Three Things Good Leaders Should Be Asking Santa


This is a blog post written by KEITH COATS, International Partner at TomorrowToday on the topic of LEADERSHIP in a changing world

Of course only good leaders get to ask Santa for anything, bad leaders’ Christmas stocking is likely to be empty! So what would a good leader want from Santa for the journey marked 2013?

The leadership context is one of a world where turbulence is the ‘norm’; one in which uncertainty, rapid change and connectivity are the daily currency with which leaders will have to deal. It is certainly not a context for the faint-hearted. Wishful leaders would be asking Santa for lengthy periods of uninterrupted growth, economic, social and political stability and a surplus of resources to take advantage of new markets and opportunities on offer. But as I said, this would constitute wishful thinking. It will not be the case other than perhaps in isolated pockets and for short periods of time.

Good leaders know that as they lead their people into the future they will need specific mind-sets and skill-sets if they are to successfully face and engage

Unknownthe future and not merely adopt a survival mentality. So here then are three things that I suggest good leaders should be asking of Santa for 2013. Be warned, you will need a big stocking!

1. The ability to unlearn. The broader application of this is an ability to challenge guarded assumptions, entrenched viewpoints and the ‘way things have always been done around here’ mentality. The willingness and ability to do this is the key to being able to adapt and change in ways that are needed, appropriate and future-relevant. The ability to unlearn prefaces an ability to learn and unless you have a ‘learning organisation’ I am not optimistic about your chances of ‘surviving’ the future, let alone thriving in the future. So much about the context in which you are leading your business is changing and with that change the ‘rules of the game’ are being transformed. A failure to understand this and fully grasp the internal and external implications can prove to be a lethal hammer blow to your business future.

It is not surprising that much of the global work that we have done in TomorrowToday this past year has focused on our TIDES of Change framework which articulates the five major disruptive change drivers impacting business. How these disruptions play out will be context specific but not paying attention to them is simply not an option, all of which brings me to the second thing that good leaders will be asking of Santa this Christmas.

2.  A balcony. A balcony? Yes, a balcony…let me explain. In this context of exponential change and uncertainty, good leaders understand the need to look for ‘sense making’ patterns. In order to do this work, leaders need to position themselves ‘on the balcony’ rather than be on the ‘dance floor’. This powerful (and helpful) analogy comes from Ron Heifetz of Harvard whose book, ‘The Practice of Adaptive Leadership’ is a must-read for any leader. Undoubtedly there are times when leadership is required to be ‘on the dance floor’. However, in my experience, leaders often spent too much time on the dance floor from where their perspective and view is restricted. This tendency is understandable given that it was because of their dance floor prowess that contributed to their assuming a leadership position in the first place. The desire to remain in an area of competency is thus understandable. However, the leaders’ role – your role, is to survey things from the vantage point that the balcony offers. It is from here that you are able to detect the patterns and see the big picture.  Failure to access the balcony and then translate what it is you see from this vantage point means that whilst your business might be reflect operational efficiency and excellence, it might remain ignorant of broader changes that could render such competencies redundant or obsolete in the near future. There are plenty of case studies of such instances and one only has to look at the music industry to see how their failure to see and anticipate technology shifts coupled with changing customer needs and habits brought industry giants to their knees and in some cases, their graves.


The balcony offers a view of the past as well as one of the future. Alfred Chandler, the renown Harvard business scholar and lecturer on strategy, once said, “How can you know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been?” In TomorrowToday we speak a great deal about the need to ‘think like a futurist’ – and how best to do that, but this has to be balanced by an appreciation for the journey already travelled. The historian Carl Becker said that the past was a kind of screen on which we project the future. As a good leader who hopes to lead your organization into the future, one of your most powerful tools will be a sophisticated understanding of your past. Great military leaders are always steeped in a deep understanding of military history but understand that today’s war cannot be fought successfully by using the previous war’s tactics. The reality is that history does not repeat itself but it often rhymes (insight attributed to Mark Twain) and so good leaders lead attuned to the rhymes they see, feel and encounter. Perhaps the greatest gift of the past is that of context. Leadership is always context specific and context is always the work of intelligently looking both backwards and forwards.

