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Posted on October 16, 2019 at 2:32 pm

The World is Changing and So Must We: The Case for Humble Leadership

The World is Changing and So Must We: The Case for Humble Leadership

On April 9, 2017, Dr. David Dao Duy Anh was injured while being forcibly removed from the fully boarded, sold-out United Express Flight 3411. He was forced off the flight in order to make room for a United employee who needed to fly to another location to start his shift. 

In the process, security officers struck Dao’s face against an armrest, then pulled him, apparently unconscious, by his arms along the aircraft aisle past rows of onlooking passengers.

Video recorded by passengers went viral on social media, resulting in anger over the violent incident. Politicians expressed concern and called for an official investigation. U.S. President Donald Trump criticized United Airlines, calling its treatment of customers “horrible.” Warren Buffett stated that United made a “terrible mistake.”

What many of you probably don’t know is as a result of the incident, United CEO Oscar Munoz was denied a previously planned promotion to Chairman. 

This is our new world: Front-line folks (who, by the way, were security officers — not even United employees) are making decisions and taking actions that are captured on video and broadcast to the word via social media within minutes. And your customers and potential customers are listening and watching and making decisions based on what they see on Twitter, for example.

Think about this: The holder of the highest office in the US and arguably the world’s most influential investor, chiming in… And in addition, the whole incident costs the CEO a promotion! 

I am telling you this story not to justify or argue against the denied promotion of the CEO but to illustrate the increased messiness, speed, and interconnectedness of our new world. 

Welcome to our new “VUCA” world, a term first coined by the US Army War College.

Volatile: Challenge is often unexpected and of unknown duration. For example, prices fluctuate widely after a supplier goes out of business.

Uncertainty: Lack of information; change may or may not happen. Legislation may or may not pass that directly impacts how you do business. 

Complex: Many interconnected parts and variables. The volume of information is too overwhelming to process. For example, consider the complexity of doing business in different countries with different and ever-changing regulations, tariffs, and cultural values.

Ambiguous: No precedent exits. You face the “unknown unknowns,” for example, moving into an emerging market. 

VUCA describes our rapidly changing world well. We now occupy a world marked by increased speed and dense interconnectedness. We live in a world in which our organizations are facing mind-boggling challenges, from game-shifting technologies to supply chain disruption to global terrorism. 

It’s the business “fog of war” — the term used to mean the great uncertainty experienced by commanders and soldiers overwhelmed by the complex, changing, and urgent situations on the battlefield.

Where we once had weeks and months to analyze a situation, develop a plan of action, communicate that plan, and then execute it, today’s world demands that far-reaching decisions be made on the spot by a team of your front-line workers who might be 8 time zones and four level of hierarchies removed from you.

Oh, and by the way, the members of that team are 25 years younger than you, speak a different mother tongue, and live and work in a different culture. And much like most millennials, they are primarily driven by purposeful and meaningful work vs just earning a paycheck.

How are we as leaders responding to this new world? Not very well!

While the world is becoming VUCA, we are still designing our organizations in the linear, predictable, mechanical, Taylor School of Management way. We continue to emphasize silos and efficiency over resilient adaptability. 

What about how we lead? Has our leadership kept up with the changing world? Once again, I argue no.

We are still stuck in the outdated, yet deeply ingrained leadership paradigm of the “know-it-all, strong, leader as a hero.” The leader has to know it all. He (and it is usually a he) understands the organization best, is the visionary expert, has all the information, and can make the best calls. His subordinates feed him information, and he makes the decisions. 

As a result of the increased speed and complexity of information, leaders are becoming overwhelmed and cannot keep up. As the sole decision makers at the top, they become the bottle neck. By the time the decision leaves the leader’s desk, it’s too late. Whatever that decision was, it’s now at least an iteration behind.

United’s CEO Munoz, for example, was ill-informed when he made his first statement about the dragging incident. He blamed the passenger for being disruptive and belligerent. The video footage by other passengers clearly proved this to be wrong. 

Munoz was too far removed from his front line and unable to keep up with what really was going on. When his statement blaming David Dao Duy Anh left his desk, it was too late. The PR disaster was perfect, the damage done, and as a result, the chairmanship was suddenly out of his reach. 

Cleary, this new world of ours requires new ways of leadership! It requires us to break down silos, work across teams, master flexible responses that come from true teamwork. I argue it requires humility! 

Leaders who solely focus on planning and predicting are no longer cutting it today. In order to succeed, leaders must network their organization, not silo it. 

Had Munoz, for example, had better relationships with, and better information from, his social media management team, one hopes he would have responded better to the incident — or, even better, the incident might not have happened in the first place. 

The way we lead has to change to meet a changing world. So how do we re-orient ourselves and our businesses to keep up?

Here is what I believe the new structure needs to look like. 

Humble leadership

Organizational goals must shift from reductionist, “efficiency” thinking to (1) resilient adaptability. From siloed department goals to a (2) shared purpose. From command-and-control micro-management to (3) empowered execution at the front lines.

  1. Resilient adaptability is the result of strengthening the relationships between parts of an organization that allow the organization to re-configure and adapt in response to changes. A resilient, adaptable organization is like an immune system. It benefits from shocks and becomes healthier when tested. 
  2.  We must relentlessly communicate and live — by example — the shared purpose of the organizationThis requires us to have answered the hard question: “What is the one, most important thing we must execute well around here in order to win?” Everyone in our organization must have an understanding of our common purpose so that we can enable empowered execution. Again, what if Munoz had clearly communicated across the entire United population — including vendors — that true customer service (and not just lip service) is their shared purpose? Might that have changed how that one customer had been treated and changed the outcome for everyone?
  3. Empowered execution at the front lines. As leaders, this means asking ourselves for every decision: “Who has the best information to make this call?” and then pushing decision-making and ownership deep down into the organization and to the right level for every action. It requires us leaders to let go and shift from a “hands-on” to an “eyes on, hands-off” approach. 

Our role as leaders must shift from command and control, “know it all” heroes to humble creators of the broader environment.

What does this mean for us as leaders? 

All too often the advice on how to become a great leader focuses on special skills for individual leadership excellence. 

For example, we’re familiar with the traditional “10 things that make a great leader”: vision, passion, drive, etc. 

In an increasingly complex and interconnected world, our job as a leader requires us to understand, shape, and own the interpersonal relationships and group dynamics of our teams vs simply excelling at our own individual leadership skills. And no, this we cannot and must not outsource to HR or to a consultant. It is OUR responsibility!

Let me be crystal clear about one thing: It would be presumptuous (and clearly not humble) of me to claim that humble leadership provides all the answers on how to succeed in today’s complex world. 

Lots and lots of leadership experts and plenty of leaders within organizations are working on how to best lead in our new, messy, fast-moving, uber-networked world. So it is with my own humility that I state that leadership is complex at the best of times and there are many paths to success.

Having said that, there is a strong movement towards humble leadership building — in business, in the military, and in academia. And it’s working. 

The success might not be obvious on the surface, because humble leaders often fly under the radar, making outsiders think it’s their teams that are the true geniuses, but it is working.

Ask yourself: 

  • How is your organization positioned to win in a VUCA world? 
  • One a scale from 1-10:
    1. How resilient and adaptable is your team? 
    2. How clear is everyone on a shared purpose?
    3. How empowered are your people to execute?
  • Commit to one concrete action step over the course of the next week that will improve your score