How Can I Begin the Shift to Exponential Leadership Myself?
When neurological systems begin to be disrupted and dissipate, we reach a point where there will either be an upsurge to a more complex system or a downshift to a less complex one.7 In our experience, if leaders want to progress forward up the spiral of exponential growth, they must face the natural fear that disruption generates, and purposefully excavate their old beliefs in order to accelerate effectively through the adaptation to, and acquisition of, new mindsets and skillsets. This requires re-training our brains to forge clarity in the midst of the ambiguity often heightened in times of disruption. It also means allowing oneself to align, or be in congruence with, exponential thinking in the face of prevailing linear logic. Finally, it means embracing the leadership courage it will take to proactively drive the kind of transformation to thrive in disruptive and exponential times.
We start with Clarity because in our experience leaders need to widen their view of what is and what’s emerging in the face of ambiguity, rather than the more reflexive, linear response of seeking problems to solve. This crucial step of reflection of where we are now serves as a reckoning, a facing of the truth of the current situation, and an acceptance of the current state—however daunting—with honesty, humility and compassion.
We once interviewed sea captains and ship builders for a project one of us was leading, to understand what distinguished successful sea-faring teams, like the America’s Cup teams. What allowed them to succeed? How did their vessels and teams withstand the pressure of the constantly shifting environment?
While the vessel itself had to have structural integrity to withstand the volatile sea environment, the one factor that every sea captain shared was essential to success was that every team member had to be living and embodying vigilance… an ever-present awareness of what was happening, not only in the realm of their day-to-day tasks or routine, but out ahead, around them and on the horizon. If all did not consciously scan the edges of their environment with vigilance, then the entire voyage could be jeopardized.
Vigilance is not just a skillset, it’s a mindset and an energy that says, “I want to see what I cannot see now. I don’t want to make any assumptions. I want to explore with new eyes and see what I may have been blinded to before.” In a sense, the act of being vigilant is a deeply disciplined practice of observing and listening to what might be, what differs, what confounds, what teases, what challenges. When one CEO and COO of a mid-sized contracting services firm recently received late-breaking word that their core operations were missing quarterly targets by more than a million US dollars, with virtually no internal red flags, change in processes or calls to action, they realized they had a deep issue of complacency and lack of vigilance on their hands.
Reflecting on the constant state of disruption and exponential change in their industry, and wanting to help more people see clearly the need for running the business differently, John, the CEO, called a 6:30 am meeting the next morning for all the company’s key players and asked that the room be cleared of all chairs. The meeting invite went out and immediately people began poking their heads in the office of the COO, Steve, asking if John knew that he scheduled the meeting for 6:30 am, and if they knew there were no chairs in the room. Steve nodded yes to both, to quizzical looks from all.
The next morning, as people filed into the empty room before 6:30am, they all found a place to lean against one of the walls and settled in to listen to what the meeting was all about. John began with the harsh reality of the financial miss and then sought to widen the perspective of all in the room regarding the state of the industry, the levels of disruption, and emerging competitive threats. Beyond simply a traditional “burning platform for change”, he gave examples of weak signals that were challenging the basic foundations of the business, and that indicated that more change was coming in areas of the business that they had long assumed were “safe” from huge waves of disruption. He shared that things were being disrupted at such a phenomenal rate at present that this was the era of “no normal” and exponential change, and that if the leaders didn’t get comfortable being uncomfortable, then the very viability of the business was at risk.
Financial misses like the one that day were troubling on a purely economic level, but more deeply troubling because they showed him that the organization was not used to being uncomfortable and had buried their heads in the sand vs. being vigilant about what was changing. The chairs, John said, were removed from the room for a purpose. If they had been there, they would have all walked in, taken a seat and expected a “business as usual” business update. Even now, he reflected to them all, they were standing at the edges of the room, leaning up against the wall to find comfort. The truth, he said, was that there was power in discomfort.
He then called them to action: Today, they would be spending the day in the conference room, widening their vision to see what they hadn’t seen before, detecting the weak signals that were impacting the business and figuring out how they needed to work differently to close a $6 million gap by the end of the year. Assumptions would need to be challenged, beliefs flipped on their heads, and clarity of a new vision forged. Stunned, the leaders got to work. What ensued over the day was an organization discovering that sometimes a harsh reckoning is necessary to awaken people to see with deeper clarity, to face the current state with honesty and humility, and to unearth old, linear beliefs that were getting in their way.
Once we free ourselves up from the blinders we typically wear, the next step up the spiral of exponential leadership is releasing and allowing ourselves to be in alignment with the vision. Congruence is about alignment and harmony, inside and out: If you want to create an innovative new approach to your marketplace, you must be innovative yourself, be the innovative energy that brings the innovative energy to your team, to your processes, to the business. If you want to change course and help your team embody more personal power to solve their own problems proactively, you must become the proactive, empowered leader that calls that forth in others.
If you want to demonstrate more inspirational leadership day after day, you must inspire yourself, live inspirationally, in an authentic manner that emanates that inspiration in every interaction.
