The Edge of the Real: The Call of Desire

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DESIRE

The physical, emotional, or intellectual longing that is directed towards something or someone that is wanted.

Sarah Coakley, PhD.

Cambridge University

Desire is a longing which bridges our inner life with the outer world. It is a longing for connection, completion, and relationship.

Desire is a longing for fulfillment or achievement. It is a longing that is born in emptiness, frustration, or loss. It is the feeling that comes from a missed opportunity or the sense of unrealized potential when a project ends suddenly, or when love shared goes unrequited. 

This longing is born in our experience of change. It is something we feel inside. It is our inner voice telling us that more could be done or needs to be done.

Desire does not fade. It seeks out that which is beyond our grasp today, but maybe not tomorrow. Our desires define who we are.

Desire precedes and is greater than our goals, strategies, plans and intentions. Desire is that deep core within us that we identify as what we love, for those people and causes to whom we give ourselves with passion and sacrifice. It is that place within us where human flourishing finds its source and motivation.

I've seen desire in people for a long time. Early on, it was that "thing" which emerged when a group began to have a vision for their organization or community. They are passionate about their cause. They see it, feel it, taste it, smell it as this movie-like visualization of a idea that comes to life and compels them to invest their shared life to bring it to fulfillment.

Passionate desire is a longing for something better that engages the whole person, mind, body and spirit. It is who we are at our most central, deep and intimate level.

The desire for wholeness is born within us. Philosophers, theologians, motivational experts, story-tellers, and artists have spoken about desire, passion, and completeness in many and various ways. They know, as we know, that this is the nature of our world. Broken, incomplete, unjust, raw, untouched potential, filled with passionate visions of the good which touch us down deep inside, drawing us out into a life which is better, more complete and whole. This isn't a new story. It is rather the oldest story of human endeavor taking on urgency for each of us, everyday.

To follow our desire, we must think for ourselves, act as responsible persons, and live as the embodiment of that desire. Out of this commitment we discover a new life, and the potential for completeness.

Philosopher James K.A. Smith, writes,

“… we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things ... what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are – is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate – what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hoped for, what we think the good life looks like. The vision of the good life shapes all kinds of actions and decisions and habits that we undertake, often without our thinking about it.”

The challenge is to not get lost in the rush of emotion that comes from passion.  We need to treat our passions with maturity, respect, and understanding.  Our passions have the power to create goodness as well as to destroy the very desires at the heart of our passion. 

We, therefore, need to understand the source of desire. We need to find a way to create patterns of thought and practices of behavior that allow us to see how to bridge the deep reservoir of meaning within in us with the world of change that envelops us like the sea does its fish.

The Three Desires

Over the years, as I've listened to what people say and have observed what they do, both in private and organizational settings, I've seen that this inscruble thing called desire is always present. It is evident in the passions and visions that people have for their future. It is also evident in their response to situations where they are frustrated, disappointed, anxious or angry.

I eventually came to see that this desire from down deep within us is a mix of three desires. I've concluded that this is the spiritual core of our humanity, or, what we mean by our human spirit. It is the center of our individual humanity that is the platform for the life and relationships we nurture in the outer world. It is what is celebrated, what elicits tears, cheers and commitment to making sacrificial gifts of art, wealth and time. From my own experience, I see this as the mark of divine intention upon our humanity. Nourish these desires, and we see why we exist, and what our lives are to mean in practice and difference. Our desires carry that kind of singular importance.

The Three Desires guide how we function in our work, our communities, and our families. Our desires are revealed when we plan, in how we address problems, in our celebration and mourning of life's transitions , when we succeed or fail, and, in how we go through the changes and transitions of our lives and work.

What are these desires and how are we to understand their function in our lives?

Our Three Desires are

for Personal Meaning, for Happy, Healthy Relationships,

and, to Make a Difference That Matters.

 Three Desires-Impact-NoFill
We desire for our lives to have personal meaning.

Our minds sort through our experiences; sift through the sensory data we are receiving; categorize the information that we absorb; identify patterns of behavior and recurrence of ideas; then, our minds establish order, perspective, understanding, and finally meaning.

Most of the time, all of this takes place just below the level of our conscious awareness. Learning from childhood onward to think this this way, it becomes second nature. Physicist and philosopher Michael Polanyi describes it as tacit knowledge. It is that knowledge that we know, but we don't know how we know it. We just know it. It is learned in the experience of life.

