To a new beginning

To be fully and irrevocably alive to this moment is an act of authenticity, and in that aliveness we discover those vast spaces in which we can listen without judgment, act without hesitation, live without fear, and love without expectation. This is the grand paradox of time: to change the future, one must first attend to the present. Like the oak is held in the acorn, the future is held in the present.

So, as the year draws to a close and brings that brief sense of slowing down, instead of thinking of what the future holds in store, can we ask “what does the present hold in store for us?” Can we look for ways to disrupt the momentum of the life we have chosen that keeps us hurtling from one thing to another, giving scant attention to the present? Only then can we become simpler in the choices we make. Only then can we make time for the ordinary. Only then can we attend to our conversations as though they were our last act in this world. Only then can we slow down until we begin to live the moments.

Then, we shall have the possibility of a different kind of life. One in which we have more time and less to worry about; in which, our actions emerge out of the depths of who we are, rather than what we think we ought to be. Then we shall discover the significance and meaning of what we are being called upon to do.

Wishing you a great start to a new beginning…


Are we being good ancestors?

“In the realm of human consciousness the highest and most sophisticated form of self-regulation is based on our ability to see ahead”, wrote Jonas Salk, the pioneer of the polio vaccine in his book, “Anatomy of Reality”. Using the ability to see ahead as a springboard to transforming the present, is what great leaders do. Salk was right in terming it “self-regulating”; seeing ahead and making changes often goes counter to established beliefs, strategies, and most importantly our sense of self-importance. Self-regulation is a leader’s biggest challenge, especially as one grows more successful because the biggest obstacle now becomes, the need to be right. I remember talking to a CEO who was presiding over a multi-million dollar loss made through some poor decisions. He mentioned how his biggest mistake was his reluctance to step back from what he and his team were doing on order to make changes to their strategy. “The momentum was too powerful and we were convinced we were right“, he said. “We just couldn’t see ahead”.

To see ahead, the leader’s mind has to operate differently. One focus must remain on the task at hand and what we are doing right now in order to fulfill the plan; this is task awareness. However this is not the only one. The second focus is on the environment and all the moving parts that are impacting upon the business at hand. This is situational awareness. A third focus is on what is emerging around the periphery: the weak signals that trickle in from adjacent spaces and that are difficult to pick up because we are not looking for them. This is emergent awareness. And lastly, the focus on oneself: a continuous vigilance of one’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and how one is reacting to the changes in the environment, or to others who may have different points of view. Without the fourth self awareness, we too easily slip into hubris, the Achilles heel of so many leaders.

When all four ways of focusing operate together, the leader’s mind has the capacity to simultaneously perform a seemingly paradoxical procedure of having a point of view and sticking to it, while constantly remaining open to other, multiple points of view. It is precisely this dissonance that allows us to look ahead, pick up subtle cues from the environment, look around corners, and continuously learn, while doing what we must do now to fulfill our obligations to the task at hand. And it is a quality so desperately lacking in those who are charged with leading our organizations, and those that we have elected to political positions of power. We prize cleverness and authority, while what is critical to developing the four-focus state of mind is active humility. While some of us are fortunate to have that quality, most of us have to learn it. The desire to be right, to feel important, and to assume that our version of reality is the sole truth, is an ever-present vortex just waiting to draw us in and consume us. Active humility is the overturning of this evolutionary trap.

Salk asked another profound question once: “are we being good ancestors”? Sixty years since his discovery of the polio vaccine, his question is a reminder for seeing one’s actions and the time we spend on this earth as measured by what we leave behind for the future, rather than what we accumulate for ourselves. That is an all too important distinction.


Clever but Hollow

At a workshop with the top management of a well-known Fortune 500 bank, I made the following proposition to the CEO and his team: if they were to quit their current roles and be given capital enough to start a new bank, would the new bank resemble the one they were leading? The answer was a unanimous negative. My next question was even more provocative: why were they working for an organization they did not believe in? They stayed silent.

