There is no business school or philosophy programme that offers a course in wisdom. In fact defining wisdom is itself something of a challenge.
Sometimes you will hear adults describing a child as having wisdom beyond his years without really being able to define what it is that makes them say that.
Wisdom is a little like riding a bicycle. You can spend days in lectures about the mechanics of the bicycle, its aerodynamics, the physiology of cycle exercise, the psychology of cycling, the biomechanics of the sport, handling a bicycle, and so on.
The reality though is that none of this will give you the ability to actually ride the bicycle.
In order to be able to ride one has to hoist one’s bottom onto the saddle, put your feet on the pedals, hold the handle grips and launch forth, often to fall off almost immediately. This will continue until one has mastered the art and wisdom of balance. This is something that no-one can teach one. It comes from studying at the University of Falling Off a Bicycle until you learn not to.
If you ask someone to describe balance they find it almost impossible to do so. They find it even more difficult to teach one how to balance.
Wisdom is the same. You cannot categorise, nor codify wisdom. It comes with experience, from exposing oneself to life’s trials, tribulations, challenges, joys, upsets, elations, sadnesses and successes.
What we can do though is to speed up the process of acquiring wisdom. The best way to do this is to provide the young with mentors. One of the biggest, most important, negative consequences of the dissolution of the extended family is the fact that the very young at best only have intermittent access to grandparents, aunts and uncles who, in the past would have given them the mentoring that is so valuable in the maturation process.
Today the young pretty much have to find their own way in life. A life that is hugely complex, is often ugly and one which abounds with many very visible poor role models.
This is where those that have lived life and are in their sunset period can play a massively important role in our society. They can take on the role of mentoring young people. They can provide a safe environment in which young people can explore their ideas and receive guidance on some of the most important and challenging issues they are confronted with every day.
We can bring the sunshine they so need in their lives. We can give them hope. We can build positive attitudes. We can help them acquire the most important skills they need to find their way on their journey through the valley of life. We can show them how the right values are much more important than great wealth, or fancy clothes and cars. We can show them how to really love life.
In short we have it in us to build a nation!
There is no business school or philosophy programme that offers a course in wisdom. In fact defining wisdom is itself something of a challenge.
We are often called in to facilitate strategic planning sessions.
Of course we are happy to do this but this is not our primary interest. We want to see the implementation of the plans not just their development. Too often I have seen brilliant strategic plans end up as nothing more than that – a brilliant, but sterile plan. I have even seen executive teams haul out last year’s plan, put together at great cost because the team spent a few days at a luxury resort producing it, only to find that very little planned had actually seen the light of day! This is a travesty.
The second strategy planning sin, and arguably, even more damaging is that the plan is never shared with all the people in the organisation. This virtually guarantees that nothing will happen.
Plans without people are nothing more than academic exercises.
It is people that turn a sterile plan into energy, excitement and action.
For a plan to reach full fruition part of the planning process, a large part, should be the active planning to engage all the people at all levels of the organisation in its implementation.
This is critical. It is also the most exciting part of the entire process.
When people at every level have bought into the plan and are giving passionate effect to it success is so much more likely. The enthusiasm and keenness to help is palpable.
This is why spreading the message and tactics that comprise the strategy is so important. It creates meaning for people at work. They ‘get’ the reason why it is a great idea to be friendly and helpful; they understand in detail why their personal role is important; they appreciate that the work that they do is valued and valuable; they understand that they do make a difference.
One of my major clients recently discovered the importance of this at first hand, and quite dramatically. We were debating why the executive team should be trusted by the people. We decided to run a very simple test – we asked the Financial Director, there and then, to go and ask the receptionist what the leadership team had to do to earn the trust of the people. He went, rather nervously, and eventually returned. He explained that he had first to ask the lady her name so that he could engage in conversation with her. Her response to his question was that no-one would trust the executive if the only way they communicated with everyone was via e-mail and on PowerPoint presentations! They want personal face-to-face communication. They want to know the executive team.
What a wake-up call! People all over the world want visible personal leadership. They want leadership that shares with them honestly what is occurring in the organisation and what they can do to help to make it the very best that it can possibly be. Most people want to be part of a team and they want to contribute to its success.
They just need to be told how and why! Simple as that.
