Leading by Vacuum


"Nature abhors a vacuum."


Physics IV:6-9

Aristotle is speaking about flow.

See the two channels in this stream. One is meandering and the other is more direct. The meandering one has established its own path which is different from the wider stream bed. I've seen this before in streams near my house as a child. The stream bed was dredged of silt, and it looks like a long straight culvert. Within a few months, the meandering curves return. Flow finds its own path of least resistance.

Professor Adrian Bejan writes,

"Everything that moves, whether animate or inanimate is a flow system. All flow systems generate shape and structure in time in order to facilitate this movement across a landscape filled with resistance..."

It applies to the function of leadership in a way that may surprise you.

Hierarchy of  Structure

The conventional view of leadership is that it is a role within an organizational structure. The people within that structure are divided between leaders and followers.  It looks sort of like this diagram. Responsibility is set at the top and accountability is to the level above. It is built for order, control and efficiency.

This kind of structure worked for a long time, many millennia, for many reasons. Principally, limited access to education and technology kept many people from advancing beyond the physical labor of the family farm or the factory. These cultural situations acted as restrictions on the growth of this structure. Sources of friction, like these, are rapidly being removed, the result is that the place of leadership in organizations is changing.

By place I mean function. The function of leadership in this older hierarchical model was management. The function of leadership in the future will be something quite different. Instead of managing order, it is creating opportunity for leadership.


The Flow of Leadership

A vacuum is an open space.

Think of two spaces. A bowl full of water and a sponge.

The sponge is less dense, has more open space than the water in the bowl. Place the sponge in the bowl, and the water flows into the sponge until it can hold no more.

Take that same bowl of water, and leave it out on your kitchen counter long enough, and the water in the bowl will evaporate into the air. The water in the bowl is denser than the air. However, for it to flow into the air it must change into water vapor. 

This metaphor describes the changes and differences that I see in leadership between the 20th and 21st centuries.

In the older model, the corporation absorbed the raw talent into its organizational structure.

Today, there are fewer corporate jobs, and so people are adapting to a world of independence, entrepreneurism, and networks of interdependency.

This is the difference is between a closed system of a few leaders and many followers and an open system where everyone can function as a leader. It may depend upon how you define leadership.

These changes, however, are not caused by our ability to define words. Instead, it is defined by our ability to interpret the natural changes that are taking place all around us.

Adrian Bejan's point above is that nature's pattern is one of flow from one place to another following the path of least resistance. I recommend his book, Design in Nature, as an introduction to an understanding of flow in science.

The flow of leadership then is to remove the barriers, the restrictions, the obstacles and the controls that bar people from developing as leaders.

Is leadership, then, a function of management or is leadership a function of who we are as human beings?

Or, let's reverse the question.

Are human beings born as management functions? Or, are we born to lead, to make a difference with our lives?

It isn't a question of nature versus nurture in human development.

It is instead a question of how human beings function in modern organizational structures.

It is a question of human purpose first, and, and organizational purpose and structure second.

Remove the barriers that block human beings from fulling their potential, and leadership develops.

Create openness, and leadership throughout the social and organizational setting will result.

Leadership in the 20th century was a product of organizational structure. Leadership in the 21st is a product of human action.

Simply put,

Leaders take personal initiative to create impact, to make a difference that matters.

The flow of leadership, therefore, is the change that results from the human action rising from the individual initiative that fills the open spaces of opportunity to create the impact that is needed in each individual situation.

This means that in organization structure after 20th. century models must change

The role of executive changes from one who manages processes to one who facilitates the creation of opportunity and the development of the practice of leadership throughout the company.

The structure changes from a monolithic hierarchical one to a collection of smaller, networked communities of leaders.

In this respect, companies are no longer simply places of employment, but rather places of human formation.

The transition is not an easy one, but a necessary one. It is not easy because the most fundamental structure of the modern world is required to change. What is that structure? The concentration of power and affluence into the hands of those who are designated as leaders.


Leading by vacuum

The title of this post is a way I have come to describe what happens in an organization that opens up the opportunity for people to learn to take initiative to create impact.

We create a leadership vacuum when we refuse to do that which we are not able to do.

In other words, I only do that which I can do.

This isn't a rationalization for the avoidance of responsibility.  It is rather an intentional recognition that each person has gifts to offer to the functioning of the organization. When leaders claim more responsibility, more authority, or more control than they are effectively able to manage, they are at the same time restricting the possibility for the leadership potential of others to be realized.

Here's how it works.

1. Do that which you can do. Invite others to do that which they can do. Be a team of shared initiative and contribution.

2. Celebrate your values by creating a culture of unity and commitment to a shared purpose for your relationships and your work together.

3. Create an organizational structure open to change and personal initiative to create impact.

An open structure of shared responsibility for each person to realize their own potential for making a difference that matters is the future of organizations.

Executive leaders as a result push the responsibility for developing the processes and policies of the company down the organizational chart to the point of implementation.  They also are constantly communicating the Why of the companies values along side the How of the companies policies and approach.  They do this by being clear how the values of the company are functioning throughout the organization. 

Like a stream, openness for leadership helps the organization finds its path of least resistance to create impact.

Like a vacuum, where there is openness to make a difference, people step forward to fill the space provided for them to make a difference. When each person does what they do best through their own personal initiative to create impact, then the leadership capacity of the organization expands to become its greatest asset. This is 21st. century leadership.      