We have a problem. So many of our institutions and organizations are plainly ineffective and increasingly out of touch with a rapidly changing world. They were conceived and built in an era when fundamental assumptions of stability, uniformity, obedience, and conformity were the norm. The same organizations are now struggling with new values of transparency and mass collaboration. Many of them are simply not equipped to address the complex problems that are typical of the 21st century. On top of that, our traditional leadership models are largely based on routines of command and control that make sense only when the people you lead or the people that you serve have no point of view. In an age in which information is already a commodity, how many of your employees and customers can be characterized as people with no point of view?

An IBM study of more than 1500 CEO’s from all over the world in 2014 revealed that their greatest concern was that we do not have the leaders or the organizations to solve complex global problems. These problems by definition are complex and global because of their sheer scale and because they emerge out of interconnections and interdependencies that are longer controlled by any individual or institution. While climate change is an example of a complex global problem at the macro level, they also manifest at the business level through disruptions that suddenly appear from an adjacent technological space. The Apple watch may well be poised to disrupt the health industry but the way most pharmaceutical companies are organized, it will be an uphill task to respond to the disruption when it comes.

The only way to tackle complex, global problems is by working across networks of constituents, many of whom are outside our span of control. It takes passion and energy. It takes insight, not information. It needs empathy to see the problem through others’ eyes. It needs mindfulness of the old habits that tie us down. It needs creativity to untangle the problem. It takes great courage to stand up for what is right. And it takes enormous compassion. The problem is that we are producing hordes of seemingly clever people with degrees, but very few who can think creatively.

There is something seriously wrong about a society in which some of the most important jobs – like educating children and young adults – are the most underpaid. We churn out cookie cutter graduates, all too eager to fit in and play the game. Eventually, we give up our lives for careers in a Faustian bargain, and if we do finally see the light, it is too late. We are clever but hollow, like in T.S. Eliot’s poem, with “our dried voices, when we whisper together … quiet and meaningless, as wind in dry grass.”


Sudhanshu Palsule

Attention Deficit Leadership

Attention, or rather the lack of it, is fast becoming a leadership challenge for the 21st century. Exponentially growing information, the constant threat of disruption, and an inter-connected world in the palm of our hands brings huge benefits but there is a price to be paid. That price is our ability to attend to what is important: a meeting, a conversation, a problem that needs solving or simply the customer. It could be a question that needs to be asked, but the clutter and noise inside our heads does not allow that question to surface. Like Sisyphus, we keep pushing the same boulder uphill only to see it roll down.

I was traveling in a car the other day with a young, successful executive who had picked me up at the airport to take me to the venue where I was to speak to his top management team. Sitting beside me in the car, he asked me what I thought was the single most important leadership attribute for a senior executive. I turned to him to answer and I noticed that in the meanwhile, he had started texting on his smartphone. I replied that the most important leadership attribute was the ability to listen intently. The irony was lost on him.

The ability to pay attention is a gift that is available to the human mind, and for leaders it is arguably one of their most critical abilities. Attention allows us to perceive and read a situation accurately, process the information faster and with less bias, and take better decisions. It also allows us to reach into higher-level cognitive functions such as empathy, and help us lead with presence. It provides leaders with the ability to read weak signals that emerge from peripheral space: early warning signs that soon grow into big ones. Attention-deficit leaders are more likely to take decisions on incomplete data or not tune into what is what is really emerging around them. In fact, the decision to bring down the curtains on Lehmann Brothers at the start of the economic crisis in 2008 was fuelled more by attention-deficit, lack of sleep and over-caffeinated brains than a strategic imperative to solve the problem.

There is a bigger problem at hand, one that is relevant to workplaces in fast growing economies like India where the sheer speed of getting multiple things done at once, combined with a cultural tendency to hurry, overloads the brain. Recent research in neurology demonstrates clearly that this creates a deficit in the ability of leaders to think clearly. Combined with stress, it becomes a lethal recipe for trying to multi-task, one of the biggest myths from the previous century. Multi-tasking simply does not work. It diminishes productivity and draws upon well-worn and often dysfunctional reactions and behaviors that may be useful for doing repetitive tasks, but are quite useless where we need to think. Combine that with a propensity to believe that staying late in the office equates to productivity, we have a growing crisis at hand.