We think this way, finding meaning in our lives and in the world, until there are too many discontinuities. Increasingly, in the modern world, these discontinuities are markers of societal and intellectual change on a grand scale. All the meaningful continuities of the past, of belief in God, in the goodness of humankind, in the power of government to do good, in freedom, opportunity and progress. Each of these points of personal and societal meaning are in transition. It doesn't mean that the foundational truths are changing, but rather how they function in the world is changing.

Personal meaning is not just a set of intellectual or spiritual beliefs that are important to us. This sense of meaning rises from down deep in us. It is not just individual, but a shared feeling. I've seen it in working with businesses. There is something that draws these people together. Some vision or desire that compels them to join their lives together to venture forth in some great endeavor.

A vision of this sort, as I point out in my Circle of Impact Leadership system, is formed by ideas. They provide a core belief or meaning for us to make the commitment to work together towards goals that we define as our organizational purpose. A vision, then, is a picture of shared meaning that is acted upon by the people who work within an institutional system to create impact.

Circle of Impact- simple

We articulate this order by telling stories. We share our opinions, make decisions and practice ethical discernment because of the clarification of the values that form our desires, or are the product of our desire for personal meaning.

We act on what is personally meaningful, by defining our purpose, by elevating values that underlie our purpose to a central place in our relationships with others, and, then, together, implement a vision that leads to the impact that is a fulfillment of that which is meaningful to us.

Unless there is constant attention to sustaining a culture of founding values, future generations only see those values as relatively meaningless, and possibly, irrelevant cultural practices.* In other words, Personal Meaning is not private meaning, but meaning that is shared within the social context of our lives.

We desire to have happy, healthy relationships.

In a previous post in this series, Fragmented Boundaries, I write,

I am who I am, always have been, always will be. Though I live in the external world, I am who I am, in an always changing interaction between this person who I am and the world in which I live. Therefore, I am always becoming the person who I am right now.

Crossing the boundary from our inner life to the outer world requires an engagement with that world. It is in our relationships with one another that we find our most tangible connection to the outer world. Let me describe what I see.

Recently, I took a salsa making class. In this class was a retired couple who had been married for six years. As we prepared our salsas, they talked about all the cooking classes that they had attended, from Santa Fe to Boston to Paris, and soon, in Tuscany.
I asked them, "Which one of you was the foodie who got the other involved? They said, "Neither. When we got married, we decided to do something that neither of us had ever done. We took a cooking class, and found out that we both loved it."
What was it that they loved? Sharing the experience of learning, of being creative, and establishing a whole new circle of friends in their hometown.

In the context of their relationship, individual desires, long dormant, came to life. Joy and meaning, and a life that matters resulted. For not only has their experience provided them a context for a happy, healthy marriage, it has also brought them into relationship with people that they may never have had  the opportunity to know.   

We are social beings, even the most shy, introverted and individualistic ones of us. It isn't that we want to hang out with people all the time. It is that our engagement with people, more than in any other facet of our lives, is where our inner selves meets the outer world. To speak, to know, to share, or to love, requires something from within us to form into words or actions that communicate to the other person, who translates what they see and hear into something that touches their inner self.

We are not random objects bumping into one another, like billiard balls on a pool table. We are purposeful, desiring beings who seek connection with other purposeful, desiring beings.

Our shared connections make us tribal beings as well. We gather around the things we love which release our passion in life. My tribes are the church, social entrepreneurs, organizational and community leaders, people who desire change, the Red Sox Nation, jazz and classical music aficionados, lovers of history, philosophy and culture, and travelers through landscapes of mountains, oceans and open spaces.   

We learn in the context of relationships; a living context where our inner lives touch the outer world in a less mechanistic, more organic way. To know someone, to interact with them, requires us to live in a shared story of meaning and expectation. This is true for our oldest friends and family, as well as the person that we have just met.

Our human relationships are the embodiment of particular values that are intimate, social and practical.

A happy relationship is one free of doubt, open to vulnerability, peaceful, affirming, with genuine compatibility, and love.

A healthy relationship is built upon the mutual practices of openness, respect, trust, honesty, and responsibility.

There are two distinct contexts for our relationships. One is personal, the other professional.

Happiness and health in our relationships with friends, lovers, spouses, children, parents and in-laws function in a long historical arch. Live with someone for ten, thirty or fifty years, and our lives are bound together in ways that are invisible and continually present. We nurture the health and happiness of long term relationships by giving our attention to the core desires that we each have individually and those we share. It is by this daily practice that we produce happiness and health. The ancients believed that happiness and health came as the virtues of life were mastered. This is the intention that is needed in our closest, most intimate relationships.