This post was published March 4, 2012 as an introduction for two presentations that I gave in Ventura, California, March 16-17, 2012. Here are links to those two presentations.

The Flow of Leadership

The Flow of Community

A follow up to this post was published as Still Waters Still Flow.

 Attribution Some rights reserved by Phillie Casablanca

Tradition and Change, part two


In my previous post, Tradition and Change, I reflected on the change in society evident in the Luchino Visconti's film, The Leopard. The picture illustrates the change that took place when traditional European aristocratic society shifted to a modern middle class democratic one. Our experience in America is different because we were not an aristocratic society but a nation of immigrants who came here as a part of the change we see in the movie, only a century before. 

Over the past the century, a similar conflict between tradition and change has been occurring here, as it has in Europe.

Traditions are values that are shared by people and whose practices form a society.

Several years ago, when working on a values project for a company, the members of the committee that I worked with kept saying that their goal was to get back to a time twenty years in the past when the company was more like a family.

What did they mean when they said they wanted their company to be more like a family?

A family is a society with its own traditions. A company can have traditions or not. It depends on its leadership. In this case, the previous leadership had placed their own enrichment over that of the company. As a result, a wedge was driven between the senior executives and the rest of the company. This group of employees wanted a return to a more traditional social environment in the company.

During the past century or so, a mythology of the individual has grown up that places the welfare of the individual above that of society. When this happens, traditions are shredded as constraints upon the individual.

In psychological terms, we could say that when the individual places his or her wants above that of society, that we have something a kin to the adolescent child who is seeking independence from the constraints of the family. 

In other words, traditional society that binds one person to another or one group to another is viewed as a liability, not an asset to the forward progress of society.  

The elevation of the individual above society, not the elevation of the individual's development as a member of society has created the crisis, conflict and divisiveness in the public arena that we find in the world today.

However, if you look away from those who promote the dichotomization of society into me or us versus them relationship, you'll see the lingering remnant of a traditional society as played out in individuals who willing place the betterment of society ahead of themselves.

This is what I see in young people who upon graduation from college, or even high school, go to places of need to teach and to work for the development of people and their local societies. It is what I saw in the people who moved to the gulf coast of Mississippi to help bring hope and recovery following Hurricane Katrina.

This same attitude of sacrifice is what makes a traditional society work. A traditional society that is focused on the greater good.

Reflect with me on the nature of kindness. Look at this quote from Aristotle on kindness

Kindness -- under the influence of which a man is said to "be kind" -- may be defined as helpfulness towards some one in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped. Kindness is great if shown to one who is in great need, or who needs what is important and hard to get, or who needs it at an important and difficult crisis; or if the helper is the only, the first, or the chief person to give the help. Natural cravings constitute such needs; and in particular cravings, accompanied by pain, for what is not being attained.

This expression of kindness is at the heart of how a society can sustain itself. Notice that the kindness shown is self-giving. It contributes to those in need, rather than as something beneficial to the giver.

Traditional societies are built upon individuals giving to one another. They require the individual to give up part of their prerogatives as an individual to gain what they cannot have alone.

The criticism of traditional societies is that they are not progressive or modern. If however, to be a progressive or modern society is to pit one person against another, one group against another, then that is not progressive, but regressive and barbaric.

Traditions are values that join people together in a common purpose. As leaders, we must look to how we can create traditions that provide people an environment to grow, and a platform to lead, as members of a society of leaders.

At the heart of these traditions is the recognition that kindness is a way to understand how we are to function in society together. The response to kindness by another is gratitude, to say thanks, and return that kindness is some manner.

The challenge before us is, not our understanding or valuing these ideas of traditional society, but rather the acceptance and willingness to give, contribute, and even make personal sacrifices to make a society work. 

Personal sacrifices cannot be coerced or prescribed, but freely made out of the kindness of one's own personal commitments. This is an individualism of personal responsibility and maturity that is the remnant of tradition that is holding modern societies together.

For five centuries, the value of the individual has grown to have prominence over a perception of society that is now anachronistic. Those ancient and medieval societies were not traditional societies of one person or one group, joining with others to create a society of opportunity. They were societies built around the power of a governing elite, not unlike what we have today.

The American experiment in freedom, for the individual's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is not about the individual alone, but of a society of individuals who join together to create the conditions for their fulfillment.

Today, connection, collaboration and service are values that are uniting people together to create organizations and communities that are traditional in nature. In these places, openness and accountability are practices that build strength and sustainability. 

For a very long time, the image of the individual standing alone in the crowd, isolated and alienated from the conditions that can bring genuine happiness has been present in my mind. Even as human connections expand through the use of social technologies, the individual remains alone until a relationship of mutual commitment and accountability is formed.

A traditional society is built upon values that unite people around a common purpose and a vision for the difference that they can make together.

The perception that a traditional society stands against change and progress is a false one. It is only by creating a society of shared traditions that social change can be progressive and beneficial to the whole. This is how all social change becomes sustainable. Without the values that are embedded with tradition, we are subject to the whims and emotions of the moment, to those whose eloquent persuasiveness present a false, but attractive perspective, and, to appeals for change that are essentially divisive and self-serving.