The antidote: attend to one thing at a time; and when it is done put it away and move to the next task. Ask three questions: “what is the conversation I need to have?”; “what is the action I need to take?”; “what is the behavior I need to demonstrate?”. Remember: the leader’s work is to create significance and meaning for others.

How consistent is your personal narrative?

Two highly successful C-suite executives worked in the same company, let’s call them X and Y. Both were corporate stars and had risen to the very top of their professions. The company’s Board, the analysts and customers all thought they were both terrific. They each could confidently discuss their successful careers and leadership abilities. But as they settled into their top roles one difference became very clear.

Whenever something would go wrong or when there was an urgent issue to be addressed, other executives in the company would say, “Lets go tell X”. But when it came to Y, the question would turn to, “How should we tell Y?” The impact of this difference was overwhelming. X got the straight story quickly and was able to make fast, clear decisions. Y got a version of the truth. He had to sift through several conversations before having a complete picture and was never sure if he had the whole story. His decisions and actions came slower and he often had to hedge.

Why did this happen?   As leaders, our conversations, actions and behaviors are always in the spotlight, especially in this new world dominated by social media where everything is transparent and anyone and everyone has a point of view to be shared. Over time our conversations, actions and behaviors become the story of our leadership, our own “Personal Leadership Narrative”. The consistency of our narrative over time and the way others tell and retell our story, powerfully shapes the impact we have on others as leaders.

The stories that people told about X were heroic and consistent. They were stories of how she resolved internal differences, saved customer accounts and brought fiscal discipline. In each story there were common themes in terms of style and values. In the stories people told about Y, there were no recurring themes. The stories were told for surprise value – “that’s how he did it that time, but them let me tell you about this other time…

If your narrative is clear, if others have a reasonable understanding of how you are likely to react to a situation, they will believe they understand the “real” you. Once this happens the odds are very good that they will interact with you in a consistent, reliable way.

On the other hand if your leadership story does not allow others to see consistent themes, your narrative will become one of unreliability. No one will be sure of the “real you”. Each interaction will be a carefully staged test with you as the unpredictable variable…”be careful, you just don’t know how Y will react”.

In the new world of deep interconnectivity, what my author and I call the Social Age, leaders are confronted with challenges that constantly test “who they are” while making each of these tests public with everyone able to comment. In our research we located five areas that define “who we are” and that shape our personal narrative:

1. Mindfulness – being fully present in the moment while being aware of other critical aspects of the immediate situation;
2. Proactivity – seeing yourself as able to influence the events around you and then taking action, even in the face of ambiguity and contradiction;
3. Authenticity – creating positive momentum through broad inclusion, emotional engagement and conveying a sense of organizational purpose;
4. Openness – finding connections within complex situations, using multiple models to frame situations and make decisions and conveying to others your personal sense of purpose;
5. Social Scalability – recognizing and acting on the realities of today’s social/digital nature of communication where a leader needs to communicate simultaneously to one person, one group and every group at once.

Your leadership narrative is uniquely yours. There is no one right way to lead in these five areas. Rather, they are aspects of who you are as a person. Thriving as a leader in the Social Age means taking a good look at your self and understanding how you are most productive in each of these five areas.

Taking a hard look at your own leadership narrative allows you to accomplish two important things. First, it gives you the opportunity to bring your autobiography (the stories you tell about yourself), and your biography (the stories others tell about you), into alignment. This alignment is the road to consistency and to developing a foundation of personal authenticity needed to succeed as a leader especially in the Social Age.

The Social Leader

Welcome to the Social Age. An age of globally connected networks where continuous disruption is the norm; where information is increasingly produced and consumed through social media; and where agility replaces every other parameter of success.