We live in a world where the flow of data grows faster and more intense with each passing day. This flow is of such intensity, it travels so fast, is always immediately accessible and available, and there is so much of it that it is almost impossible for the mere mortal to make real sense out of it without some help. The media attempts, or purports, to assist with this. Often, though, instead of making more sense of it the result is more confusion. Why this is the case is clearly open for conjecture but perhaps it is because the media has to sell its wares to survive and the reality is that it is easier to sell sensation than cold and sober assessment of the facts and a calm analysis and presentation of the potential cause and consequences of a particular event or trends of circumstances. Be that as it may. What does the leader do to make meaning out of the world for those that he leads? The question is simple; the answer, somewhat more complicated. Let us assume that the leader’s intentions are good and honourable. We all know that this is not the case with all leaders. We have some real and current examples of where leaders have manipulated, distorted, managed, controlled and filtered information to their own selfish ends. Inevitably, though, the truth will out and those leaders have discovered that theirs was not the wisest route to take. Let us unpack the development of information flow from mere data to the achievement of wisdom. The sheer quantum of stuff that arrives can be somewhat overwhelming. Most of what assails our ears and eyes is really just that- stuff. This is data that is mostly meaningless without an adequate context. It adds little value to our lives and mostly we either just ignore it or discard it after the most cursory glance. It is only when this data gains some context that it becomes meaningful and turns into information. Information has some use but it is only when we begin to really use the information that becomes knowledge and therefore capable of adding value to our lives. Ii is only after experimenting with the knowledge, failing to use it successfully, trying again, finding new ways of applying it and internalising it to make it inescapably part of who we are, part of our personal brand, that we finally arrive at a point where it is recognisable as wisdom. There is no way to teach wisdom. It can only be learnt at the University of Life and after a great deal of churning. This is the knowledge journey that leaders need to understand in order to be able to apply their minds as to how they can assist those that they lead to deal effectively with the information overload to which we are all subjected. Let us summarise the causes of the overload: The sheer weight of apparently meaningless data projected at us each minute of every day; the pressure to respond to everything is compelling; the inability of many people to be able to prioritise creates massive time pressures which cannot easily be resolved; there is an expectation on behalf of the sender that a response will be almost instantaneous; the social pressure to empty the inbox everyday is huge; the pressure to join an increasing number of social and other networking sites is tremendous; the pressure to acquire newer technology which allows even more instantaneous connections grows by the day! What is the leader to do? It is critical that he is sure of himself and what he stands for. He must create a very clear value system that makes understanding what he stands for clear and unequivocal. He must prioritise and spend his time on important issues, which is not the same as spending his time on urgent issues. He must create a framework and context that ensures that people know what the boundaries are. He must be visible. He must engage. This means being out and about and amongst the people he leads. This is not easy to do via cyber technology. The great Steve Jobs was big on his townhall meetings precisely because he recognised the power of personal contact. He must humanise his organisation. There is so much else in the world that causes the dehumanisation of organisations. If he does this successfully he will have created a prism for all those that he leads to filter the information deluge. This will empower them to use that which is useful and to discard the meaningless and uselessly time-consuming He will have created the power of focus!
Leadership is a Journey
In a discussion with Greg Faasen who runs an excellent business focussing on teamwork and leadership he made two very telling points:
- Leadership and the skills associated with leadership are a constantly evolving journey for those in leadership positions whether they like it or not, and;
- No team game has ever been won by an individual.
I am sure there will immediately be comments particularly about the second point like:”Ja, but what about Pat Lambie’s last minute 55 meter kick that helped the Springboks to beat the All Blacks for the first time in ages?”
There is only one sensible retort to comments like that: Was it not a huge team effort that ensured that the Springboks were within winning distance in those last few moments? Of course! And it required focussed attention from every individual in the team for all of a gruelling and intense 80 minutes to make sure that that indeed was the case.
The fact that we need to internalise is that no player has ever won or lost a team game. It requires the whole team for this to happen.
And let us examine the first point. Leadership is always a journey. This same game of rugby has taught us that over and over. As have all other forms of human activity.
Last week the Springboks were heroes. They had just beaten the World’s number 1 team. This week they have learned that leadership is tough and every week, every day it requires those in leadership positions to actively learn new skills. When you are striving to beat the World’s number 1 team you require a particular mind-set and determination. When you are learning to live with the reality of what you have achieved you will require a different mind-set and determination. Our Springboks were outstanding on the first count; they obviously still have much to learn on the second count.
There are two really important learning points from this example:
- When you are leader you need to remember that leadership is an extremely fragile condition. It is not a right; there are no guarantees; you do not own the position, and you are merely the custodian until you hand the baton to someone else. You had better learn to learn every minute of the day if you wish to maintain and improve your leadership position. You have very limited control over the position because it does not belong to you. It belongs to those that you lead and therefore crucial to your longevity in the position is the integrity with which you lead and the trust that you have earned from those that believe in you while doing so.