At one organization where we led a leadership development experience, there was a need to develop greater innovation to keep up with market changes. As we worked with the market-dominating legacy player, we explored the unconscious beliefs around innovation when we met with the senior leaders. Thoughts such as the following came up:
- “If we are more innovative, then we stick our necks out and get them cut off”
- “If we are more innovative, then we are not rewarded; we are actually punished”
- “If we are more innovative, then we risk losing respect”
The number of phrases that we heard around the office like “stick your neck out”, “go out on a limb”, “stand apart from others” showed the deep fear about taking any kind of risk to innovate that resounded within the organization. With all those beliefs as the backdrop, you would have to be downright insane to demonstrate more innovation.
Back in the contracting services firm, as the leaders got down to work on how they might close the $6 million gap between now and the end of the year, it became evident that old ways of thinking were getting in the way and had to be let go in order to be congruent with the fast-moving, agile, creative organization they needed to become. Some teams pulled out functional budgets and began a line by line item review of every item, debating if they could save $20 on paper, $50 on printer toner, etc., imprisoned in their own sense of comfort, and tyranny of efficiency.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Steve and the Operations team mapped out core assumptions of the business, examined the gap, and by the end of the day had come up with $3 million of the $6 million and more than 25 positions that could be eliminated. Most importantly, they turned some long-standing industry assumptions upside down and came up with a creative proposal for a key client that would not only help close the gap, but transform the way those business deals were structured, deepen the relationship with key clients, and potentially emerge as a source of tremendous competitive advantage. It was truly a demonstration of acting in congruence with the fast-moving, agile, creative organization they needed to become.
Yet helping the rest of the organization see more clearly and then act in congruence with the more exponential thinking required would be a longer journey than could be accomplished in one day. Old beliefs around core processes that must be protected would be need to be released. Assumptions around how value was created and what made partnerships in the industry strong would need to be turned upside down, or at least expanded. As the work continued in the following days, John and Steve realized the depth of the change challenge on their hands: Congruence ultimately demands release – release of outmoded thinking, letting go of comfort and allowing space for creativity to emerge.
And this, in turn, means deep personal change. Staying on a path forward to new outcomes means steadfastly moving through our own unique organizational and personal levels of social conditioning, stress and fear. How we face thatinevitable fear, in ways big and small, and experiment with new approaches is where we access Courage.
Courage is not about heroics. It’s everyday bravery that means facing fears on the path to creating excellent new outcomes and holding the space for experimentation, seeking out differing perspectives, and dialoguing in ways that embrace diversity and inclusion, not shunning it. When we hold that space, and whole-heartedly move forward in spite of the fear, people around us feel full of courage themselves – it is contagious. They are encouraged, not discouraged to experiment with new ways of approaching the challenges at hand.
In fact, an experimental mindset is often the key that unlocks more leadership courage. Yet as much as there is increasing evidence that experimentation is critical for surviving the turbulent marketplace, few leaders and companies seem to be able to truly embrace this approach. Why is that?
To experiment, to try and to fail, means we must suspend judgment and the certainty that lies behind our opinions. It means we must shift from the comfort of certainty to valuing the learning that can come through exploration of possibilities. And it means we must be curious about the challenge at hand, letting go of our expert opinion just long enough to probe for what we might be missing. In the case of the contracting services firm, as Steve unpacked the core assumptions around the central business deals with their key clients and reshaped the deal from a position of abundance, he uncovered nearly $2.5 million in upside potential and the opportunity to drive deeper partnership with the client organization. As he walked through the new logic he was proposing that they test with a key client, several colleagues challenged him, saying that his proposal was too risky, unheard of and untested. As he explained the reasoning, he demonstrated how it was too risky to NOT take action in this manner.
The disruption in the marketplace meant that if they did not fundamentally rethink their approach, they stood to lose much more business, quickly. That day, Steve stepped forward in Courage, pulling together a revolutionary bid to a major client that also served to transform the thinking inside his firm.
As John and Steve’s story demonstrates, making the shift to exponential thinking and leading is not easy. Yet with strong intention, reflection and discipline, Clarity, Congruence and Courage™ can serve as guardrails in the process of transforming fear into positive new outcomes.
THE CALL TO ACTION: EXPONENTIAL LEADERSHIP
Today, we have an unparalleled challenge and opportunity amidst the highly disruptive marketplace to create new responses and new results. Yet facing our current reality with humility and transforming fear into new outcomes can be both exciting and daunting.
Indeed, in the face of constant turbulence and disruption, we have the choice to either let our outer reality shape us, or transform and disrupt ourselves faster than the environment – or our competitors — around us. For most of us, the question then becomes: How can we disrupt ourselves fast enough? How can we move upward on the spiral of exponential leadership growth?
While the path forward will vary from individual to individual, organization to organization, following the guideposts of Clarity, Congruence and Courage™ can accelerate that path of growth. We are committed to supporting more leaders to take on that challenge and continually grow through the spiral of exponential leadership.
7 See for example, the work on Chaos Theory and Complexity Science by Ilya Prigogne, Professor of Physics and Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1977 for his work on the thermodynamics of non-equilibrium systems.
This article is the last in a 3-part series from a white paper entitled HOW CAN WE DEVELOP LEADERS FOR EXPONENTIAL TIMES? authored by Karen Walch, PhD and Lee Ann del Carpio, and used with permission from CLAIR-BUOYANT™ LEADERSHIP, LLC AND INNER POWER INTERNATIONAL, INC.
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