Two momentous events define the Social Age: one, Google will be 16 this year, taking it another step closer to adulthood. So someone going on 16 today will have spent an entire life in the post-google world, with no idea of a time where information was not instantly available. Two, the Encyclopedia Britannica – the hallowed repository of knowledge – ceased publication last year. Not since Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1899 has anything so momentous happened. The impact of the Social Age on our organizations and societies is going to be massive.

Most of the leadership theories that continue to be around today pre-date the Social Age and the information age that preceded it. Many of these theories are largely based on the image of the leader as a general leading “his” troops in a planned, predictable world where instructions are obeyed and strategy is king. Taking command, to control, to get the troops behind you, to watch out for the snipers, to provide air cover: we continue to hurl around these tired phrases in our 21st century organizations. The Social Age bears no resemblance to the one in which the military context took root. That was a linear world in which linear solutions that worked. In a complex world of multiple, convergent causes and unforeseeable discontinuities, leaders have to learn to think and respond differently.

So, what are the challenges specific to the Social Age? For one, our organizations are being driven to act more like communities than hierarchies. It is no longer what we know that counts, but how we build significance out of what we know. Everyone has a role to play in that; the leader’s work is to find ways that makes it happen. Secondly, our organizations are under scrutiny from employees, stakeholders and customers who possess three unprecedented resources: ubiquitous access to social information; an expectation that they can engage anyone and everyone in conversation and shape the point of view of the community; availability of cheap and fast communication that allows them to react to events in real time. In reality, the “general” has very little control left.

So, competitive advantage is rapidly shifting to the generation of social relevance in an open system of global networks whose actions, decisions and interactions are beyond any management team’s jurisdiction and control. From a leadership point of view, this poses a challenge to the static and insular world-view that has shaped our very organizational form, our routines and behaviors at work and our interactions with the external world. In the Social Age, these are largely becoming irrelevant.

All in all, these factors have created five leadership challenges that are unique to the Social Age:

Anticipating Discontinuity

Although discontinuity is not new, it occurred in rare and dramatic ways but it is fast becoming the norm – from mobile apps transforming the cell phone, to streaming video destroying the video rental market to big data mining of search engine terms remaking epidemiology. The ability to pick up weak signals that could be emerging from an adjacent technological or industry space, and finding ways of responding to them speedily is fast becoming a leadership challenge of huge importance.

Proactively influencing the world around you

No longer is it possible for a leader to focus on just the team of the organization. Leaders today are expected to influence a wide range of constituencies, sometimes two or three steps removed from their official range of responsibility. These relationships are often devoid of authority or loyalty factors thereby making them complex and it requires leaders to use new emotional and social channels that are more in tune with the Social Age.

Authentically relating to others

Organizations in the Social Age are driven by transparency and it is no longer possible for a leader to have an inauthentic “game face” that is shown to the world. The demand for authenticity has never been higher as workplaces become increasingly flattened out and transparent, and a new generation of “digital natives” and the early converts to the Social Age start exercising their demands for transparency.

Taking in new information and adjusting perspectives

The speed of change and the rapid propagation of information means that the leader must be able to operate using multiple perspectives and feel comfortable with ambiguity. The ability to make adjustments and remain adaptive, being able to work with contradictions, and to do all this without compromising on their credibility has become an essential aspect of leadership in the Social Age.

Scaling communications for different audiences

The inhabitants in the Social Age carry a megaphone and live life out loud. Speaking to the entire organization was once the purview of senior leaders. Thanks to social media, everyone who cares about a company can speak to everyone else who cares – inside and outside. In this new reality a leader must be able to pitch communications in a way that they are appropriate for an individual, a group and the world all at once.

In short, there is no place for leaders to hide anymore. The future is already here.

(From my forthcoming book, “The Social Leader; Redefining Leadership for the Complex Social Age”, with Frank Guglielmo, published by Bibliomotion New York, 2014

The Inner Theatre of Leadership

I began a quest ten years ago for the source of leadership. Despite the abundance of leadership theories and literature available, I did not have an answer to one key question: where does leadership originate? I was looking for answers that went beyond what we refer to as leadership skills, competencies and behaviors and reached deep into the very mind of the leader. I was reminded of a similar quest I had embarked upon a long time ago to the source of a great river. As I finally knelt by the source high up in the mountains after having followed the river upstream and watched all its myriad forms, I remember being struck by the utter simplicity of that source. As I began probing into the source of leadership, I was struck by a similar simplicity.  I was to call this source, our “self-ware”©.

