Determine Your Why
Friedrich Nietzsche once noted, "He whose life has a WHY can bear almost any how."
It took me years to understand this as a leader and more importantly to see why this must be the foundation for what we are about to embark on. I once read, "Leadership is one of the most noble professions because you get to innovate and adapt while building lives and creating positive change in people."
In my early career as a teacher this "why" seemed very evident as I taught junior high and high school English Literature and coached soccer and surf teams in local public schools. I thought the classroom was the primary and possibly one of the very few platforms to "create positive change in people's lives." As I transitioned from the classroom to business, I began to lose perspective on the "why." I couldn't easily see the correlation between running a business and creating human impact as when I was in the classroom. In my mind being a teacher and a business person were on two ends of life's spectrum. Not the spectrum of right vs. wrong or moral vs. immoral, but it was more about my understanding of how and where you can create positive impact on people and drive change for the good. The classroom seemed naturally human, evolutionary, and emergent while business appeared more functional, mechanical, bureaucratic, and precise. In my mind one involved bettering people, amplifying their human potential, and leading from a more soulful space, and the other was more about driving people to execute on predetermined roles and responsibilities, maximizing margins, and advancing the business into the market.
My understanding of business historically was anchored in vast images of Corporate America, friends who ran companies, and business books with the typical focus on strategy, profitability, market share, "right" people on the bus, and five-year business plans, etc. - rinse and repeat. Leadership was about driving those metrics and KPI's (Key Performance Indicators) from the top down via tightly managing the people to make sure those things happened. All was aimed at increasing profit and the net result. It's really all that mattered. People were employees that were the cogs in the bigger machine enabling advancement of the above and utterly at the behest of leadership's edict. The model was command and control within a hierarchy that would essentially drive compliance and order from the top down through the cascading channels of the organization, through the middle layers of management, out into the front lines, and finally out into the market. The legacy and prevailing model was and still is to drive the business and control change primarily through tactics like a top-down hierarchy (ivory towers), bureaucracy, entrenched processes, silos of information, manipulation, and linear analysis of cause and effect.
As a rising leader in business, I began move up through the corporate ranks while yet wrestling with those more singularly focused and legacy minded tactics and metrics. I had to ask myself if it was possible to be in business and lead from what most of business leaders saw then and still see now as a more soft, nice-to-have. Namely - "Leadership is one of the most noble professions because you get to innovate and adapt while building lives and creating positive change in people." Or do I shift gears and lead from the textbook, legacy model of business and leadership that focused primarily on those core components, the very ones that would make me a "success" as judged by those senior leaders I served.
I began to ask myself every day and almost every minute, "Does this thesis on business match my thesis regarding impact and amplifying potential? And do they match what is really needed to make a change - in the business AND the people?" I drilled into my own motivation and asked questions like, "What would my life look like if I was leading from a new place, a "better" place, a more dynamic place - a more human place? What would challenge me, impact those that I lead, and shift my lens on making the world a better place by not just how I ran my business but how I impact people and teach them how to impact others? How should I be leading differently and would that add or subtract from the freedom in my own life and those I lead or the businesses that I ran and/or would run? Would it make them better and would it make me better - not just as a leader but as a human being." I realized I must think about my passion to impact people's lives and amplify their potential more than the profits I was to generate in the businesses I was running. More than the sales. More than marketshare. More than cost cutting. More than top and bottom line P&L. More than the customer. More than the business itself.
Let me pause there. I know that statement might cause business leaders around the world to say "Wait! Did he just say in business something is more important than profits, expense control, cost cutting, planning, strategy, etc?" Yes! And No! Yes ... those functions of the business are important and like the parts in the motor of a car - complicated but repeatable and deterministic and therefore "manageable." They (Expenses, Profits, P&L, etc.)make your business like the motor turnover and keep moving forward (or backward), but they are NOT the epicenter of your organization. You need them to monitor the progress or egress of a business; they are indicators of how your business (motor) runs, idles, and/or speeds up, but they do not measure the health of the business, the success of the business, or the future of the business.
And yet No! What actually makes up your business is more complex. Jurgen Appelo in his book Management 3.0 says,
"One important thing is that all organizations are networks. People may draw their organizations as hierarchies, but that doesn't change that they are actually networks. Second, social complexity shows us that management is primarily about people and their relationships, not about departments and profits."
Teams and people make up your business, and those teams consist of diverse people who collectively and collaboratively make up your business. They have hearts, minds, souls, and they are driven through personal passions and a sense of value. To treat them as mere cogs in the machine is to utterly minimize their ultimate potential, value, and contribution to an organization. People in your business are the foundation. They are the core. The teams, the people in your business are the indicators of how and if your business engine will run and run at high speeds. How they are treated, organized, and led will then and only then determine and ultimately define the quality of the traditional metrics of the business.
A New World
In a new world of extremes like millennialization, globalization, digitization, leaders and their businesses are also surrounded by a new workforce made up of an entirely new generation. They function in a very collaborative collective and will not accept a minimal view of their value. Jeff Jarvis says,
"It seems as if no company, executive, or organization truly understands how to survive and prosper in the internet age." He continues and says "...organizations like Facebook, Craigslist, Wikipedia, Amazon, [Toms Shoes, Zappos, Spotify, Semler & Co., Gortex, etc] ... see a different world than the rest of us and their operations make no sense under the old, industrial rule. Companies like these are helping us blow apart the old models and legacy thinking thanks to their new ways of organizing and leading. That is why the smart response to all this change is to ask what these disruptors would do." He continues "... Google realizes that we are individuals who live in an almost infinite universe of small communities of interests, information, and geography. Google does not treat us as a mass. Google understands that the economy is made up of a mass of niches - that small is the new big. Google does not see itself as a product. It is a service, a platform, a means of enabling others that so far knows no limits" (Jarvis, What Would Google Do, Introduction).
