Happy New Year! Last year was a rough one for so many people, as we struggled here in the US to continue the economic recovery. For those who have jobs and those who are still searching, I want to issue a “wake-up” call for us in 2012 and beyond. As we use this time to look back, assess and make plans for the coming year, it’s time to make some monumental changes in the way we approach our leadership roles, our work and our relationships. We have learned the lesson that our economic prosperity is not guaranteed; our jobs are not safe, lifetime commitments. We can either be victims of the circumstances affecting us – whether it’s technological advances, mergers and acquisitions, or a hyper-connected world where everybody knows everything – or we can set a new path forward where we use what’s coming at us to our advantage.
I’m in the middle of reading That Used to be Us by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, a book that has raised my awareness about the imperative to wake-up, see what’s happening in the world around us, and prepare to respond to it. They begin the book by looking at changes in Tianjin, China in just five years, including the construction of a Chinese bullet train that covers 72 miles in 29 minutes and the Meijiang Convention Center, a 2.5 million square foot facility that was completed in 8 months! Friedman compares the Chinese performance to two short escalators in the Bethesda rail station outside of Washington, DC that have been unusable for nearly six months. A sign on the escalator calls it part of a massive escalator modernization project! The analogy does not elude us: if the Chinese can build a Convention facility in 8 months, how will we ever keep up if we can’t fix broken 21-step escalators in the same amount of time? We’ve become tolerant of inconveniences and mediocre performance, and some even believe that our best days are behind us. A type of ho-hum has settled in at a time when we need strong, visionary leaders who can help us see our strengths, our abilities, our “get a man on the moon in the next decade” challenge.
4 Broad Causes of Decline
Leaders, today, have their jobs cut out for them. Somehow we have to waken people to the fact that the world is changing at a pace that will leave us terribly behind if we don’t take the urgency message seriously. Friedman and Mandelbaum suggest that our “slow-motion decline has four broad causes.” They suggest that we stopped asking questions about the world we live in and what we need to do to thrive. As a result, we stopped observing, orienting, deciding and acting. We’ve failed to address our biggest problems and instead have learned, as we observe the political process, to attack each other. We’ve stopped investing in our traditional formula for greatness. We must know from within ourselves what makes us unique and great. We must build confidence in our capabilities to think through problems and create amazing solutions. And, perhaps, most importantly we’ve allowed our values to seriously erode. Situational ethics – the if-it-feels-good, then-do-it-mantra abounds. Interestingly, the authors suggest that our solution is not to become more like China, but rather to become more like ourselves. We must get more from what we have; we must find our hunger to demonstrate our excellence. Leaders must inspire us about the future, based on what we’ve been able to accomplish in the past.
Four Major Challenges in the Next Decade
They suggest that we will face four major challenges: a) global adaptation; b) the information technology revolution; c) resource limitations and d) rising external threats from energy to climate. Aren’t these challenges the same we face within our organizations as well? If a little business can have success in today’s marketplace not unlike a big company, can’t a little department, under-resourced but amazingly creative, build a loyal customer global base as well?
The Death of Average
Friedman and Mandelbaum are shouting to us that “average is officially over.” The authors note that Woody Allen’s adage, “90 percent of life is just showing up” is no longer true. Today we must be able to do things with “an excellence that deserves attention.” They go on to say, “In a hyper-connected world where so many talented non-Americans and smart machines can do above-average work and are now easily available to virtually every employer, what was “average” work ten years ago is below average today and will be further below average ten years from now.” It’s not about raising our game to get ahead, but rather raising our game to stay in the game.
These are scary predictions about our future and most of us are probably saying, “What do I need to do to fix it?”
The Job of the Innovative Leader
Our job as Innovative Leaders is to help people identify the “extra” they need to do to stay in the game. That “extra” may be nothing more than doing a routine task in a new and better way. For those who are not risk-takers, the authors suggest, “they need to re-create themselves within their existing company or line of work by taking a routine creator job or routine server job and turning it into something special for which people will want to pay extra.” It’s doing work in such a special way that people will ask for you by name because they know that having you, is having the best.
The authors believe that those of us who lead others need to encourage the development of three skills: “critical thinking, effective oral and written communication and collaboration.” Tony Wagner, the author of The Global Achievement Gap and Learning to Innovate, Innovating to Learn says, “There is a myth that the most creative and innovative people do their best work alone. This is simply not true. Innovation today is almost always done in teams that are multinational, multilingual and even virtual.”
Perhaps the most important thing we can do as leaders is to inspire people’s confidence in themselves. Notice I did not say, inspire confidence in the leader. The leader is the one who can motivate others to “leave their moorings,” as the authors suggest, and explore somewhere new outside their comfort zone. Raising the self-confidence of others, building their sense of personal courage and persistence, helping them identify their talents, pushing their commitment to lifelong learning, while relentlessly staying focused on execution – these will be the tasks of the 2012 leader.
It won’t be done through command and control leadership. It will be done by the leader who can create a belief system in others that we are united in a shared vision of excellence. The authors, recalling a school in California that fosters excellence, suggest we could start simply by saying, “Yes, and….” when people offer new ideas. Not, “No that won’t work here, or no, I don’t like it” but “yes, and let me suggest that we start…..” The “Yes” builds trust that new ideas won’t be shot down, but it also allows the leader to say, “and” we need to explore this or that. What a great phrase to begin building our collaborative leadership approach for 2012!
To help you start the new year with a fire in your belly and game plan in your pocket we have put together a FREE guidebook of what we think Innovative Leadership will look like in 2012. We encourage you to download and give it some thought!