An anarchist and a general walk into a bar – A leadership story (5 min read – joke inside)

different - birds

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” John Quincy Adams

I spent a few days last week at a conference for mid-market companies to learn how to scale their company and the binding theme was leadership.  First, we heard from General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal who talked about how he had to make a holistic change in his leadership process and mindset as head of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) to meet a changing landscape and enemy. We also heard from Ari Weinzweig, self-proclaimed anarchist, who started Zingerman’s with a few hundred dollars and an unusual view (at the time) on leadership.

There were others like Aubrey Daniels, clinical psychologist who showed us how bring out the best in people and Jim Whitehorse, CEO of RedHat who went against all of his classical management training to grow Red Hat to a multi-billion dollar company using free software.

The thread that tied all of these folks together was a new way to lead.  I would sum it up to say that the most effective leaders do one thing better than their not so effective counterparts.

They create a safe workplace environment.  Safe for people to be vulnerable, make mistakes, and speak up.  They create what Simon Sinek calls a Circle of Safety.

Circle of Safety – A biological competitive advantage

Simon Sinek wrote in his latest book, Leaders Eat Last, that his research shows that high performing organizations succeed over the long term because their leaders realize that they are entrusted with the care of everyone in the company. Their job is to create a Circle of Safety.

This approach is rooted in biology.  When we feel safe at work, at home or wherever, we are typically at our best.  When we do not feel safe, our brain constantly watches for danger.  It tells us to be careful and is too often in survival mode where our higher functioning systems shut down or are impaired.  Our brain cannot tell the difference between a tiger about to attack and the fear of getting fired or berated for making a mistake.

If you want your people to be innovative, energized and productive, it is best to have them engaging more of their higher functioning attributes. The best way to do this is to make the feel safe at work.

According to Gallup, well over half of all employees are “not engaged” at work. What a huge competitive advantage for any leader that can create an environment where a significant majority of employees are engaged and productive on the job.  Some of the main reasons for this is that most employees do not feel safe, autonomous or have a sense of greater purpose at work.  We all want to buy in to a larger purpose and are free to make decisions to further that purpose.  We want to do, not always be told what to do.

We are all chemically dependent in this regard.  Here is an excerpt from Simon Sinek’s latest book:

“There are four primary chemicals in our body that contribute to all our positive feelings that I will generally call “happy”; endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.  Whether acting alone or in concert, in small doses or large, anytime we feel any sense of happiness or joy, odds are it is because one or more of these chemicals is coursing through our veins. They do not exist simply to make us feel good.

They each serve a very real and practical purpose: our survival.”

The first two – endorphins and dopamine – are selfish or individualistic in nature.  They developed so we can survive by getting food and getting things done.  The second two – serotonin and oxytocin – are there to help us socialize and cooperate.  Good leaders find ways to engage all four and enhance the second two as they elicit trust and loyalty.  Two essential components to building great teams and subsequently great companies.

Aligned Organizations win

In the rapidly accelerating world of technology we find ourselves in, it is more important than ever for our companies to act like starlings (those cool birds that seem to move as one in the sky) that quickly adapt as a whole.  As one part of the organization moves to adapt to change, the other parts intuitively move as well.

Leaders are the ones who make this happen by creating a Circle of Safety so when times are tough or numbers are not made, an environment of self-interest is not created.  An environment where one group or individual knows that in order to survive (not get fired) they have to “defeat” another group or individual.  Over time, this slows the entire organization and creates a fractured organization as opposed to one acting with one purpose.

Here is a great video from Zingerman’s where employees share their experience and feelings about working for an organization that expects and trains everyone to be a leader.

This approach is exponential in nature and I believe is going to be crucial to the future of business.  As technology thrusts us forward at breakneck speed, the hierarchical nature of most businesses will be their eventual downfall except in rare cases.  Decisions will have to be made “further down” in the organization. It is the responsibility of the leader to make sure the foundational aspects of the business are understood by all – core values and purpose – where most decisions are made not by the CEO or senior leaders but by front line employees.  Those decisions will be rooted in the fundamentals of the business but also by the people who are closest to the information and the action in order to make those decisions quickly and more accurately.

Joke alert!  

How many anarchists does it take to change a light bulb?
Just one, he puts his hand in the air and the world revolves around him. (I’m a dad so I liked this one) :~)

In General McChrystal’s book – Team of Teams – he explains that after several years of making the fundamental shift to pushing the decisions to the front line folks that he rarely gave any orders and often was informed of major decisions after the fact.  Here are some of the stats he shared when this fully engaged and mostly autonomous organization acted in this fashion.  Their metric was “# of raids”.  A “raid” is when a small unit of soldiers would enter a building, engage/arrest the alleged combatants and secure the building.

October 2003 – 4 raids/month – siloed, hierarchical organization

August 2004 – 18 raids/month – semi-autonomous, semi-siloed organization

August 2006 – 300 raids/month – Team of teams approach

I am not a big fan of war analogies but this is a dramatic example (17X improvement of a critical success number) of the leadership changes made resulting in almost two orders of magnitude changes in results.  This is applicable to business as well but thankfully lives are not in the balance. However, the effects are generally the same and as stated before, the human brain does not distinguish well between the two.

When a historically rigid hierarchical and siloed organization such as the United States military can make a fundamental shift to adjust to a more complex world and get the kind of results you see here, any organization regardless of size can do it. I submit that those that do not, will be out of business sooner rather than later as smaller more nimble organizations overtake them.  We have already seen examples of this in Nokia, BlackBerry, BlockBuster, Eastman Kodak, and others.

Only the exceptional companies will survive.  Those that see leadership in a new and evolved way.  Those that create a Circle of Safety for their employees. Those that push the authority and core principles down to those in the organization that have the information to make quick decisions.  Those that treat their employees as if they were their own family.  These are the successful organizations of the future.

Numbers versus people

I am not sure that my daughter would be too pleased if I told her that we could no longer could afford to keep her as we had a tough year so we will unfortunately have to let her go.

Unfortunately, too many companies use this exact tactic as part of their overall financial strategy in order to meet their quarterly projections thus creating an survival type environment within the company.   This turns into a vicious cycle as too few in the organization feel the ownership and greater purpose to make/suggest real change to scale the business in a healthy and profitable manner.  The leadership instead prefers too often to take the easy route and hire and fire employees in order to make quarterly numbers as they see fit.

There are some great examples out there.  I only named a few.  The oncoming tide of exponential change in business grows stronger as we get deeper into the information age.  I look forward to what is coming the next 5-10 years and am hopeful that more organizations begin to make the shift away from hierarchy and silos to this new organizational model to stay competitive.

If you have not yet contemplated and/or acted upon these inevitable changes, there are plenty of folks out there who can and want to help. Reach out, read a book, try some stuff, fail and try again, ask good questions, challenge the status quo.  I believe what Alan Fine says about all of us in You ALREADY Know How To Be GREAT.

Just remember that sometimes you need to think “different”.

Be exceptional!

(catalystgrowthadvisors.com; bill@catalystgrowthadvisors.com)

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