A relationship between two people is between individual persons. Each is defined by their own distinct values. Each is defined by what they desire in a relationship to the other, and, together they grow into an understanding of the difference their lives are to make. When there is compatibility and a sharedness in each of these three parts of our lives, then happiness and health can grow.

In the professional sphere, our relationships are less personal, more detached, more difficult to be qualified by the terms happy and healthy. Modern organizations have become increasing dehumanizing, unreceptive to human interaction (communication), and lacking the supervisory space to allow for the expression of individual initiative to create a collaborative environment for relationship.

As the old, dying models of 20th. century hierarchy fail to adapt to the rapid introduction of technologies for individual autonomy and collaboration, resistance to change grows. Defense of institutional positions of power and influence create weakness in the operating structures of organizations, making them less agile and more prone to corruption and violation of founding values.

Outside of many of these corporate structures are networks of relationships that are spontaneous, open and collaborative. Leadership is not directed and delegated, but shared and facilitated. The network of the relationship is marked by the phenomenon of shared values, responsibility and outcomes. The structure of organization that is needed rises from the purpose and desired impact of their work together, and by design is agile and adaptive to contexts of rapid, discontinuous change.

Network-Hierarchy ImageThe weakness of these networks of relationships is that it is difficult to scale and sustain the work of these kinds of relationships. As a result, they need a structure within which to work that can accommodate the energy and ambiguity that exists in these relationships. The challenge of hierarchy is nimbleness for change. Networks of relationships emerge out of the discovery that we - WE - share similar desires that call us together for achieving impact.  These structures need one another to counter their inherent weaknesses.

We desire to make a difference that matters.

The desire to make a difference that matters is the most fundamental expression of human desire. It is what we do, and the effect of what we do that we see as validating the value of our lives.

For some people, the obsessive need to prove their worth in achievement is the extreme expression of this most human of desires. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the lack of desire towards achievement or fulfillment is the product of the weaknesses or absence of the other two desires.

To make a difference is to create impact. To create impact is to take some idea or value and create a living expression of it.

If there is a forward movement through the three desires, it is towards making a difference that matters.  It is the most logical place where achievement and completion are realized.

There is some satisfaction in finding what is personally meaningful, as well as in having happy, healthy relationships. But it is this third desire which brings wholeness to our lives. If values strengthen the mind, and friendship enriches our physical life, it is making a difference through the expression of values in our relationships that brings the three parts of ourselves to fulfillment.

As a result, it is what we do, create and the impact we have which is the greatest expression of human spirit, and where wholeness is realized.

The Leadership of Making a Difference That Matters

Early on in my exploration of leadership, I came to see that all leadership begins with personal initiative. This initiative is specifically an act of decision in response to an inner desire for change. In effect, leadership is a form of our inner selves' engagement with the outer world.

This perspective is vastly different from views that are hierarchial or inspirational. Neither view places the source of leadership in human desire. Instead these views see leadership as either a position of responsibility within a management system, or, a kind of sloganistic pumping up of one's emotions to do various kinds of work.

My early inspiration for seeing leadership as a function of human desire towards creating change came from Peter Drucker, one of the preeminent management thinkers of the 21st. century. In his book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, that was spark that led to the creation of my own leadership consultancy a decade later. Drucker writes about entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs see change as the norm and as healthy. Usually, they do not bring about the change themselves. But – and this defines entrepreneur and entrepreneurship – the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.

Drucker's view from three decades ago remains true today. Change is the norm. Effective leaders, as well as managers, learn to work within the context of change. This requirement is now no longer limited to people in positions of leadership, but the necessity for each individual, regardless of their place, standing or position in life or work. To respond to one's desires, is to accept, not a leadership role, but a call to take initiative to make a difference that matters.

The Call of Desire

Desire rises from within us as a longing for connection, completion and fulfillment. It is expressed in the desire for personal meaning, happy, healthy relationships, and, to make a difference that matters with one's life. This movement of desire bridges our inner selves with the outer world. When we act upon our desires to make a difference that matters, we are exhibiting the character of leadership.

Our desires, therefore, are a call upon our lives. A call to step out to make a difference in a way that fulfills one's desires.

The Call of Desire is a call to meaning, friendship, wholeness and impact in life. When we respond to this call from within us, we are deciding to change not only our outer world, but also ourselves. When we do, we turn away from the world of the Spectacle with its artificial hyper reality. We claim a reality that can be touched and experienced, created and replicated. This is how we reclaim the real for our lives and for the people and places where our lives make a difference that matters.