The Leopard's Prince, Don Fabrizo Selina, understood that change in concert with tradition is how the future is embraced with the least disruption to social. This truth we have lost. As a result, the change that our society will go through in the future will be more disruptive and painful than it needs to be. It is a choice that in large has been made by our contemporary "aristocratic" leaders. What they fail to realize, or do not care to acknowledge, is that their abandonment, not of the past, but of tradition, sets the stage for their own irrelevance.

Aristotelian motivation

Dan Pink, in his TED talk (Watch here or here), presents a perspective of human motivation that is worth reflecting on. In his presentation he identifies three aspects of human motivation that he wants us to consider: Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose.

All this seemed strangely familiar, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Dan was presenting a very Aristotlelian perspective of human motivation. Instead of giving you a dozen fragments from Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, I thought I reproduce a couple pages from Jonathan Lear's Aristotle: the desire to understand .

There seems then to be philosophical as well as historical reason for going back to Aristotle's ethics. With decline in confidence that Kantian morality can give us any guidance as to how to act, there is reason to go back to an ethical system based firmly in the study of human motivation. The hope is that an ethical system grounded in human motivation will not only answer questions about how to act, but will also be justifiable by reference to life as it is lived in this world. Ethics, Aristotle believed, was grounded in the study of human desire. We have already seen that, for Aristotle, all human action is grounded in desire. It is of the greatest interest to see whether any study of human desire could have recognizably ethical conclusions about how humans should act.

The point of the Nicomachean Ethics is not to persuade us to be good or to show us how to behave well in the various circumstances in life: it is to give people who are already leading a happy, virtuous life insight into the nature of their own souls. The aim of Ethics is to offer its readers self-understanding, not persuasion or advice. Of course, as we have seen, Aristotle thinks that self-understanding will be of practical value: those who understand what human happiness is will, like the archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit their target.  However, this understanding can be of practical value only for those for whom it is self-understanding: namely, for those who are already living a virtuous life. There are two reasons for this.

First, ethics is not an area in which it is possible to spell out precise rules about how to act ... Ethics cannot properly be conceived as a moral computer which one feeds information about the current circumstances as input and which churns out instructions about how to behave as output. The way to find out what to do is to seek the judgment of a good man, for he will be a good judge of how to behave. The good man will be sensitive to what the circumstances require and will be motivated to act in the right way. But if ethics is not a set of rules, that one ingests in order to become a good person, then, one cannot become a good person by internalizing a set of rules, for there are no rules to internalize.

Second, human happiness is not something which can be adequately understood from an external perspective. Among the ends toward which human actions are directed, Aristotle distinguished between ends that are distinct from the actions which produce them and ends that are the activities themselves.  This is the distinction we have already seen between change (kinesis) and an activity (energeia). ... This distinction is central to Aristotle's ethics, for acting virtuously is not a means to a distinct end of living a happy life. Acting virtuously constitutes a happy life. This cannot be adequately understood by a non-virtuous person. From the perspective of a bad man, a virtuous act will appear onerous, painful or silly. From the perspective of the immature, the idea of a virtuous act may have some appeal, but his soul will not be sufficiently formed for this to be the strongest desire within him. He will feel the pull of contrary desires and he will not understand in any but the most superficial sense that acting virtuously is the way to be happy.

What Lear writes here distinguishes Aristotle from those contemporary ethical thinkers who want to make ethics either about our intentions, and not our actions, or who want to treat ethics as entirely from a utilitarian perspective of establishing rules of what is right and wrong.

The application to present day leaders and their organizations is that to follow Lear's description of Aristotle's ethics means that we don't live in a fantasy world of self-deception believing that all that matters is that I have good intentions towards people, or that I'm okay as long as I don't break the law.

Contained within the pages of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics is a perspective that provides an ancient, yet practical guide that touches on Dan Pink's framework of autonomy, mastery and purpose. I an eagerly looking forward to the publication of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

A Conversation about Constant Change - 3

Here is my response to Steven Devijver's questions (below) author of the free ebook, The Strategy of Constant Change

Q1: You’re this amazing guy with a really special view on leadership and human relationships. What’s your view then - with all this background - on the three human universals? I ask this because you’ve only just recently written on your blog about The Golden Rule. I would like to understand why you think these tree human universals are novel.

Steven, I'm not sure that these universals are novel. I think your identification of them is insightful. They are what I observe in my dealings with people. They want to be treated with respect, kindness and given the opportunity to grow. Yet, at the same time, as people, we make mistakes.

There are two aspects of this worth identifying. There are mistakes that come from a lack of knowledge or ability. These can be corrected by instruction and training. The other kind of mistakes are ones of character.  These are more serious because they are not so easily subject to being changed by training, but by disciplined action. If what I say sounds like Aristotle, you'd be correct. I believe of all the ancient philosophers, his perspective on how we are to live is the closest to what people raised within an institutional context need today.  The parallel insight is of the management philosophers (Say and Schumpeter, especially) of the past couple hundred years who described entrepreneurialism in similar ways. From Aristotle through to Peter Drucker, the virtuous, happy person is the one who acts and creates new things.

I see in your identification of these human universals an ancient truth that is emerging in discussions about organizations and institutions in our day. I point most specifically to my good friend Tom Morris who has been writing and speaking on the value of ancient wisdom in the context of modern corporate institutions for almost twenty years. His perspective informs much of my own.

To be human is to create, and this comes from action, from taking initiative to transform abstract ideas into concrete realities. I believe that this is why God made us, and is God's most indelible mark upon us.

