by now 100-year old assembly line was to compartmentalize information. Besides, information was power. In our current era of overinformation, this legacy has become obsolete. Employees have access to information from both within and outside of the organization, making it increasingly difficult for any single leader to possess all the information needed for success.
The biggest mistake leaders are making today is thinking they themselves need to have all the information needed for an organization’s success, when there is in fact valuable unknown new information in the system itself.
Does equality and democracy mean that anyone gets to tell what needs to be done?
No. The key to being able to put the words equality, democracy and leadership in the same sentence lies in the word “information”.
The information present in each member of a team or organization is equal in value towards the achievement of strategic, cultural and business solutions. Because of that, a democratic approach towards all the voices (sounds 😀) of a system, including marginalized ones, is necessary today.
How about leadership?
Leadership today means to 1. incubate and initiate processes that reveal the information present in teams and organizations, and 2. orchestrate it towards the achievement of strategic, cultural and business solutions.
Are you wondering how to do that?
Just when everything that could be achieved with the dominant – tonic relationship in classical music had been exhausted, Schoenberg and Stockhausen were interested in making something that would work, instead of something that would be predictable. They were interested in results, and when the system restricted them, they broke out of the box.
If you are seeking for ways to break free from your own organizational box, so you can make something that works in our volatile and uncertain world, consider a systems thinking facilitator and send me an email.
System thinkers believe systems are intelligent and creative, and can help you reveal and channel the intelligence, creativity and pieces of truth held by every person in a team or group. I am such a facilitator and have many great tools: a battery of Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching tools, and organizational graphic constellations from the world of the modern arts like the one at the top of this post.
* * * *
OD Consulting, Team & Executive Training and Coaching, Speaking.