The call begins within, must be answered, and lived out in the world of change. As a result our lives take on the character of an unfolding story. It is this story that I'll explore in my next post.

*See Jim Collins and Jerry Porras' Built to Last for a description of this reality.

Leaders Open Doors - by Bill Treasurer - A Leading Questions Review

Some things that touch me emotionally very deeply. LOD cover

People who have special needs, and the people who care for them.

And people who are servant leaders who inspire others to take initiative to make a difference.

Bill Treasurer accomplishes both in a very simple, compelling, authentic way.

Bill is a leadership consultant and writer who has just published a much needed book for all leaders. It is a timely message that should resonate with leaders all over the world.

Leaders Open Doors: A Radically Simple Leadership Approach to Lift People, Profits, and Performance describes six strategies that leaders can deploy to provide new and better opportunities for people.

Many leaders must acquire a new mindset in order to fully appreciate the simplicity and genius of his message. He writes, 

Being an open-door leader requires having an understanding of what an open-door leader does. It also means having an opportunity mind-set, a significant shift from the more common threat-focused way of leading.  ... Open-door leaders view challenging as opportunities not problems. Instead of injecting people with fear, the help peole see the opportunities that challenges provide, inspiring them with excitement and hope. The resulting optimism lifts morale and performance.

Is this just more of the same relational rhetoric that leadership writers are producing lately, or is this an important insight that we should each stop and reflect upon?

One way to answer the question is by asking to what degree are your people reaching their potential. 

Do you have any way of measuring your employees potential? Do you know what potential is? Do you have a program or methodology for developing potential?

These are important questions for an organizational leader if they hope to get great performance out of their staff.

Bill Treasurer's open-door approach is place to begin this development. 

It isn't just a mechanical process of looking for more work for people to do. Rather, it is a way of building trust and initiative for impact within the business.

Trust grows when employees recognize that their boss or supervisor believes that they can do great things. This is different than heavy expectations for performance that are not reasonable and fear-based.  When doors are opened, and opportunity presented, then personal initiative produces benefits that no other way of managing people can do

Opportunities Make a Difference; Opportunities Create Change

Every opportunity to excel is an opportunity to make a positive change. Bill Treasurer's six open-doors are thresholds of change.

They provide people the opportunity ...

to prove themselves,

to find new meaning in life and work,

to have a second chance to make a difference,

to practice open-door leadership for others,

to become a person of integrity and authenticity, and,

to know how to build relationships of loyalty and trust.

Change your relationships, change your life and work. Change them within your business, change your business. Opening doors is a way to make it happen.

The Difference Matters

Bill Treasurer's Leaders Open Door is the right book at the right time. It is ideal for a leaders retreat, for discussion in a mentoring relationship, or to share with family, friends and colleagues.

By buying and giving this book away, you are opening doors. Not only for business people who may learn how to change their leadership method, but also because all the proceeds from sales of the book go to help special needs kids. Here's a video to explain.

 


Leading by Vacuum

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"Nature abhors a vacuum."

Aristotle

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.

FlowLeadership

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.

SharedLeadershipImpact

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.      

Update:

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


Measuring Leadership

Circle of Impact
There are no real measures of leadership.

Well, they are, but what we use are not real measures.

What we typically measure is management, not leadership.

The management of people, products and processes. 

That is different than leadership.

Management numbers may ... may ... have a relationship to leadership. But it needs to be defined.

So, if you are going to measure leadership then you need to define what it is, and define it in such a way that you can measure it.

 

Defining Leadership

Here's how I define leadership.

Leaders take initiative to create impact.

Each word is intentional.

Initiate

    Leaders start, engage, facilitate, act, do and take the first step.

Create

    Leaders generate processes, products, systems, relationships, openness, cultures, opportunities, or the next ones, and they adapt, form, and bring into existence what is new, needed and necessary.

Impact

    Leaders make a difference that matters by creating change.

 

By this definition any person can function as a leader. What does this mean for those people who are in executive and supervisory roles in traditional vertically integrated hierarchical organizational structures?

It is simple.

Executive leaders initiate the creative processes which produce leaders who initiate to create impact.

This means that executive leaders are measured by the leadership of those for whom they are responsible. This is quite similar to what we have thought of as management, but there is a difference.

The difference is that the management of efficiency, predictability and consistency requires control those who work for them. The reality is that this is a fading reality. Businesses are rapidly changing, by necessity, and our understanding of leadership needs to catch up.