Our self-ware is the internal program that drives everything we do as leaders: it shapes the information that we pick up, the way we process the information, the decisions we take, and the judgments we make. It is made up of a combination of three factors: our thoughts, our emotions, and our beliefs (assumptions). Together the three create a narrative that defines who we are. The role of our self-ware is to help us make sense of the world. It does that by an equation that is hardwired in all of us: perceive-interpret-respond. Everything begins with what and how we perceive, but without a dynamic awareness of our internal biases and conditioning, we are likely to make erroneous judgments. The second stage of interpretation is even more critical, for at this stage we come under pressure to prove our perception right. So not only is our perception prone to error, we are under pressure from a reward mechanism in the brain to reinforce our original perception.  The challenge for leaders is to not only be aware of their conditioning, they have to learn to overcome their own internal reward mechanism!

For this equation to work well, our self-ware must be in good shape. High-grade self-ware is made up of clear thinking that is made possible by intelligent emotions and supportive beliefs. Low-grade self-ware is made up of toxic or unclear thinking, emotions that get in the way, and disabling beliefs. The quality of the self-ware decides the mindset we use when we lead.

And what a difference that mindset makes! As an illustration I want to compare two one-time CEO’s who had to lead their respective companies in times of great crises: Tony Hayward, ex-CEO of BP and James Burke, one-time CEO of Johnson & Johnson. Both companies went through defining crises: BP with the Deep Water Horizon spill in 2010, and J&J with the Tylenol crisis in 1982. Tylenol was (and continues to be) one of the most popular over-the-counter medicines for aches and pains, accounting for 35% of the US analgesic market. Seven people died in Chicago after taking Tylenol. The amount of cyanide was 65 mg, more than 10,000 times what it takes to kill a human. It was proven that the tampering occurred after the medicine reached store shelves and J&J had nothing to do with it. Burke called for an emergency meeting in his room with his top team when the news broke. And then he asked the question that has achieved iconic status:  “What is the most ethical thing that we can now do as a company?” J & J did an immediate product recall, the first of its kind, which amounted to a loss of $100 million. All advertisement was halted. Later they went back to the drawing board and re-designed their packaging system, developing the first tamper proof caplets. Today the J&J handling of the crisis continues to be a bench-mark case study in crisis leadership in leading business schools.

On the other hand, BP’s handling of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico draws derision and scorn. It began with BP denying there was an oil spill once CNN broke the news of the crisis. This was followed by the response that very quickly went on to achieve infamous status: “It is only a small spill in a very large ocean”. The mishandling of the crisis reached a crescendo with Tony Hayward speaking at an American Press Conference where he said, “I’d like my life back”. Buckling under the stress of the situation, besieged by an internal culture of complacency, Tony Hayward was unable to operate from a mindset in which he could lead his organization out of crisis.

To ask the question that Burke did, in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, took presence of mind and calmness. More importantly, it was about retaining focus on the issues that mattered, making sure that all distracting thoughts and emotions were put away. Burke’s self-ware was working optimally allowing him to operate at a mindset in which he could respond to the situation in a state of mindfulness about the greater purpose of his company.

Great Leaders Move From Intention to Impact

A powerful intention coalesces our thinking, belief and emotions around the transformation we want to create. It focuses the direction of our efforts and helps chart the way forward.

Intention is a deeply subjective mindset arising out of a personal story, which becomes a platform for change and transformation. Impact, however, happens in the external theatre where our personal story must engage effectively with the reality of the situation.

For that, leaders must learn to watch their intention through the eyes of the world, and in so doing, regulate and shape its expression. Intention and impact must go hand-in-hand; while the former provides a subjective map that helps us go forward, impact provides the objective compass that shapes what we must do in order to fulfil the intention. If it is self-awareness that allows intention to flower, it is situational awareness, or the ability to read reality that regulates intention. The two must never stray away too far from each other.

