The innovation we need to transform our organizations is not developed by digging for the provable facts and empirical evidence hidden deep in the well of our retrospective data banks. It is not the deep analytical source of insight that will somehow help us make sense of the future. It is quite the opposite. Our ability to understand the future will come from the more intuitive, fluid, experimental process of looking forward, visualizing and anticipating the many changes that are just out of sight, around the corner and over the horizon.
Transformational leaders have a certain bold imagination that fuels their creative genius and combines it with a distinctive flair and a rebellious, revolutionary zeal to make something different, and to do so on their own terms. These are the types of leaders who reorder and reshape the pieces of the puzzle to arrive at solutions the rest of us hold in awe and envy. These are the leaders who violently shake the Etch A Sketch® to clear the old image and then proceed to draw a new one.
Throughout history, the truly great leaders have known when and how to pivot when the situation and the context change. They seem to have a sixth sense and know exactly the right moment at which to abandon what is no longer working and comfortably embrace new tools more suited to the conditions they find themselves in. It is part experience, part intuition and part luck, but successfully identifying and then navigating these crucial inflection points is the responsibility of leaders. The average leader can perhaps do a respectable enough job when conditions are normal, but it takes an exceptional leader to navigate confidently in uncertain, uncharted and turbulent waters.
It seems as though the dangerous, pivotal moments of transformational change have been presenting themselves with increasing frequency in recent years. The more interconnected global economy, rapid technological advances and constantly evolving social, political and demographic changes have all come together to alter the once reliable maps we used to guide us in the post-WWII period. The question that should concern and even haunt us all is why, in the face of these changes, so many leaders, organizations and nations have not been brave enough, vigilant enough or just plain smart enough to switch tack from what may have been right and relevant in one set of circumstances to a new course, better suited to the changing conditions of the future.
A common and all too often fatal flaw business leaders fall victim to is the tendency to focus on the immediate rather than the important. This is especially true when it comes to the really big things and the truly difficult problems in our lives or businesses. Unfortunately, the hidden costs, consequences and risks of distortion, denial and misalignment are like those of an iceberg. They can be ignored or underestimated for a short period of time, but if they aren’t dealt with, the risks will inevitably appear as if out of nowhere and overwhelm even the hardest working, most charismatic and most determined leader.
In organizational life, the leader of a huge multinational or a small independent business has the same set of responsibilities to their customers, employees and community. A major responsibility is to face up to, and deal directly with, the misalignments and gaps that conspire against the ability of the organization to perform at the highest level. Leaders must make it their absolute priority to constantly be on the lookout for the discordant signs and troubling signals that reveal things are not exactly as they should be. This requires a strong inner resolve, confidence and a balanced emotional temperament as find a way to run toward those situations with a solution in hand, not away from them in an effort to avoid conflict.
The emphasis we have placed on the value of accumulated or stored knowledge we have worshiped in the past, is now a potentially dangerous source of false confidence. It is actually a rapidly depreciating asset, given the fact the half-life of anything new is shortening every day. To become a transformational leader and truly differentiate yourself, it has become increasingly important to work on your timely retrieval ability, rather than on your storage capacity. The more novel and different things you experience or have an interest in, the more likely your brain will be able to fill in the missing pieces and make the new connections that allow us to make sense out of apparent nonsense.
The nature and value of experience has changed along with the changes which have taken place in the external environment. The definition of experience is radically different than the one used by most business leaders in the past. It is not about the number of years of deep professional experience in a narrowly defined role or within a certain professional skill set. Instead, it is the rich variety and diversity of multiple different personal experiences that act as stimuli for the brain. It is the varied tapestry of personal experiences that helps ensure we do not become locked into narrow channels of thinking, but instead leap across domains to collect, share and assemble new patterns of insight.
The first competency required to build a transformational leaders personal credibility bank is Emotional intelligence (EQ). It is the ability to know yourself, manage yourself and build effective relationships with others. It has been written about extensively in recent years, yet, surprisingly, it is still not well understood by everyone in business, let alone perfected and practiced by leaders at all levels. In its simplest sense, EQ requires leaders to have a solid understanding of their own emotional construct and to have the ability to manage and regulate their emotions. In addition, EQ requires the ability to understand the emotional tone and motivations of others.
High-performance, highly effective teams do many things differently than the vast majority of others, including they way in which they interact and communicate with each other. They have learned how to avoid the headlong rush to premature conclusions and knee-jerk reactions. Instead, they hold themselves accountable for ensuring the thinking and dialogue process is rich with original insight and fresh perspective. The quality of the cultural environment within the organization really does matter, and senior leaders have the responsibility for shaping that environment. One good way to determine the health of the environment is to listen to the quality of the conversations, debates and dialogue taking place at all levels. Good leaders enable organizational dialogue and view it as a major component of ensuring they have a vibrant culture.