Q2: You mention the human point-of-view on organizational change. How important are human beings and relationships in organizations according to you, and what else should we pay attention to to help organizations thrive?

What I wrote above is about the individual person. Every person, however, exists within a social context, or, rather, many social contexts. There is our family, our neighborhood, our associations whether they are religous, political, or interest based, and then, of course, our work context. What I find is that social organization leads in one direction without intentional human intervention. I find that most organizations grow towards minimizing ambiguity, resist change, exclude outside influence, and become uniform,closed systems of relationships that squeeze out human initiative in favor of social compliance. One of the unintended consequences of universal education is to remove human initiative in favor of comformity. We treat education as a management exercise where efficiency is valued over effectiveness. This is true in every institution that I have had contact with during my lifetime. I do not think that this is intentional, but rather a logical result of how we think.

We think like managers who do not own the work we do. We simply have organzed our lives around the performance of certain activities. Ask people what their purpose is, and rarely does it have anything to do with the work they perform. We think like managers instead of as leaders because we have been taught to work within an institutional environment. I heard yesterday that a million people have lost their jobs in the United States over the past year. Those businesses that lost those people are now more efficient, but are they more effective. Are they capable of taking advantage of opportunities that still exist? I don't think so. Now, imagine, all those million people starting new businesses. Imagine the creative energy that will be released into world as a result.

From my perspective, I see a need to reconceptualize not only what it means to live an authentic, happy, virtuous human life, but also what this means within a social and insititutional environment. As a result, I'm interested in the nature of human relationships. Let me give one example of what I see.

Over the past decade there has been an explosion in the level of social interaction that takes place on line. You and I met through our involvement in the Triiibes online social network. I see in the growth of social media an expression of the basic human need for companionship.  However, I don't see all this social interaction as necessarily their purpose. Instead, taking my lead from Aristotle, I believe that our human interaction should lead to collaborative human action. Through these social media tools, we should be forming relationships where we work together to achieve some impact. If all they are is a place to talk, they will not be sustainable. They will degenerate into a narrow clique built around a few strong, influential voices, and a circle of people who compliantly go along. It is a picture of all social institutions in microcosim.

What is the solution? I return to Aristotle and entrepreneurism. We must become virtuous people who act to create new ways of meeting needs and opportunities. My personal responsibility is to be a person that others can trust. This trust is built upon not only personal integrity, but openness, honesty, humility and the recognition that we each have a role to play within every social context. Sometimes it is to lead, others times to follow, some moments to give and others to receive.  It is from this philosophical perspective that was born my Johnny Bunko 7th lesson - Say Thanks, Every Day. Giving thanks in this perspective is an act of creative openness that affirms the connection that exists between us.

Q3: What’s your view of change is bad, and should be avoided?

I don't see change as either bad or good. I simply see it as the context of how we live. Every change has within it some good that can be identified. For example, suffering is a kind of change. We can view suffering as something to be avoided or we can see in it the opportunity to gain strength.  We have a choice in how we deal with change. We either see it as an opportunity or as an inconvenience. The choice we make determines whether we will find happiness.

We need to develop our capacity to adapt to change. Returning to Aristotle, I believe that this is what he writes about as becoming habituated to doing virtuous acts.

Okay, my next question for you.

Q. Why is it important for human beings to experience discovery? How can we do this on a daily basis? And how do businesses and organizations develop ways to discover?

Real Life Leadership: Inspiring ideas have little meaning unless you find ways to apply them

Today's Real Life Leadership column - Inspiring ideas have little meaning unless you find ways to apply them - follows up an event that was held last night here in Asheville.

Over 600 people gathered at the Grove Park Inn, for the first ever Western North Carolina Lessons in Leadership conference.  They heard William Kelley speak on the leadership of people in the context ofWncleaderslessonsinleadership_hea_2 running the Grove Park Inn's operations.  He was very good. A couple take aways.

1. Rule of 85/15: 85% of an employee's effectiveness is determined by the system they work within, 15% involves their own skill. He is right on the money here. Too often the organizational structure or system as he speaks of it dictates to the employee what they must do and not do.  It should be reversed. They system should exist to provide the employee to reach the full extent of their abilities and commitment to their job. Is the employee the creator of the system? They certainly are contributors. But the system is an outgrowth of leadership. It reflects the leadership at the top.  This leads to the second take away from Bill that I found valuable.

2. Leaders are responsible to their employees, not for their employees.  If an organizational leader is to lead, then there has to be a relationship. To be responsible for the employee is to take away from them their responsibility to the company. Their responsibility becomes responding, in the extreme, to orders from above.  When leaders take on the mindset of being responsible to their employees, then they are looking to communicate not only their expectations, but also the opportunity that the employee has to fulfill their human purpose of being a responsible person. This comes back to creating a system or structure that allows for this. And it takes a particular mindset on the leaders part to make it happen.  Bill used a quote from his boss, Craig Madison, CEO of the Grove Park Inn to illustrate the importance to being first responsible to our own performance so that we can be responsible to others. "Your house is in such order that you have to talk about others."  I thought that was a pretty good turn of phrase.