During a visit to Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment, I began to understand the significance of this balance. Despite it being summer, it felt chilly as I stood in his old prison cell, pondering over something that he had written as an inmate there: “In my lifetime, I shall walk out into the sunshine, walk with firm feet”. This was when apartheid was at its peak – when the chances of getting out of Robben Island, let alone having a free South Africa, must have been as bleak as the landscape surrounding the prison. The intention was powerful: the “sunshine” evoking freedom, and “firm feet” giving it vehemence. It is, however, the way Mandela created impact that makes for compelling leadership, because so much of it is counter-intuitive.

He had to learn to overcome feelings of resentment and animosity despite decades of brutal apartheid against his people. His own personal loss was monumental. He was allowed one visitor a year for a 30-minute meeting and one letter every six months. His lost his son but was not allowed to attend his funeral. And each day at Robben Island was spent in toiling in the limestone quarry.

But Mandela’s impact compass did not waver, redirecting the anger and pain into the larger purpose of a free nation. He knew that freedom for his people would come only in partnership with the white government. So he began his study of the Afrikaans language to understand the Boers.

In the years that followed, he got to know the wardens well enough to procure books on Boer literature and poetry, and he made it his singular purpose to understand what drove them. Most importantly, he acknowledged that perhaps he too, in similar circumstances would have done what the oppressors had done.

Empathy is always the most difficult pinnacle in the transformation process. Such was his commitment to building a ‘Rainbow Nation’ that several years later, at the ceremony where he was sworn in as the first president of a free republic, the person he chose to stand next to him was his jail warden.

The intention to walk out into the sunshine with firm feet is only one half of the story; the other is about walking backwards from the sunshine into the prison cell. They follow two different trajectories: intention works forwards while impact is visible only when one looks backwards. The journey to impact only happens when leaders master the feat of holding this paradox together. Transformative leaders do two things simultaneously: they see the world through their eyes, and they see their actions through the eyes of the world.

Failure to Empathize

The National Health Service in the UK launched a new service this week called NHS 111, asking citizens to call the number 111, “if it is less urgent than 999”. It further goes on to say on the website: “Call 111 if: you need urgently need medical help or advice but its not a life-threatening situation”. The phone service has crashed several times and many have had to wait as long as two hours for the NHS to call back. Tragically, there are reports of three “unexpected deaths” in the last three days. One report blamed it on utter confusion.

Thinking clearly and communicating effectively remain the two biggest challenges for individuals and groups, be that in a Fortune 500 organization or in a public health service. How does a parent whose child is ill with a high temperature and delirium decide in the middle of the night if it is urgent, or “less than urgent? Or, how does a terrified 80 year old with sudden chest pains figure out whether it is an emergency or “less than urgent”? What is alarming is that this is not a local mom-and-pop shop sending out flyers to the neighbourhood; this is a national institution that must have spent tens of thousands of pounds in getting this initiative on the road. And the intention to do it must have been positive. Then why oh why did they get it so wrong?

The failure to empathize is one of the biggest reasons why organizations fail. Empathy is the ability to understand the world inhabited by those we serve. It literally means that we have to “stand-under” them if we are to understand them. Empathy is a complex psychological function that allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes and understand their world. But empathy is fragile and comes under pressure during stress or when self-importance takes over. Or when we lose sight of our original purpose. It is for this reason that empathy needs nurturing and care; it must be tended to with great attention. The banking industry is at its lowest ebb at the moment for the same reason. I have a very prominent global bank as a client, and this bank has been in the news for a couple years for all the wrong reasons. I find it incredulous that I have to remind its top management that the reason why this bank exists is because long ago, its founders wanted to create an institution that would hold people’s money “in trust”. They now talk of wanting to get close to the customer, and develop trust, but they have forgotten why they exist. Management meetings have become jargon-filled, consultant-led jamborees that take them farther away from the real problem they are trying to solve. Coming back to the National Health Service in the UK, I can bet my last dollar that NHS 111 was the result of the very same process. And so what we get is the jargon of “urgent but not life-threatening” that sounds clever but rings hollow. It would be more plausible if it were an advertising jingle for a potato chips company.