As I began to see a new reality and this new paradigm while wrestling with my "why," I saw legacy management standing in direct contrast and utterly clashing with a newer emergent worldview. This new world that in part has changed through technological and digital revolution has also shifted how we see and understand the world and the immediate community. For example, instead of the leading from the past within this new world we have to learn how to modernize incentives, give a voice to the people at all levels, and build the culture from the bottom-up. The world has radically changed how we live and lead, and it will accept nothing less than those who are savvy enough to bring this new reality to life. It's all become deeply human. Therefore leadership today has "...shifted to how management should contribute to society, provide for environmental sustainability, and improve the lives of the people at the bottom of the pyramid ...
Every generation wrestles with the questions about it purpose. In the 1950's and 1960's, to be an able manager was to do four things well: plan, organize, direct, and control. Leading business thinkers conceived of managers as rational actors who could solve complex problems through the power or clear analysis. That view shaped the developing profession, but many questions were left unanswered. Planning and directing were essential, yes, but toward what ends? Organizing and controlling of course, but in whose interest? By the 1980's and the 1990's, one answer had come to dominate popular thinking: The purpose of management was to enrich a company's owners. Shareholders value creation had the advantage of being precisely and objectively measurable - and made CEO's like Robert Goizueta, Sandy Weil, and Jack Welch legends. Yet as a managerial mission, the pursuit fo financial wealth has proved to be unsatisfactory. In the previous decade [2000-2010] as evidence that markets are far from efficient has mounted and much of the wealth created has been wiped out, basic questions about management have resurfaced. Today the focus has shifted to how management should contribute to society, provide for environmental sustainability, and improve the lives of the people at the bottom of the pyramid ... For those how have chosen leadership as their livelihood, these are not academic questions. They speak to the ultimate question that confronts us all: Has my life's work been important?" (HBR, December 2010, pg. 87)
During this journey of my "why" I quickly I had to find a way to make my thesis become relevant to business and my teams. Recognizing my personal passion and observing an utterly new world, I realized it was paramount that I vanquish the old model of anachronistic leadership - power and fear in the right hand, control and manipulation in the left, and the crown of profits on my brow. I had to analyze not only how I lead but why I wanted to lead. It is there that I formed a need to draw a new paradigm for leadership that at its core was based on how to build, motivate, and lead teams in one of the largest, most dynamic workforces during one of the most disruptive, complex times in our history.
A Leadership Crisis
I soon saw that leadership as a whole needed to construct a new model girded by how we help people see a better self that then builds a better world, like the above companies began implementing. It is why today I firmly believe that the only organization that will not simply survive but thrive is one that is people-centric where profits simply become the byproduct instead of the thesis. I believe the new model of leadership must be centered on Meaning as the Higher Good. To do this we have to change how we build, motivate, and lead our teams... entirely!
"We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep routine going. Who can answer questions but don't know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don't know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they're worth doing it in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of expertise. What we don't have are leaders" (www.theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/).
I think what lies at the base of this and the basis of being a great leader has a lot to do with self awareness and our reason and want to lead - our why - while understanding how to lead in a totally new world. Leaderships has to be about its inherent value and passion to change lives; It has to be about a deeply rooted idea centered on people who focus on other people who in turn focus on other people.
You see this "... idea has an aim. It wants something. It posits a value structure. [This] idea believes that what it is aiming for is better than what it has now. It reduces the world to those things that aid or impede its realization, and it reduces everything else to irrelevance. [This] idea defines figure against ground" (Jordan P. Anderson - 12 Rules for Life).
It's Both And
Because of this idea and through this idea, I've worked to build a framework and a methodology that puts people first, and as a result of this the business and/or organization will grow. It's "both and." I've taken this idea and practiced it within organizations and teams I've led such that together we have grown to a better place than where we were - in morale, culture, potential ... and YES profits! My idea is aiming for something better than what leadership is now. Through my graduate research, practical application leading teams, and demonstrable results in organizational turnarounds as a lead change agent in both small and global companies, I've seen a human-centric approach to leading as paramount to our core as humans as well as an essential to building and growing sustainable businesses in a brand new, complex era. It's an idea that deeply resonates with individuals and teams I've led, graduate students I've taught in MBA programs, and extensive research I've performed. Consequently, it also drove new revenue streams and profits in the businesses and teams I've led. I firmly believe that this human centric approach is absolutely necessary if we are to lead effectively and more importantly if we are to move teams and organizations into the twenty-first century. Through positively impacting peoples lives with value and impact, they will naturally become a powerful engine of growth and innovation.
Principle: Define and understand the "why" you lead - both personally and professionally. If the true aim of your "why" is not rooted in bringing about REAL change in the lives of those you lead, you need to reassess and pivot. The greater goal is change to self and to your entire organization such that it re-defines purpose and value while amplifying human potential.
Application: Before you begin your day, perform a discipline of visioning your impact on the lives of those you lead that day. For example, I vision my surf sessions before I paddle out so my mind and body are prepared to ride the waters of change and connect to what I'm about to do on the waves. Daily discipline your mindset to see the change you want to bring to the teams and organization you lead. See yourself loving on your people and leading with both strength and empathy so together you can become better and help author change. If you can understand your why, you can bear almost any how.