The other speaker on the evening was Brian Biro, a corporate trainer and coach whose focus is on "breakthrough leadership." He gave us two hours of high energy on what it takes to breakthrough those barriers in our lives that keep us from going to the level.  The experience of Brian's presentation is as much the take-away is it is the idea.  The first hour he spent talking about his career as a swim coach in California. He told a story about a swimmer named Allison.  I won't tell the story because I hope you hear him to tell some day. It isn't just in the message of the story, but the way he tells it that communicates the idea that we all fall short because we encounter obstacles that we don't feel we can over come. That we need a focus and we need the support of people to get through those barriers. The rest of his presentation was about how we breakthrough those barriers using the metaphor of board breaking to illustrate it. At the end of the evening, two women were selected, and they broke through their boards, and the crowd was electric.

My take away from Brian's presentation.

1. You have a choice about what your life can be.  It is your choice, your decision, and your responsibility.  Even with all the influences that afflict us everyday, we have a choice about how we will respond to them.  It is a matter of Personal Responsibility.

2. NOW! The Present. Brian used what he called a poem to put this in perspective.  "The past is history. The future is ... a mystery. The gift is NOW!  That's why we call it The Present!" He admits it is a bit corny, and it is. But it communicates an important message. What I do now determines what happens in the future. It isn't a matter of waiting to see. It is a matter of doing something now.  I love Aristotle's perspective of mastering life. We don't decide to be the best at something and the automatically we are. No, we grow into being the best by practice and persistence. And that starts right now.  However, Brian wasn't so much speaking about the present in this way. He was speaking more to our relationships, and how we are present with the people we encounter. You may have heard the phrase, "Not listening, but waiting to speak."  Being present means there is no future, there is only NOW!. I know that this is one of my areas to breakthrough on. My children tell me this. And I've been on a learning curve with this for a couple years. So, Brian's message was very relevant to me.

Now, here is what is interesting about last night event.

Five guys, most of them involved with Toastmasters International, decided to put this event together. I came in late to the planning as a friend of one of them.  Their companies underwrote the cost. They took time away from their business. It was a huge success. Almost 700 registered, over 600 attending, and each one loving the experience and looking to what comes next.  What do you do when you plan an event, with no idea what is to follow. I don't think last night can be repeated. The atmosphere, the electricity, the sense of something totally new for the Asheville business community. None of this can be repeated. So, how do you take a hard act to follow, and replicate it?  That is the adventure of leadership.  Learning how to take the value you've created, understanding precisely what it is, and then build upon it.

It was a great evening, and I was pleased to have a small part to play in it.  Stay tuned for the future.

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Ideas, Narrative and Practice

Tony Quinlan makes an excellent point in a comment here
Here's his comment followed by my reflections.

You make a good point about the difficulty with abstract thought and ideas in relation to practice. One of the techniques that I've seen used very effectively, and Steve Denning talks about in The Springboard, is that of examples of similar ideas in action elsewhere.
Using stories from other organisations (and, sometimes, ones that aren't immediately obvious in their relationship to current internal issues) avoids the standard traps of "oh, but they can do it over there" and all the other excuses we come up with for other people's successes when we're not succeeding ourselves.
But, crucially, listening to examples triggers people's thought processes. They get the abstract idea and start to look at possible practice immediately.
The difficulty then becomes, how do we collect and spot those stories?  And that's another problem altogether for leaders!

Tony Quinlan
Narrate Consulting

Here are my thoughts on Tony's comment.

Here's what I've found that adds a third level to what you describe.

An abstract idea that is described without a real world context, ie. in a narrative or story, is difficult for many people to understand. The criticism is that we are being too theoretical, too intellectual or too unclear.  A story helps to place the idea in a context that is understandable, so that they can see the value of it.

What I've discovered is that there is still a gap between seeing the practical value of an idea and knowing how to do something with it. What I have learned to do is take people through a process of discovery by asking questions.  For example:

What about this story makes sense to you?
What is most appealing?
If you were to try this, what do you think would be your first step?

I find then they begin to learn to apply an idea, and not merely be inspired by it.

Real learning comes through practice. Tacit knowledge should be the key goal for learning.  Yet our educational systems are really organized around learning ideas and their values, rather than learning the utility of ideas in practice.  Part of the reason for this I've concluded is that there really is no consequence to knowing an idea and not practicing.  Only those situation where we really need to have our skills sharpe do we learn to translate abstract ideas into action.

Let me illustrate this with a story.  At lunch today, I was talking with a friend who is a commerical contractor.  One of my sons worked for him this summer.  We were talking about a range of topics, one being the quality of the workers that he hires and how difficult it is to find sub-contractors who can do really techincal work. He made the comment that we try to educate too many people to be English majors, instead of training people in the trades.

The philosopher Aristotle wrote about learning as the mastering of a discipline. He saw in the importance of mentorship as the means to help people acquire the knowledge to perform well ones skills.  In this respect, we learn to translate ideas into action by practicing with someone who has had the same training and experience.  Too much of our educational focus is on the mastering of ideas, not the mastering of the practice of ideas.

So, from my perspective, storytelling is one of the mentors tools for helping people learn to translate ideas into action.  And for those of us who are in the consulting business, I think this is one of the most important and enjoyable aspects of what we do.  As the old saying goes, "Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day; teach him to fish, and he eats for a lifetime."

Real Life Leadership: Business is a performance art.

My latest Real Life Leadership column - Business is a performance art - is online.

The nature of leadership is changing or, its true nature is beginning to emerge.