Those that we serve are the easiest to ignore. This is one paradox that leaders must keep close to their hearts.

On a lighter note, when I moved to the UK more than a decade ago, I was struck by some peculiar and confusing messages. One of them was on the gates to a large park in Cambridge, that said, “Gates shall close at dusk”. I was unnerved by the inherent ambiguity in the message and it became a conversation piece in my family on many occasions. How do we define dusk? Is it the same for all visitors? Is there a universal dusk time? While one could laughingly call it quaint and typically British, it wouldn’t feel that way if one drove into the park, and found that the gates had been locked on the way out, because the gatekeeper had a slightly different definition of dusk! The sign still exists and I am now trying to figure out whether there is a pattern here that connects the NHS message to this one.

Play, Passion and Purpose

I began writing a piece early this morning on the failure of leadership development within so many of our organizations and how woefully out of sync it is with what is really needed in our increasingly interconnected, complex and globalized workplaces. The three headlines that describe the failure of so many leadership development programs are: the inability to develop intrinsic motivation and meaning, the inability to develop innovative workplaces, and the inability to collaborate and communicate.

While I was writing this piece, I happened to read Tom Friedman’s piece in this morning’s New York Times on Tony Wagner’s new book, “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World”. Wagner’s argument is that our education system is out of sync with what really matters in the workplace. I was especially struck by Wagner’s comment that the goal of education should not be to make every child “college ready” but “innovation ready”. The argument is sound: knowledge is becoming increasingly commoditized, and access to it is ubiquitous, and therefore no longer a premium. What becomes much more important than basic knowledge, is intrinsic motivation: curiosity, persistence, and the willingness to take risks. Only this will enable the continuous learning of new knowledge and skills, and the creation of new opportunities. Unlike our generation which “found jobs”, from here onwards, kids will grow up in a world where they will need to invent jobs.

Our schools are fundamentally de-motivating places and the longer students stay in school, the more de-motivated they get. The present school structure was built along the lines of a factory system to fit in with an industrial economy. That economy has been replaced by digitization and globalization but our schools are more or less the same. And they are woefully out of touch with a new world. Wagner asks for schools where kids learn “Accountability 2.0” in a new culture of collaboration. They need to master skills such as critical thinking skills and communication and entrepreneurship.

Play, passion, and purpose: Wagner calls these the three most powerful ingredients of intrinsic motivation, and makes a compelling case for bringing them into the classroom. I cannot help thinking how equally compelling it is to bring them into the workroom. We have sculpted both the classroom and workroom from the same clay and used the same moulds. To fit into a stable and unchanging system of hierarchy, control, prescription, and rules of linearity. The world in which we find ourselves today has dramatically shifted to a highly dynamic, fluid narrative of networks, communities, emergence, and new rules of complexity.

We must dramatically reinvent the classroom as Wagner suggests. And make our kids innovation-ready. And in the meanwhile, also start reinventing the workroom and create places where young people can thrive.

The Source of Leadership

What governs human actions and behavior, what motivates us to lead well, and what creates meaningful change in the world?

So I began my search for the generative source of leadership. To begin with, I started from a position in which I refused to define leadership. I didn’t want to do that for two reasons: one, the very act of defining it would impose a model or a theory onto it, thereby forcing it into one or the other categories that were already around. Two, I wanted to test whether we have a sense of what good leadership is, and my assumption was that not defining it would let that sense surface. I am convinced we have an invisible, inbuilt radar in our minds that picks up cues that we use to translate into what we feel is good leadership. Most of those cues are about trust, but more of that later. Three, I felt it might just be fun to explore what people sensed they talked of leadership.