The Three Dimensions of Leadership

Now if everyone simply initiated change in a random manner, then greater chaos would ensue.

Therefore, an integral part of executive leadership is coordinating the leadership of others. Executives do so through three principal areas: Ideas, Relationships and the context which each person has through the social and organizational structures of their work.

In other words, leaders facilitate clarity around the Connecting Ideas of Purpose, Values, Vision and Impact. They facilitate the communication and coordination of the actions that follow the organization's purpose. 

Executive leaders build a culture of shared leadership through the shared responsibility for the organization's defined purpose, values and its vision for impact.

As a result, leadership spreads out through the company. We can see a better connection between the company's purpose and the means to achieve its bottom line. Better communication, and a greater sense of community between the people in the company, fosters a culture that adapts more quickly to the opportunities and obstacles that present themselves every day.

Measuring Leadership

So, how do we measure leadership.

First, we define the change we want by defining the purpose of the impact that we seek.

We track change. We track the changes that we see in how the Connecting Ideas are being use. We track change in how people communicate and work together. And we track changes in processes as they adapt to new circumstances.

Second, we identify and track employee initiative.

We track the connection between communication and issue resolution. If people are taking initiative to resolve issues at their own point of responsibility, then you are seeing the spread of leadership in the company.

Third, we track the speed of change.

How fast does it take for an idea to be enacted? The key to this returns to the Connecting Ideas. These ideas provide a context of understanding that can guide the initiative leadership of people.

Ultimately, the measure of leadership is the number of leaders who have been formed and nurtured by the company, and the collective impact of their shared leadership.

By growing a leadership culture of initiative, a company can become a community of leaders whose impact is far beyond what it was when everyone was being managed to just do their job.


The Benefits of Adaptive Learning

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The other day, I stopped by to see a friend and colleague. On his desk was one of the best leadership books of the past decade, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow. It is stellar description for leadership of the importance of the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Adaptation is a key skill for leaders who are managing change, while at the same time creating stable, sustainable enterprises.

Peter Mello and I had the opportunity to interview Marty Linsky on the book for two Weekly Leader podcasts, Part 1 and Part 2. It is worth hearing Linsky talk about the book and his work with Ron Heifetz.

Sitting there with this friend in his office, talking about leadership, how we deal with people in various situations, I came to a realization about myself, and about adaptive leadership.

In order to be an adaptive leader, we must be an adaptive learners.

I  realized, then, that virtually everything I know, I learned from someone else.

It wasn't like a being student in a classroom learning from a teacher. Rather, it was learning by listening and observing to the lessons embedded in a person's perceptions and experience.

Listening and Observing - keys to being an adaptive learner.

Informational or Contextual?

There is no way I can tell you what I have learned from any particular individual. It isn't that type of learning.

It isn't informational learning.

Rather it is contextual learning. Learning from the context of a person is learning to see how ideas matter within a certain distinct situation.

It isn't abstract, or detached from experience. Rather, it is how an idea that transitions from the idea itself to something practical and real, that's applied in a particular situation.

The use of values in an organization is an example.

There are two types of values.

There are the ones that are on a list that the company claims are their values.

Then, there are the ones that actually are practiced by the people in the company.

These two sets of values are not always the same, congruent or even aligned.  Depending upon different conditions, the same understanding of value will have a different application in an organization.

Company A espouses to be an open, transparent organization placing a high value on communication. Company B makes the same claim. The difference is in their context.

Company A is physically structured so that executives are separated into their own discrete offices. Communication is mediated by administrative assistants, and written information distributed throughout the company. If you want to speak to V.P. Joe, you go through his assistant Mary, or look at the latest memo.

Company B is physically structured around an open space concept. My friend Dana Leman of RandomKid share with me her experience of touring the Bloomberg offices in New York. She sent me a link ot a video tour of their offices. Regardless of your position, your office is in the midst of this open concept. The benefit is a greater exchange of ideas.

So, two companies can claim allegiance to the same values, but their application of those values be totally different. To understand the difference is to understand how to these insights and apply them in your own context.

Through my conversation with Dana, my perception of how to organize office space is different.

This is how adaptive learning happens. We listen for insights for applying ideas in various contexts. The more we learn from others the clearer our own understanding becomes, and how we can be adaptive leaders.

This kind of understanding is tacit and intuitive. It isn't an understanding derived from an analytical process. Rather, our brains synthetically weave together many thoughts, impressions, experiences, and feelings to provide understanding. The more this emergent awareness is allowed to take place the greater the capacity for adaptive leadership.

