Recoding Leadership

Marcus Aurelius: the philosopher king

Less than twenty years ago, the cordless mouse and USB stick didn’t exist. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the current transformation of society is happening ten times faster and at 300 times the scale, or roughly 3,000 times the impact compared to the original Industrial Revolution.  Given our rapidly changing environment, how should leaders in the Industrial Revolution 4.0 code – and recode – their skills, traits and careers for success? Do you have the long term leadership traits required to not only produce profit, but engender respect and loyalty among those you manage and influence? Below we provide examples of how the most successful – and respected – CEOs of the digital era lead, and examine the traits required to inspire teams in the digital workplace.

Value creativity – in yourself, and in others

Elon Musk – and Innovation Labs Asia – have strong views on how the structure of traditional organisations inhibits creativity. Why is creativity important? Without it you lose innovation, which is the catalyst for progress. Progress equals increased productivity. As Musk says, “The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative.” 

Institutional hierarchies and corporate methodologies are historical hangovers from the 18th Century factory models of the first Industrial Revolution. We are now on 4.0. Don’t assume the way it’s always been done is best: seek efficiency over stability. Do you enable and encourage creative talent within yourself and your team, or do you stifle it as too much of a risk to the status quo? Now more than ever, companies exist in a red queen race: if you are standing still, you are falling behind. 

Be adaptable

Ferris Bueller had this advice during his day off in 1986: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” Ferris had an IBM PC XT and a tape-based answering machine to keep him agile. Today, we are all hyper-connected, 24/7. Leaders are expected to constantly make vital decisions under increased time pressure (digital detoxes are a thing). Alongside fire fighting and BAU, leaders need to recalibrate and expand their skill sets just to stay relevant, as technology disrupts and re-invents roles at an ever faster velocity.

How do you become more adaptable? First, make a decision to consciously and positively embrace change. If you think of change as an enemy, it will manifest as precisely that. Second, understand the ability to change is the central determinant of success over the long term in any unstable system (and there aren’t many stable ones around). Great firms and leaders constantly iterate their offerings through customer-driven A / B testing before customers are aware of any flaw in the interface. Leaders need the self-awareness to do the same with their own skill set and style. As Charles Darwin observed when describing the process of natural selection, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” You can choose to proactively upgrade your solutions, services and skill set, or have that change forced upon you as your relevance declines. That is not a happy day. 

Bring a growth mindset

Jack Ma embodies growth mindset. Ma was rejected for jobs at Kentucky Fried Chicken and as a policeman in China. He taught himself English and took up a role earning $12 a month teaching, and went on to found Alibaba in 1999. When Ma started out, he had no computer skills, no government contacts and no capital. His only assets were his vision and mindset. “It all comes down to how we face failure and the challenges in our life. We may have a terrible beginning, but we learn, and ultimately have a better ending.” 

Follow Carol Dweck’s advice to achieve a faster leadership learning curve: look at challenges as “exciting rather than threatening. So rather than thinking, oh, I’m going to reveal my weaknesses, you say, wow, here’s a chance to grow.” Actively invite challenge. Fail as much as you can within prudent limits to increase strength – just as runners and weight lifters increase their distance and resistance incrementally to test and improve their bodies. Remember: it doesn’t get easier, you just get better.

Vision-driven, purpose-led

Elon Musk is the archetypal cathedral builder: he generates buy in from brick layers by selling the greater purpose behind his vision, analogous to Christopher Wren building St Paul’s in London. Musk thinks leaders need “a very compelling goal for the company. If you put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s talented at a world level, they have to believe that there’s potential for a great outcome and believe in the leader of the company, that you’re the right guy to work with.”

Musk has got the world to believe in – and is increasingly manifesting – a life where solar power, electric cars and life on Mars dominate the fabric of our everyday life. Musk is changing the world, and what is possible within it. Have you taken the time to define your vision? Can you – and do you – articulate it regularly to your team? Leaders have to constantly articulate (and sell) their vision, which in turn gives purpose to those who follow them. Do not underestimate the importance of purpose as a lever to achieve great things.  In the words of Nietschze, “He who has a why can bear almost any how.”

Have humility and compassion

A key characteristic that sets the leaders of tech giants apart is their genuine humility and care for those they work for and with. These founders have every reason to be arrogant and pretentious, yet for the most part they remain equanimous, grounded and modest. In the past, many corporate leaders demonstrated overtly alpha characteristics. However, it’s no longer acceptable for managers of the world’s most prestigious firms to tell their staff they want to “reach in, rip out their heart, and eat it before they die” when discussing competition, as Dick Fuld, CEO of Lehman Brothers did shortly before its collapse during the Great Financial Crisis (casual causality, anyone?).

Jack Ma (center), performs with his managers  at the firm’s 10th anniversary celebration

In contrast, when Chanttel Tham analysed Jack Ma’s style, she found his down to earth approach specifically “engenders loyalty from employees”. When the going gets tough, deadlines are looming and resources are scarce, loyalty drives personal sacrifice. Personal sacrifice is the difference between getting the impossible done, ahead of time, in a spirit of positive camaraderie that strengthens professional relationships, and having a team disintegrate under pressure with a goal unmet. Don’t expect your staff to care about your goals if you don’t demonstrate you care first. 