Years ago, when I was a boy, I had traveled with my parents to the source of one of the great Indian rivers, the Ganga. We picked up the river in a place called Hardwar, far away from its origins in the Himalayan mountains, and traveled upstream and northwards towards its source. The river would reveal itself every now and then, sometimes as a torrential, raging monster, and sometimes as a gentle, meandering stream. Finally high up in the mountains, in a place called Gangotri, we found ourselves at the source. I remember the joy of having followed that river upstream, witnessed it raging and storming in places, and quiet and withdrawn in others, and now to be kneeling beside its source as it emerged quietly in a valley between some of the most majestic mountains in the world. Finding the source is to find an amazing place of mystery. Yes the mystery reveals all that follows from there.

Decades later, I was thinking of Gangotri while following the leadership river upstream, looking for its source. Over the next many years, I would interview, observe, work with and coach, hundreds of leaders. I kept notes, asked questions, watched them work, observed them at meetings, spoke to their colleagues, managers, spouses, and teams, trying to collect every shred of evidence that would in some way lead me to the source. Most of the time the people I was working with wouldn’t be able to tell me what made them tick. Most of them were pragmatic, hands on people and they couldn’t articulate what made them effective. I would routinely hear such homilies about how it was all about people, behavior and relationships. Or about character and personality. Those were some of the red herrings along the way and for a while I went along that trail thinking it would lead me to the source. But it soon ran cold. It didn’t answer the question, “Why did some build better relationships than others? Why did some people have a far greater ability to influence others despite not appearing as “nice” or friendly as some others?”. Yes, behavior was critical but it wasn’t the source.

The source was to emerge in the white space that lay behind the observables of behavior, skills, capabilities, personality, and that profoundly un-poetic word, competencies. It brought me to a place that a few years later I would call “self-ware”© – the place from where we perceive, interpret , and respond to the world.

Why Leaders Must Learn to Think

Every now and then I get a quizzical look and am asked to explain how I wandered from Quantum Physics into Leadership. It was actually a half-open backdoor that got me in there. Looking back over thirty years, what Quantum Physics did was get me interested in the way we think, the way we perceive and make sense of what is around us, and the way we form representations of reality based on our assumptions. It also surfaced for me the very limitations of our thinking process in how we commit the grave error of assuming that what we observe is the objective truth. Quantum Physics gave me a grammar for understanding and describing what is essentially our relationship with the world. My work on leadership continues to resonate with exactly that: every time I work with executive teams and CEO’s, I begin by asking them to explore three questions: “What is your relationship with the organization and people that you lead”? ; “What futures do you want to create?”; and “What past patterns of your thinking and behavior get in your way?”.

We learn to make mental maps of the world that we assume to be the territory, in Gregory Bateson’s unforgettable turn of phrase. “The theory decides what we observe”, said Einstein, exposing our tendency to observe through the lenses of our assumptions and biases, and then assuming that what we perceive is the real. Leaders must be able to step back and observe in real time how their “theories” and “maps” manifest the world and shape their decisions and choices, and their conversations, actions, and behaviors. Only through a deeper awareness of how we think, can leaders learn to shift their mindsets from what I will describe in a later blog as reactive to mastery.

One of the fascinating things I am discovering about the brain is that biologically we are programmed to operate from the reactive mindset. After all, it is this mindset that has helped life survive over millions of years. So, for example it becomes more beneficial for us to focus on the negative than on the positive, as it is the negative that biologically holds more of a threat to survival. So, perception of potential danger trumps feelings of well-being in the survival stakes! The thinking we do from such a mindset is low-grade thinking largely dependent on stored memory and the “past”. Unless we become aware of the hold of the past on us, and how it influences the way we think and behave, take decisions, and make choices, we continue to operate from this reactive mindset as the brain “chooses” to engage with the world in a reactive mode. Recent failures at Kodak and Nokia, and the reaction to the financial crisis in 2008 bear testimony to our propensity for preferring the past over the present. To lead is to essentially disrupt and overcome the biological tendency to react from the past. It is all about knowing when and how to rise above the biological forces of survival and the reactive mindset.