Adaptive leadership is a shift away from the old command-and-control method.

It requires openness to other people, their ideas, their experiences and an appreciation of their particular context.  The easiest way to begin to learn this kind of adaptive behavior is simply to listen and apply the good ideas that you hear each day. 

The Difference Adaptive Learning has made to me.

Sitting in my friend's office, I came to realize that adaptive learning had been my practice for over 30 years.

Listen and learn from people, whomever you meet, you can learn something from them.

Listen to them, ask questions to clarify what their experience was. Listen without trying to compete. Listen to learn.

Take what is heard and seen, then, reflect, process and apply what you learned.

Share what you learned with others. Express gratitude.  

This is how the Circle of Impact Leadership Guides came to be developed. Circle of Impact
From lots of conversations over the years, about what was happening in organizations, each one contributing a little piece of wisdom and understanding, creating a holistic perspective, I learned what I was suppose to see in leadership. In effect, these are not my ideas, but rather my catalog of what I've learned from other people. These lessons have wide applicability because this is the product of contextual learning, not simply the exchange of information.

The benefits of adaptive learning are many.  Here's what I've learned.

1. We learn that Ideas matter.

They are the key to understanding where we are and how we can adapt to the changes that are constantly confronting us. They connect us to people. They are tools for being more effective communicators. All learning at the most fundamental level is about ideas. Without ideas, we are left only with feelings. As a result, adaptive leaders must also be idea people who are interested in the ideas of others, not just in what they are thinking.

2. We learn that Relationships matter.

When we place ourselves in a position to learn from every person with whom we meet, every single one, we come to understand how our interaction within a social context is where the action of organizations is found. The greater our capacity for forming adaptive learning relationships, the greater our capacity to develop the adaptive capacities of employees.  Those adaptive capacities provide employees the opportunity to lead from their own specific work context. This is part of what I mean by the idea, Community of Leaders.

3. We learn that Structures are either tools for adaptive learning and leadership, or they are obstacles.

If the structure of a business does not provide a way for people to learn from one another, and to apply that learning, then it is stuck in a system of operation that is not sustainable. 

For many businesses, the structure of their organization is, seemingly, the only tangible, secure, stable, set, concrete, real thing that exists. It is a monument to the past, not a platform for constant adaptation and innovation.

4. We learn that learning matters more than knowing.

When our posture towards others is learning from them, we are less concerned about making sure they understand just how much we know.

It this is an issue for you, then practice asking questions about things you do not know. Read books in subject areas in which you have no background. Stop trying to reinforce you own knowledge, and start expanding it. Start listening for the wisdom and insight in others.

5. We learn that if we never stop learning, we also never arrive at a full and complete understanding of anything.

Adaptive learning isn't a tactic we deploy for a period of time to ramp up our current knowledge on a subject. Rather, adaptive learning is a lifestyle of openness to new ideas, fresh insights from people and a reflective approach to applying ideas by doing things differently one step at a time.

6. We learn that adaptive learning changes us so that adaptive leadership is possible.  

Adaptive learning simplifies the way we approach leadership. It becomes about the impact we need to have right now. The old way of strategic planning is having to change to become more adaptable. This approach produces leaders who are nimble, intuitive and able to take advantage of the changes that are constantly happening.To adapt is to change. To change in this way is to make a difference that matters, it is to create impact. Becoming impact focused simplifies leadership.

7. We learn that adaptive learning leads to adaptive leadership which leads ultimately to becoming a Community of Leaders.

An adaptive leader will be most effective in creating a culture of adaptive learning. To do so means that each person takes responsibility for their learning, their contributing and their responsibility to create impact. Adaptive learning starts with the personal decision to learn from others. This nurtures within the individual the personal intiiative from which all leadership originates.  It isn't just the individual initiating change. It is the whole organization as a community functioning as adaptive leaders.  This is what I see as a Community of Leaders.

Realizing that I have lived this way throughout my life, my gratitude grew towards the hundreds of people from whom I've learned. Many are no longer with us. Many have no idea of the impact that they have had on me. Many are friends who are my go-to-people for counsel when I need it. Many are random people whom I've met in passing whose stories and insight helped me gain a deeper appreciation of so many different ideas and ways of leading organizations. If you are one of these people, I thank you.


The End and The Beginning Redux

In March of 2011, I wrote a post called The End and The Beginning.  Here's an excerpt.

What I see is:

    The Beginning of the End of the Progressive ideal.

     The  End of the Beginning of the Capitalist model.

     The Emergence of freedom and democracy on a global scale.

