Monthly Archive: November 2012

You can’t lead if you don’t know your own mind

I’ve been having a blast lately. Interviews and research for Building a Happy Sandpit are well underway and as I dig deeper into South African business culture, I am discovering more-or-less equal amounts of what I might call over- and under-thinking on the subject.

What is apparent is that nobody is specifically just zen about it. And it’s more than a little bit fun to witness the way the research questioning triggers some deep thinking which many interviewees haven’t deemed to be necessary so far.

An important point to make about this research is that I am not looking to see which companies are doing it ‘right’ and which are doing it ‘wrong’ because I do not believe there is any such thing. But in investigating what organisations are doing at all, I am able to make some interesting observations.

For example, it’s apparent that leaders with a clear vision have the ability to offer deeper leadership. That may sound trite, but actually the difference couldn’t be more stark.

Companies that run more-or-less efficiently often tend to do so by the sheer force of their good product offerings and the general commitment of their people to provide an adequate level of performance. The leaders of those organisations are, in my experience so far, almost oblivious to the marginal level of control they actually have.

That isn’t to say they’re all in any specific danger of losing their businesses, but it’s hard to imagine how they would be able to shift their operations from the average or above-average category – even with exceptional, often market-leading products – into the outstanding category.

The problem appears to be easy to encapsulate: those leaders don’t really know what it is that they want. Not in a deep, emotional sense. They reset their expectations according to current data rather than demanding unremitting high standards. They appear reluctant to acknowledge the rallying importance of risk and adventure in getting people to stretch. They ebb and flow between reaching out and holding back inside and outside the organisation.

On the other hand, there are those who are absolutely clear. They know what they want as a broad outcome which enables them to establish unwavering principles for just about everything. The critical advantage that gives them is that they are much more fully able to determine personalities within the organisation – and those who they are considering bringing on board – who can help drive towards that outcome.

Because those principles do not change, their course of action in the face of all new data – new market environments, new economic circumstances, new customers and new behaviour among existing ones – is much easier to set. Furthermore, they have a greater chance of moving the organisation proactively in anticipation of a change, because the individuals within understand the need to protect the underlying values.

It’s wicked to see. I wasn’t certain when I set out that such matters would be so simple to grasp. But maybe not all business challenges are complicated …

Why networks have the power to kill hierarchies

This is a world where networks defeat hierarchies.

There are any number of people who depend on their position in a hierarchy for status. It’s a natural thing; even wild animals are ordered by their place on the food chain. And for many people, especially in some of the more traditional cultures, social and professional hierarchies are the primary means of order.

But in a modern, western sense, that makes less and less sense. To me it makes almost no sense at all.

I accept that there are hierarchies. I accept that there are people who are able to order me around from time-to-time and that to ignore such people can lead to punishment. Take the police as an example. Time spent fighting them is rarely time well invested.

But if the purpose of hierarchies is for protection; if an elevated position in the chain stands in and of itself as a means of protection against those lower down, that elevation ends in the face of a strong network.

From the popular revolutions that ended Monarchic rule in France and the colonies of America in the eighteenth centuries to the Arab Spring uprisings that have overthrown governments in the past few years, networks have repeatedly demonstrated their power to disrupt hierarchies.

In a less violent, more quietly disruptive sense, networks of people subvert the power of hierarchies through the pioneering and development of better information. In a way, the protective nature of hierarchies can prevent the free flow of information which networks enable by their very nature.

I’m seeing the results of this increasingly over the past few months as I enhance my own network. For a while now I have been fortunate to be able to call upon the brains of many people I greatly admire, but through the refinement of a single purpose, those networks are beginning to deliver what I believe to be an unfair advantage.

From one point of view, there’s little protection in networks. Sharing information is a two-way street so that you get in only what you put out, which inherently means you’re vulnerable. But from another, there’s no more rapid way to develop and refine an idea.

It means that the networked individual can make nonsense of a hierarchy and create an entirely new set of power rules.