Leadership: being a dodo, simple and vulnerable

In his latest, somewhat controversial, book, Malcolm Lewis notes that, “The world clings to its old mental picture of the stock market,” and he goes on to give three reasons as to why he thinks this is so. The first being comfort, followed by an inability to imagine the replacement and the third reason being the lack of interest by those who can explain it.

Disclosure: as a challenge strategist with a big-picture view, I could not agree more with this premise of an ‘old mental picture’ in action. And have a few reasons of my own why this is so – a discussion for another day.

With curiosity I’ve been doing some painting (research) for a while now, a canvas of an all-encompassing ‘old mental image’, that is affecting the decision making process across many an organisation and institutions. From the public space leadership through to community organisations and the business sector, irrespective of industry and/or sectors. This is not about the age of the holder of this image, putting it down to an inter-generational issue is common, but doing so misses the mark (playing to the noise and missing the signal).

This has been and continues to be a process, more of inclusion rather than exclusion. What is this old mental picture? How old is old?


Industrial age framing, today

I recently had the opportunity of attending a speaking engagement at the recent launch of the EMRC’s digital strategy, to engage the audience on the topic, in brief. There is no doubt that the industrial age ushered in the most comfortable and accessible standards of living, universally. And this transition from human labour to machine labour was achieved at a pace and a rate that was previously unthinkable.

And to manage this revolution, a style of leadership emerged that best fit the demands, challenges and opportunities that were tailored made for that era.

Today, you only need to look at the ongoing disruptions, across industries and sectors by ‘start-ups’ and in the public space with an increased apathy among participants, to see the industrial age thinking in action. The response or lack thereof by, for example, formerly solid industry leaders is a good indicator of which era the organisation and/or institution is responding to.

Now what does the harnessing of the machine power to replace human labour tell us about the new transition from ‘dumb’ machine to ‘smart devices’? How should companies, for example, respond in better preparing their leadership to best prepare for the modern realities and challenges?

My research leads me to, among others, the following three pointers to consider in any organisation’s leadership engagement training.


1. Dodos, birds of a feather

Leadership is inherently a study and practice of the human condition. And one characteristic of the human condition is the aversion to change manifested, for example, by the safety in numbers mantra: ‘Let someone else attempt it first,’ and, ‘This is how it has always been done.’ These two and their variations are common in decision-making process where the need to belong to a flock is the least resistant route.

As a leader, would you wish to be a dodo? And flock together with birds of a feather? Conformance is not necessarily the default position in this very dynamic and highly unpredictable landscape of our current era.

Key: There is a very distinct difference between grasping an opportunity to adapt (sustainably) to a changing global reality and the confusion caused by those seeking to anchor their decisions on ideas primarily because these ideas are trending ‘new ‘and/or ‘current.’


2. Meaning, simplicity

Imagine you are a soldier and your leader shouts out a command, engage. The response is obvious to all and you’d expect the team (platoon) to undertake a particular action, mostly in unison.

Change the scene again and this time you attend a strategy meeting (where the battle is being framed) and your leader (executive) unveils the direction for the team, Innovate. Akin to shouting fire in a market place, the reaction to expect in this scenario should be one of confusion.

It is very common to hear organisations make claims about their strategic roadmap and base these on, at best, ambiguous if not complex terminology devoid of simple and clear meaning. What does innovation mean to all those involved in an organisation in the context of a global eco-system?

Key: Keep it simple and crystal clear.


3. Vulnerability

One of my observational habits, not always 100% correct, is being able to silently observe and figure out a participant’s corporate hierarchy position, in a meeting. A second observation, is noting the difference between participants’ official corporate titles and the actual roles that the individuals’ undertake.

The capping of an individual’s mental bandwidth to a narrow spectrum, his or her department, is a very telling pointer. It encourages a watch tower type of effect and loudly displays the vulnerability protecting armour being worn by those in the leadership position within an organisation.

I once met an economic development director (title) whom, on discussions about the organisation’s plans/thinking of the digital disruption challenge dynamics, got an authoritative, ‘That’s got nothing to do with me. Besides, I do not think it is something our team should be concerning themselves with.’ And on speaking to someone within the same organisation, without the director title, their reaction was different to the effect that the (organisation) was in effect a sitting duck: ‘These guys simply don’t get it.’

Key: It’s okay to show vulnerability as a leader, in the sense that if you don’t know, finding it hard or can’t wrap your mind around an opportunity or challenge, simply say so and let your team help out.

Show me a leader who does not have any vulnerability and in exchange I’ll show you a leprechaun.



Rajab Karume
BY Rajab Karume ON 5 June 2014
Rajab Karume is a founder and co-founder of a number of start-ups, and has a developed an in-depth understanding of the use of technology in building a communication bridge for organisations. Rajab consults, speaks and facilitates, and can be reached at rajabk@needlenhay.com