The first two, Progressivism and Capitalism, along with modern Science, are the principal products of the age of Enlightenment.

The Progressive ideal believed, and still does by many of its advocates, that through government control of science and industry a free, equitable and peaceful world could be achieved. Conceived during the 19th century as a belief that society could be perfected, and as a counter-balance to the industrialization taking place in Europe and the United States, it was an utopian belief in a well-order, controlled, uniform world.

The Capitalist model was born in a belief that each individual should be free to pursue their own economic welfare, and not be forced by government rules or economic servitude to do that which they choose not to do. It was the ideology that provided the basis of the industrialization out which has come prosperity for more people in history and the rise of the modern middle class.

Both the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model have brought great benefits and liabilities to society. They form the two sides of virtually every divisive issue confronting the world today. They are quite similar, yet in very different ways. Both are organized around the control of power and wealth. Both have been institutionalized in the large, hierarchical organizations in Washington and on Wall Street, and in similar institutions throughout the world.

Over the past decade, the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model have begun to show their age. The assumptions that underlie these ideologies are being challenged by forces of change that are beyond their control. Because the control of global forces of change is problematic and less realistic.

I wrote this before the Occupy Wall Street movement began.

I have thought for a long time that there was an evolutionary cycle of institutional decline taking place. Some of this change was the result of out-dated organizational and leadership philosophies, and some of it the emergence of technologies that provide for a more boundary-less environment for communication and collaboration.

This change is an organic process that will ultimately transform or replace most organizations. While I still believe this to be true, I also see that there is a revolutionary cycle of institutional destruction taking place as well.

Read these two different views of the Occupy Wall Street movement. First, Naomi Wolfe's The Guardian article, The Shocking Truth about the Crackdown on Occupy. Then read Matthew Continetti's The Weekly Standard editorial, Anarachy in the USA.

If both are right, then what we are seeing is the rise of political violence on a broader scale in America than we have seen since the late 1960's / early 1970's.  I see parallels from my youth in this generation of young people who rush to join the protests, without really knowing what they hope to change. Their frustration is shared broadly.

A few times over the past few months, I have heard business people in differing contexts say something like, "I'm not making any investments in equipment, no acquisitions of companies, and no hiring until after next year's election."  The reason, instability, a lack of clarity about the rules. In effect, they don't know how their investments will be taxed. As a result, they are forced to sit and wait, contributing to a further erosion of jobs and economic sustainability for families and communities.

This fits with the trends picture presented by Charles Hugh Smith in his post The Future of Jobs. Look closely at the 5Ds at the end of this list.

Most cultural and economic trend changes begin on the margin and then spread slowly to the core, triggering waves of wider recognition along the way. Thus some of these long-wave trends may not yet be visible to the mainstream, and may remain on the margins for many years. Others are so mature that they may be primed for reversal.

The key here is to be aware of each of these, think on which are most likely to impact your current profession and how, and estimate when that impact is likely to be expressed so that you can position yourself wisely in advance:

  1. Automation enabled by the Web…
  2. The cost structure of the US economy—the system-wide cost of housing, food, energy, transport, education, health care, finance, debt, government, and defense/national security--is high and rising, even as productivity is lagging. …
  3. The stress of operating a small business in a stagnant, over-indebted, high-cost basis economy is high, and owners find relief only by opting out and closing their doors. …
  4. The Central State has been co-opted or captured by concentrations of private wealth and power to limit competition and divert the nation’s surplus to Elites within the key industries of finance, health care, education, government, and national security. ….
  5. Financialization of the economy has incentivized unproductive speculation and malinvestment at the expense of productive investment. …
  6. The U.S. economy has bifurcated into a two-tiered regulatory structure. Politically powerful industries such as finance, education, health care, oil/natural gas, and defense benefit from either loophole-riddled regulation or regulation that effectively erects walls that limit smaller competitors from challenging the dominant players. …
  7. Selective globalization and political protection has created a two-tiered labor market in the US. …
  8. Financialization and the two-tiered labor market have led to a two-tiered wealth structure in which the top 10%'s share of the nation’s wealth has outstripped not just the stagnant income and wealth of the lower 90%, but of productivity, the ultimate driver of national wealth.
  9. … Looking farther out, there are emerging trends I call “the five Ds:” definancialization, delegitimization, deglobalization, decentralization and deceleration. …
  10. Definancialization. Resistance to the political dominance of banks and Wall Street is rising, and the financial industry that thrived for the past three decades may contract to a much smaller footprint in the economy.
  11. Delegitimization. The politically protected industries of government, education, health care, and national security are increasingly viewed as needlessly costly, top-heavy, inefficient, or failing. Supporting them with ever-increasing debt is widely viewed as irresponsible. Cultural faith in large-scale institutions as “solutions” is eroding, as is the confidence that a four-year college education is a key to financial security. 
  12. Deglobalization. Though it appears that globalization reigns supreme, we can anticipate protectionism will increasingly be viewed as a just and practical bulwark against high unemployment and withering domestic industries. We can also anticipate global supply chains being disrupted by political turmoil or dislocations in the global energy supply chain; domestic suppliers will be increasingly valued as more trustworthy and secure than distant suppliers.
  13. Decentralization. As faith in Federal and State policy erodes, local community institutions and enterprise will increasingly be viewed as more effective, responsive, adaptable, and less dysfunctional and parasitic than Federal and State institutions.
  14. Deceleration. As debt and financialization cease being drivers of the economy and begin contracting, the entire economy will decelerate as over-indebtedness, systemic friction, institutional resistance to contraction (“the ratchet effect”), and political disunity are “sticky” and contentious.

