Regaining Our Leadership Mojo: It Will Take Consistent, Credible Action

It’s been an ugly few weeks in post-election Washington. Lots of posturing, pandering, and finger-pointing; little traction or action.

The bloviating pundits who call themselves journalists blame it on ineptitude, partisan politics, and a host of non sequiturs, from home-schooling to the United Nations.

As usual, they’ve only got half the story. Something much bigger is happening, not just in the West Wing and Congressional cloakrooms, but also in executive suites and corporate boardrooms:

Traditional leadership has lost its mojo.

3 fundamental organizational shifts

The problem: Changes in how we live are fundamentally changing how we work, which is rendering traditional leadership impotent. Whether presiding over a country, a company, or a parent-teacher association, our concept of how one leads has not kept pace with what it entails.

Here’s what’s happened: The ongoing economic crisis and emerging megatrends such as globalization, changing demographics, and the explosion of technology have led to three fundamental organizational shifts:

  1. The rise of the matrix organization;
  2. The birth of digital anarchy; and,
  3. The decline of positional power.

The most obvious of these is the matrix, which has sprung up in organizations with all the veracity and vulgarity of crabgrass.

Being a team player? It’s not valued as much today

Driven by a growing and legitimate need for complex, networked relationships across traditional organizational and geographic borders — and an often less legitimate need to cut costs and people — it sounds like an excellent idea until you try it, at which point it often goes south. The problem is that it requires significant structural and systematic changes as well as different behaviors from both those working in a matrix and those leading.

Everyone needs to empathize, listen, collaborate – in short curb their personal achievement, be a team player, and occasionally shut up and listen. But such behavior isn’t valued much in today’s individualistic, digital anarchy, in which a leader’s credibility is often suspect, and in which anyone with an opinion, iPhone, and a Twitter account is an expert, and simple truths are either ignored or left to “official” fact checkers.

Not that we should overlook the positive potential of digital power: As the Arab Spring has shown us, it can become a force for much needed change. But, as events there and the recent U.S. election also have proven, turning anarchy into good democracy in the 21st Century requires a new kind of leadership.

Not surprising, we don’t have much trust in or respect for our formal leaders. Positional power, be it a title or a once revered box on the organizational chart, counts for far less than it did 20 years ago.

And a single person, no matter his or her position, vision, or voter popularity, is not capable of successfully leading such a complex, diverse organization. It requires a collaborative team of leaders with an enterprise perspective who are able and willing to sublimate their personal power and achievement drive for the greater good of the organization.

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Certainly such leaders must have a strategic, enterprise perspective. But they also must have the softer emotional and social skills, like empathy and self-awareness, to navigate the messy, ambiguous topography of competing issues. They must create transparent, truthful trustworthy visions out of the fog of opinion and replace the control that once served them well with collaboration to bring those visions to fruition.

How to fix the mess in Washington

As we’ve seen with our corporate clients and public officials, that’s easier said than done.

Which brings me back to the current chaos in Washington: Four years ago I was part of a team that designed a leadership program for the 60 top members of the new administration. Not surprising, we took a traditional perspective. Were we to do it over, I would take a very different tack.

I’d start by inviting Congress. I’d tell both branches that as much as we like to view our nation as “special” and better than the rest of the world, it’s time to rethink that perspective: We’re only one division — albeit a significant one — of a complex, matrixed organization called The World.

Even within the U.S. business unit of this global organization, we’re a diverse, complicated workforce with competing values, needs, and desires. And we’re as impatient, cynical as, and polarized as we are diverse. With unlimited access to digital media, we don’t wait for our leadership to tell us what to do, nor do we necessarily believe it when we’re told.

Rather, we listen only to those opinions we favor, reinvent the truth, and then re-tweet our reality to like-minded folk. Trust is a rare commodity these days. It’s shelf-life is short. Unless leaders laminate and reinforce their narrative with consistent and credible action, it will melt in the heat of opinion.

Finally, I would tell them it’s time to put aside their personal ambition and love of power, and to no longer count on the trappings of office, title, or party to win the day. From now on their success will depend on their ability to work effectively with a diverse group of fellow leaders.

Tough medicine? Sure. But if you want to succeed as a leader – if you want to reclaim your mojo — you better take it in large doses whether you run a country, a corporation, or Cub Scout pack.

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