Safety to communicate and collaborate across teams and networks

Google found the number one predictor of team success is execution of the principle of  psychological safety. Employees need to know it’s safe to take social risk – to reach out, speak up and debate whatever the setting, whatever the scenario. If you want collaboration, diverse opinions need to be heard and respected. But buy-in is a two way process. If you don’t buy into your team, they will likely opt-out of your vision. 

Check out this email from Elon Musk to his entire Tesla workforce. Musk states “you can talk to me, you can talk to anyone without anyone else’s permission… (and) you should consider yourself obligated to do so until the right thing happens.” When managers don’t make time for people’s concerns, ignore issues and use the organizational hierarchy to avoid dealing with anyone ‘beneath them’, the message is clear: communication and collaboration is not welcome. Get back in your box and don’t rock the boat – even when it’s clearly sinking while travelling in the wrong direction. 

Communicate by listening and sharing

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve”. Bill Gates knows that when you start to view shared feedback as a growth orientated gift, rather than a personally directed attack, the prism through which you seek opinion changes. Who wouldn’t want objective criticism from smart people about a new idea? There is some chance your colleagues, if you make it safe for them to speak and you actually listen, will stop you from jumping headlong into an abyss. But first, you have to let them speak, and second, you have to listen. The opposite of this is arrogance – which is a poor persuasion strategy, even when you’re right. 

Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s most successful hedge fund, thinks “great collaboration feels like playing jazz.. 1+1=3, and 3 to 5 is more than 20”. Communication, listening and sharing information give your team a multiplier effect: ideas get tested and iterated, your team and your company becomes more successful as it evolves, and people will like and respect you more for fulfilling a fundamental human need: being heard. 

Coach and empower: don’t micromanage

Human beings are built for uncertainty, adaptation and progress. We require guidance to move forward, but we also need time and space to make the mistakes necessary to learn new skills first hand. Babies don’t learn to walk through instruction: they make many failures to achieve bi-pedal success. Great leaders tolerate failure as the price of innovation, and coach the relevant lessons when necessary. Let people fail when it’s safe to do so: they learn quicker, value the autonomy, and get the opportunity to innovate during the learning process. As Jeff Bezos states, “If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle.” 

Micromanagement prevents short term failure – at the cost of innovation, which drives long term success and survival. When managers have good coaching skills, feedback becomes a gift, empowerment becomes standard, and productivity improves. Coaching is the foundation of high performance teams. Micromanagement stifles creativity, learning opportunities, and ultimately trust and loyalty. And that translates into low engagement, employee attrition and declining profits. 

Support career development and evaluate performance objectively

‘What do you want from work? Where do you see yourself in three year’s time? What can I do to help you achieve these goals?’ These aren’t hard questions to ask, but many managers don’t speak them. When Eric Clayberg was managing a Google team, he found that “Engineers hate being micromanaged on the technical side, but love being closely managed on the career side… I now spend a third to half my time looking for ways to help my team members grow.” Who wouldn’t want to work for a guy like that?

When it comes to discussing performance, it might seem expedient to go easy on employees and rose tint reviews: no one likes getting their feelings hurt, right? Wrong. One of Ray Dalio’s guiding principles is ‘Constant Feedback’: “evaluate accurately, not kindly. In the end, accuracy and kindness are the same thing”. Being honest is the best long term policy: have the courage to hold a mirror to people’s blind spots, so they have the opportunity to understand and address them.

Take ownership for decision making, and tell teams why decisions were made

Being a leader is accepting responsibility. And those who abdicate responsibility lose the implicit right to serve and the authority to lead others.  Navy SEAL Commander Jocko Willink advocates “Extreme ownership. Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.” Own the outcomes your leadership produces.

Google’s research on what makes great leaders adds another dimension: leaders have a responsibility to ensure their team buys into the company wide vision, as well as the details of the team’s specific mission, and explain how the two inter-relate. This way, teams can understand why decisions are made – even though leaders ultimately own them. Demonstrating how the team’s work fits into the wider vision can provide meaning to those who perform the tasks, and in turn, boost emotional buy in and team cohesiveness. 

Leadership: “Eating glass and staring at the abyss”

Elon Musk describes being a CEO as like “eating glass and staring into the abyss”. Leadership isn’t meant to be fun: it’s meant to be fulfilling. Leadership is a privilege and a burden that is voluntarily accepted. The livelihoods, happiness and futures of employees depend on the actions of their leaders. Are you the best version of the leader you could be? Have you done everything in your power to understand how shifts in technology are impacting – and will impact – your career and your team? Your answer – and corresponding action – will affect those you manage in ways you can’t imagine, to an extent it’s difficult to comprehend. The question you need to answer is: how much do you care, and what are you willing to do about it?

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