So, a picture emerges that promises the economic and political environment to be more unstable and volatile over the coming year. I believe this requires us to make a change in our perspective about the way we view the evolutionary changes that are working in tandem and at time against the revolutionary changes of the past few months.

Understanding the Transition

Many of the people I am with on a daily basis feel a strong ambiguity towards institutions, like government, business and religion. Many of these institutions are failing, declining, or evaporating before our eyes. I don't need to go into the reasons why. It really doesn't matter that much because to a great degree, it is a function of the transition from one era to the next. I don't believe we can stop those changes. Our course of action is to be different. Here are some of the ways we can adapt to this changing social landscape.

1. Develop Parallel Structures that provide a buffer against the disintegration of legacy institutions. Creating parallel and redundant structures provides a greater margin of security against the shifts that are taking place. The thinking process behind this is to define the four Connecting Ideas of Mission, Values, Vision and Impact for your organization, and then answer, How do we create the structures that can fulfill the potential that resides in this ideas?

2. Develop Networks of Trust that provide a community of collaborators who stand with one another as economic conditions worsen. If society moves towards a more anarchic, violent place, then having a network of trust is essential for security and safety.

3. Develop a Long View / Big Picture that projects out how new ways of working can become sustainable.  Right now, using traditional plannng methods, it is very difficult to create a long range plan for development. Yet, without some clarity about the Big Picture, we are at the mercy of the current fashionable idea. Build a Long View / Big Picture around the Values that are most important to you and to those who are in your network of relationships. Strong values lived out in our relationships are an essential strength for being more adaptible in the face of revolutionary change.

4. Develop an Independent, Adaptable Mind that is able to discern the Big Picture in the moment of decision. Don't let someone else tell you what to think. Think for yourself. Do your own research. Read broadly. Think critically, with a view to understanding context, trends and what the Big Picture is. Engage in conversation, ask questions, change your mind, and build a network of people who are just as independently like minded.

5. Develop the Character of Resiliency that refuses to quit or fail, but continues to adapt and learn. This resiliency comes from an inner strength of courage and confidence that we can go through any difficult situation and remain true to ourselves. To be resilient requires us to see ourselves as more than the victim of current circumstances, but able to adapt and change to create the structures and relationships needed to advance forward.

6. Develop Traditions that Celebrate Values that unite people together as communities of shared mission and responsibility.  Of the four Connecting Ideas, Values is the only one that does not change. Our values are the glue that holds us together in times of crisis and stress. It is the core strength of every lasting institution. Those people and institutiosn that are able to change are the ones whose values are greater than its organizational structure.

7. Develop the Leadership of Personal Initiative in every social and organizational setting you touch. The attitudes and behaviors of entitlement and dependence, which have been nurtured by the institutions that are declining will not sustain society in the future. The freedom of the individual is the freedom to lead through their own personal initiative. The key is understanding that this initiative is the leadership of the future, as person who are free to act, join with others to create the parallel structures that are needed to replace the structures in decline.

The End and The Beginning Redux

I'm still convinced that we are witnessing the decline of Progressivism as a viable system for society. I'm also convinced that Capitalism as it has developed in the late 20th / early 21st century is not sustainable. I am more convinced than ever that individual freedom and the liberty of democracy are the trends that will carry us through the violence of the next generation. I say so because the era that is passing away before us will not go quietly. But go away, it will. That too I am firmly convinced.