Creativity is becoming an increasingly important aspect of being a leader.  There is a perception that some people are creative and others are not.  My guess is that some people are developed and others are not.

If we are to think of ourselves as performance artists, as Tom Morris in his book, If Aristotle Ran General Motors suggests, then it requires us to have a very different view about leadership.

To think as artists is to think not just creatively, but developmentally.  We see that we are on a skills development path that enhances the talent, potent and experience we already have. 

What skills do you need if you have spent the last ten, fifteen, twenty years leading and by all measures, you have succeeded?

Leaders not only must manage their business, but also their own development. 

If we think of ourselves as artists, we think of our development in practical ways.  Instead of seeking to learn new creative ideas, we learn to think creatively that ends in practice, and not the collection of ideas.

Artists are practical philosophers. 

Business leaders should be philosopher artists. 



Performance  focused.

A Conversation about Strategic Planning

First Posted May 20, 2005, updated for today.

Circle of Impact- simple

One morning in a business office.

THE LEADER – We need a plan.


THE LEADER – We are being overwhelmed by issues and problems that seem to come from nowhere. … It isn't clear what step we need to take to resolve some of the challenges..

THE ASSISTANT - Yeah! It does seem that we’ve been floundering for the past few months. Any ideas?

THE LEADER – Uh, huh. THE FRIEND recommended I talk with THE GUIDE. He led a retreat for THE FRIEND's nonprofit board. Thought he might be able to help. Here’s his phone number.

THE ASSISTANT - Ok. I’ll set up the appointment.

Next week, at a local coffee shop.

THE GUIDE - Tell me what's going on.

THE LEADER – Well…I came to talk about our need for a strategic plan. We have some problems.  Here’s a list I started the other day.

<THE LEADER - hands THE GUIDE a list>

THE GUIDE – So you think a plan will help you solve all these problems?

THE LEADER -- Yes. I hope so because I am not sure what else we can do. We are caught between processes that no longer work as well as they used to, and things that are successful without our really putting much effort into them. We know those things aren't sustainable in the long run. They really aren’t our core business either, but they bring in revenue now. We need some clarity, perspective and direction.

THE GUIDE – OK. But here’s what you need to know before embarking upon a strategic planning process with me. 

There is more to a plan than producing a document. We are talking about a change process. Unless you are prepared to do things differently, don’t begin. It will only make your situation more difficult because you are going to raise everyone’s expectations, and not be able to meet them.

The reason?  They will see through the process as simply an avoidance of reality. Your people know what is true. They may not know the whole truth, but they know it for their piece of the puzzle which is your company. If you want them to trust the process, then you have to see this as a change process that requires honesty, transparency and integrity.

THE LEADER – Oh. I thought a plan was to help me know what I am to do.

THE GUIDE – It is. But what you have been doing may be counter productive to what is in your best interest, and the best interest of your company.



THE LEADER – So what should I do? This isn’t what I thought strategic planning was about.

THE GUIDE – Yeah. That’s the normal reaction.

THE LEADER – So, tell me this. Why do I need a strategic plan?

THE GUIDE – A plan is simply a tool - nothing more or nothing less - that helps you as the leader of your organization to focus the goodwill, energies and commitment of people upon a clearly conceived vision of impact.

Most organizations and leaders get trapped into thinking that their business is managing activities. It’s not. It’s producing results. Those activities are important because they help produce the impact you want. But they aren’t the impact. Can you tell me what the impact of your business should be?

THE LEADER – Yeah. We want to provide our clients with the best products and services in our market.

THE GUIDE – Ok. What’s the impact? What is the change you are creating?

THE LEADER – What do you mean? We want to do the best job we can serving our customers.

THE GUIDE – Serving your customers. Providing products and services are just things you do. They are activities. And you are spending your time focused on managing the activities of all your people. Right?

THE LEADER - - Yes and No. We have goals, sales projections, that we look at, in some cases on a daily basis. That’s how we measure how well we are doing. And we are a market leader here in town, so we are doing pretty well.

THE GUIDE – Uh Huh. So what’s the problem? Why did you come to me if you are goal oriented and results focused?

THE LEADER – Well … we have these prob…I’m not sure now that you mention it … There’s something missing in our business. I can’t put my finger on it. Some things are doing well and others … I guess I sense that we are not reaching our potential.

THE GUIDE – If you were to reach your potential, would you know it?

THE LEADER – Uh…that’s a good question.

THE GUIDE – Here’s the problem. You are a smart guy. You would not be the leader of your organization if you weren’t. You have the right degrees. You read books on leadership and management. You attend conferences. You stay up to date on trends in your industry. And as a result you have become very comfortable with the language of leadership and management.

The problem is – and you are like me in this way – we know more than we have experienced or have practiced. Ideas are important for helping us focus, clarify, motivate and articulate our perspective. But knowing an idea conceptually, even visualizing how it might work is not the same as having tested it to see if it does. And like most ambitious leaders you absorb new ideas all the time, but never give them the opportunity to see if they work. Let me ask you this …in the past six months, how many audio books have you listened to and how many books have you started on your Kindle?

THE LEADER – Gee, …I don’t know … maybe a dozen?

THE GUIDE – Yeah. And every time you pass through an airport, you look at the bookstand, and you buy a book because it has a compelling title and a fresh set of ideas. What was the last business book you finished?

THE LEADER – Uh…The One Minute Manager?