400_F_36646957_dQAdQwe6pYI1G2FPJNF2iUg472OTU9sySo what is your ‘balcony’? The answer will differ from person to person and from business to business. As a leader you need to know what your balcony is and you will need to be clear about what it is you see from the balcony. You will need to help take your executive team to this vantage point and then learn to ask the right questions as you survey your business and the landscape in which you find yourself. An easy measure of this is to look at your current executive agenda. How much of it would constitute ‘balcony’ conversation? Most executive meetings that I sit in on are filled with dance floor items and doing the balcony work is hard and unfamiliar (that is often why I am there!). So, as a good leader, you will need to get this balance right and again, there can be no set formulae for what this process will look like  – but do ensure that your 2013 has a balcony build into it and that your trips to the balcony are frequent and consistent.

The third thing that good leaders will request of the guy in the red suit come Christmas is:

3. Night vision goggles. Every little person’s (although I would concede that it would mainly be boys) dream! The ability to see the ‘invisible’, the hidden – to see the things that are obscured from one’s natural vision. The ability to ‘see the invisible’ is an essential part of the ability to lead diversity. When we in TomorrowToday teach on leading diversity, one of the foundational points we make is that leading diversity requires the individual (the leader) to recognise your own lenses or filters through which you interpret the world around you.

Our own biases and prejudices mean that we don’t see the world with 20/20 vision. Understanding this reality becomes the stepping-stone to an engagement with diversity and leads to cultivating an intentional awareness and behaviour of ‘seeing the invisible’.  This translates into seeing people around us who have largely remained invisible; people we may ‘see’ but not think they have anything worthwhile to contribute. This might be due to rank or position; it may be due to educational or societal filters; it may be due to age, race, gender, personality, status or any number of filters that prohibit us really seeing the ‘other person’.

Good leaders deliberately cultivate this ability to see others. It is that ability that translates into being fully present and attentive and when this becomes your natural disposition it is one that has a remarkable impact on those around you. I recall a ‘lowly’ clerk in a large financial institution who spoke with awe of being ‘trapped’ in an elevator with the CEO who not only “knew my name but asked for my opinion and then really listened”. It was a chance encounter that had a marked impact on her and it was one that the CEO in question would have been unaware of given that this was simply who he was and how he recognised people.

This sounds pretty basic doesn’t it? It sounds rather like ‘leadership 101’ but then why is it that so few people share the experience of the clerk in the elevator? We all know what it means to ‘be invisible’ and how demeaning that can be. Why is it that so many leaders don’t see and because of their not seeing, fail to learn, hear and inspire? There is a Buddhist saying that suggests that it is never the lack of teachers that inhibits our learning but rather it is our inability to see the teachers that surround us that inhibits our learning. Good leaders remain open to lifelong learning and they recognise that a rich source of such learning can be found in cultivating an ability to ‘see the invisible’. In the quest to ‘see the invisible’ a good place to start is to give the invisible a name. Once that happens, seeing becomes pretty easy!

I would guess that good leaders intent on continued personal growth and determined to lead successfully into the future would be asking for many more things from Santa than the three I have suggested. So perhaps a good place to start imagining would be to ask yourself if there such a ‘wish list’ for the CEO of the North Pole, a list of goodies that you would hope he would put in your Christmas stocking, what would that list look like?

 

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The great thing about starting with a ‘wish list’ is that the next step is to begin transforming that into a tangible action list that will lead to real benefits. Sometimes we hear that we need to be ‘careful for what we wish for’ as the reality of our wishes can lead to a radical transformation that then challenges unexpected things and leads to untold adventures. We started out by saying that good leaders learn to challenge their own (and their organizations) perspectives and assumptions. Getting what you wish for might just lead to this happening! This process (of unlearning) is seldom neither easy nor comfortable but you have been warned!

So, not long until Christmas and thoughts of a much anticipated (should you home be inhabited by little people) and welcome visitor descending chimneys with loads of presents; time to reflect on a journey travelled and one that awaits; time to share, celebrate our blessings and remember those less fortunate than ourselves is soon to be upon us no matter where it is we reside.  I would hope you enjoy a restful and meaningful Christmas and that 2013 arrives with you invigorated and determined to grow in your leadership effectiveness. May you take the best and worst of 2012 and learnt from it and I trust that the year ahead will prove to be the best yet!

Ho, Ho, Ho and a merry Christmas to you and yours

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