THE GUIDE – Yeah, exactly. Here’s what I’m driving at.  Ninety Nine percent of business leaders are doing what you are doing. They focus on activity results and the collection of ideas. And their budget serves as the only strategic plan they have.

What you should measure is change, impact, the difference you are making. And all those ideas you are collecting become a mental load. We read books to learn and grow. And we should measure their impact by the change we make.

THE LEADER – Ok. Tell me more.

THE GUIDE – Ever read any philosophy?

THE LEADER – Yeah, in college. Don’t remember much of it.

THE GUIDE – My favorite philosopher is Aristotle. Want to know why?


THE GUIDE – Because he understood how to establish the link between the idea of something and the experience or practice of it. What he said is that we should think of ourselves as artisans, craftsmen, who learn an art by practicing it. We learn by doing. And we learn by doing it over and over and over again. The same is true with leading. Reading books, listening to tapes, attending conferences, even getting advanced degrees have value, but they are not a substitute for practicing leadership skills in the real world.

THE LEADER – Ok. Let me sort this through. What you are saying is that for most leaders they are focused on the wrong things. They don’t really see it that way, but their gut tells them this is true. They do the best they can. But there is always something missing. They don’t know what it is, so they read books, go to conferences, attend lectures, and listen to tapes. They get ideas that seem helpful, get inspired to do better, but fall back into the same rut and routine because nothing has changed.

THE GUIDE – You’ve got it.

THE LEADER – So the trick is what? …practicing? That I don’t understand.

THE GUIDE – It is not the practicing. It is the process of turning ideas into experience that produces the kind of impact you desire. It comes back to impact and change.

THE LEADER – OK. So what does this have to do with my need for a strategic plan? After all, all you’ve given me are your ideas and nothing has changed.

THE GUIDE – It isn’t that nothing has changed. Your perception has changed. And if that matters then your actions can too.

THE LEADER – I do see your point. But still I am not clear about how this concerns a strategic plan for my business.

THE GUIDE – Many strategic plans are written to be documents that are checked off the activity list. They are perfunctory and for the most part merely project current reality into the future. At least that is the way many of the ones that I’ve encountered over the years. The shift in business is to a more results focus that has broader categories of measurement than just bottomline numbers. This shift affects how planning is done. And this is where we began. Let me ask you a question. Can you describe for me what you want your business to be like in 5 years?

THE LEADER - - Sure. I want to expand to include two other cities in our region.

THE GUIDE – Ok. That’s a goal. Now imagine that you have accomplished this goal. You are now in three cities. Describe for me what you see going on. Imagine you have put together a music video that celebrates the achievement of your goal. Tell me what you see. What music would be playing?

THE LEADER – I see my role has changed. Instead of managing my one office here, across the street there ( pointing out the window), I have a manager for each location.

THE GUIDE – So what are you doing? How does this change your activity schedule?

THE LEADER – Hmmm. I haven’t thought about that. Not sure.

THE GUIDE – This is a problem that many leaders in growing businesses face. They want to grow. And they think that what changes is that their life and work will be the same, only just at a higher activity level. What is hard to calculate are the number of changes required. Managing managers is different than managing a staff. Being the leader of a regional group of offices is different than being the manager of a single local office. The change is both professional and personal. It is more dramatic and demanding than you can imagine. You are not adding responsibilities, you are taking a quantum leap in the number and complexity of the responsibilities that you will have. It requires you to learn new skills, behaviors and approaches to leading. You and your business cannot continue to do things the same way. You will have to change.

THE LEADER – How do I know what I’ll need to know? This is bigger than I thought.

THE GUIDE – Don’t get overwhelmed . You don’t have to compress five years into 20 minutes. You have time. And you’ll be amazed at how short a time it will take, that is if you have a plan, are focused and are totally prepared to follow this path where it leads. Ok?

THE LEADER – Ok. Where do I start?

THE GUIDE – With a plan.

THE LEADER – Back to square one…

THE GUIDE – But on a different game board. You see we aren’t planning for a single local office, but for a regional group of three offices in three cities. We begin at the fulfillment of your plan.

THE LEADER – Yeah. This is different. Can we start now while this fresh?

THE GUIDE – Sure, I have another hour. We can talk project scope, process and cost later. Let’s begin by asking five questions. I want you to start writing a journal so that we have an historical record of your progress and of our interaction.

THE LEADER – OK. Can borrow some paper?

THE GUIDE – Sure. Here’s a pad. 

THE LEADER – Thanks.

THE GUIDE – OK. Now before I give the questions and get another cup of coffee, I want to say one more thing. While the success of your organization is a team effort led by you, the success of a planning / change process is totally up to you. You have to lead the effort by modeling the change. While others may have the desire for changes to be made, none are thinking like you are in terms of the development of the business. It is your role to lead them to a vision of the future that you all share and work to achieve. This becomes one of your primary responsibilities. The planning processes that I have worked on over the years that have been less than successful have ultimately been because the senior leader has not become the champion of the process or the resulting plan. You have to be your business’ champion if you want to reach your goal in five years. Ok?

THE LEADER – Yeah! Makes sense. Because I rose up through the ranks, I’ve always felt a little reticent to be too forceful in leading. You are giving me a picture of how I have to be different in the future. Wow! This is amazing.

THE GUIDE – Yes it is. Very exciting. Now let’s begin this adventure. I’d like you to write down the following questions, and while I go get us both some fresh coffee, give me your immediate response to them. They don’t have to be complete sentences or even phrases. But they have to make sense. The questions are:

1. Over the past 12 to 18 months, what has changed? How is the business in transition

2. What has been our impact? What difference have we made that matters?

3. Who have we impacted?

4. What opportunities do I have now that I didn’t a year ago?

5. What obstacles must we address? What problems have we created?

 < 10 minutes later>

THE LEADER - - Here are my responses.

THE GUIDE – Ok. No, just hang on to them. As we talk about the questions, write down other thoughts you have. The purpose behind this is help you think concretely about the changes that need to happen in order for your goal to be realized. When we are finished, your goal will have been transformed into a vision for impact. Once we have that clarified, developing your plan will be easy.

< 45 minutes later >

THE GUIDE – You have a beginning idea for what your life, work and business will be like in 5 years. I’m going to need to go, however, I want to quickly sketch out what my strategic plan looks like. Before I describe that do you have any questions?

THE LEADER – If we to follow through on this, how long will it take?

THE GUIDE – There is no waiting for the plan to be completed before you begin to implement. We have already begun to implement your plan. The skills you need you will learn and practice as we work together. You build commitment and support for your plan by the way you put your plan together. This way you learn to become a master craftsman of leadership arts. And your staff join you from the start in the adventure of growing into a regional market leader. Our teacher Aristotle would be so proud.

THE LEADER – OK. Never thought of myself as an artist. That will take some getting use to.

THE GUIDE – A typical plan consists of four parts.

There is a Vision statement. We’ve discussed that already. However, it is important to understand that it needs to be simple, concise and impact focused. From that statement are derived a few – two or three – Goals that are a restatement of the Vision. If we took your five year goal of having offices in three cities, one of the goals could be something like “to be a regional leader serving in …”.

Then we develop Strategies to fulfill each goal. Strategies are not simple action steps. Rather they are collaborative efforts that focus the work of the organization. In this case, a strategy could be establishing rapport with lenders, business leaders and potential customers to determine the right location for your business in their community. Each strategy then is divided out into specific Action Steps with an estimation of time and cost and assignment of responsibility for the initiative. The usefulness of this approach is that it helps you manage your activities so that you can maintain your focus on results. This will become clearer as we work through the process. Is this clear enough for now?

THE LEADER – Yeah. What I like about it is that it is all integrated, linked together. I have my dream and I see how I can achieve it. Wow! I didn’t expect this to come out of this meeting. Ok, what’s next?

THE GUIDE – I’m going to prepare a set of questions that I want you, your staff and some of your clients to answer. I’m going to ask for some documents that describe how you are organized. Because with growth comes the need to address organizational structure. I need to know whether your operation is based on clear policy choices, or, are you primarily operating on the strength of your personality and character. To grow like you wish, your operating structure will have to grow as well. I’ll have those questions to you by the end of the week, along with a project proposal that will include process, timeframe and costs. Does that sound okay to you?

THE LEADER – Yes it does. Thank you very much. This is going to be great.

THE GUIDE – Yes, it is. Remember this day. It is the beginning of what could be a life-long adventure of pursuing a vision for impact that still forming in your mind. Thank you for letting me join you in this journey.

< conversation ends >


I've had many of these conversations over the past two decades. There are two sets of lessons that I've learned.

Lesson Set #1:

Strategic planning is a conversation. It takes place in relationships. It is a personal process that takes place in a business context. It is so because strategic planning is a change process. You can’t change an organization without changing the people and the relationships in it.

Strategic planning is an analytical process focused on enhancing the impact that you wish to achieve. If there is no vision, there is no reason to change or to improve. If there is no plan and no way to change, then the vision is a fantasy that is soon recalled with regret, maybe even bitterness.

Strategic planning is a tool for building an organizational community focused on individual performance experienced as the impact which is a shared vision for the future.You can not do it alone. The clearer the plan, the better the conversation, the more trusting the relationships, the more likely your vision of impact will be realized.

Lesson Set #2:

Strategic planning is less and less about long term planning, and more about providing a platform for adaptive leadership. This primarily means that a plan is a daily change process.

The Leader of an organization is now more of a facilitator of other's leadership than the sole leader who delegates. One of the major shifts in the operation of the organization is in the encouragement and equipping of individual leadership at all levels of the organization. Leadership in this sense is initiative taken to create impact. For the majority of the organization's employees this means that they become problem solvers and system adapters to change.

Measuring impact or change is more critical now than ever.  One way to get at this is look at what is called the Triple / Quadruple Bottom LIne

It is important also to understand that how we measure results is influenced by our experience of the acceleration of time. Now, a minute, an hour, a day are still the same length, but our experience has changed. We are now forcing more tasks, decisions and encounters into the same space of time as we have always had. The benefit / liability of technology is that we can do more with fewer resources, in less time for greater results. We need to recognize that measuring performance requires us to be much clearer and specific about what matters. We need to be clear about what results from our life and work actually matter. Impact or creating change or difference is how I've come to understand what we must do.

Lastly, we need more conversation that creates the conditions of collaboration. My Circle of Impact Leadership Guides are designed to foster conversation built around the Five Questions. Do this with everyone in your organization, and everyone will begin to see the big picture, within the context of their specific place within the organization. This is essential for leading change in the 21st. Century.