- Absolutely essential to cementing your position as leader is your ability to knit the group of individuals into a close-knit team who see themselves first and foremost as a team and only secondly as individuals with special and diverse skills, experience and knowledge. They need to understand that this combination of capabilities and competencies really only have value and currency if they are applied in a focussed and intentional way for the good and well-being of the team. Outside of that context they will have currency but of diminished importance. Consider the Pat Lambie example again. Would he have had the opportunity to be hero if he had been playing for another team? How long would it
take for him to earn the confidence of his new team mates to be given similar opportunities. Obviously the more talented the individual the quicker the opportunities would be given. However, there are plenty of examples, too, where talented individuals have not been able to find their rhythm, to earn their place in the confidence of the team, and to perform at the same level when they move from one team to another.
Leadership and teamwork are so closely dependent on each other that it does not make sense to separate them except to analyse the needs and activities of both to better understand what it is we need to do to make both perform more effectively.
Leaders have a crucial role to play in every element of our lives and especially in the life of the team of which they are a part. They only are a part of the team; they are not the team. Many leaders forget this.
The team can only be effective if their sole focus is on the needs and objectives of the team and not on the wants and desires of an individual, no matter how talented he or she may be. More teams have fallen apart because of the influence of one selfish individual than one would care to think about!
One of the most neglected elements in the discussions of, and writings about, great leadership is the issue of courage.
It is this element which is mostly missing in leadership in our country and indeed in the world today. Where are the Ghandis, Churchills, Mandelas of the world today? We are lucky to have the amazing Archbishop Desmond Tutu who continues, in his advancing years, to stand up for what is right and to defy the government on important moral and ethical issues. But having said that there is a severe dearth of courage amongst those who claim to be our leaders.
One of the fundamental differentiators of great leadership is courage. Because it is so important let us unpack it a little.
Perhaps the greatest leader of all time Jesus Christ displayed the ultimate in courage by being prepared to die for his people and for the principles that are still at the heart of the Christian religion some 2000 years later. What would Christianity be today without this ultimate sacrifice?!
When Mandela was given his moment in Court he made his statement about being prepared to fight and, if necessary, to die for the principles he had espoused and which today are enshrined in the South African Constitution.
What do these two amazing examples tell us about leadership?
Firstly, leadership is not about popularity. In fact it has very little to do with popularity and many (maybe even most) politicians confuse these two. Leadership has mostly do with standing for important principles and it has to do with communicating these principles and values very clearly. It has to do with making sure that these are immutable and non-negotiable. This takes courage. It especially takes courage when the odds are stacked against you and it seems that all your friends have deserted you as was the case at the trial of Christ.
Secondly, let us look at what this thing we call courage is all about.
If you question anyone who has shown courage they will confirm that they were frightened. Even He who was able to rise from the dead showed fear in His last moments when he called on God and asked why He had been forsaken.
There is no shame in being frightened.
Courage is certainly not the absence of fear. Rather it is the recognizing, confronting, understanding and knowing that fear; even making it your friend that is the essence of courage.
Once you recognize, know and befriend it, you can begin to use the energy it will provide.
As Mandela said, “Often our greatest fear is the fear of unleashing our full potential. It is this fear that prevents us from being the best that we can be”.
One really needs to get to know oneself, to appreciate and recognize one’s talent to begin to be able to summon the courage to use this energy; to use one’s talent for all to see and experience.
It takes courage to risk this exposure, the possibility of being rejected, and then to try, and try, and try again.
Courage is the ability to see beyond the current terrifying situation to the place, the situation for which one is striving. It is courage which earns the respect of those who have placed their trust in you and it is courage which causes them to trust, respect and believe in you and what you stand for. No grandstanding, no nice speeches, no presents, no public relations strategies and no advertisements can ever replace the power of sheer courage!
Scaling the peaks of one’s own Mount Everest of fear, emotionally and physically, is arguably one of life’s most exciting, most exhilarating journeys!
And the prize is incalculable!
So often we find someone or something else to blame if we feel unfulfilled or unhappy with our life, circumstances or job. It may be at times that the circumstances around us have not worked entirely in our favour, or someone has behaved unfairly towards us; but we can never, ever say that we had absoutlety no control over what happens next! We always have a choice and can always make a decision; we can always strive for a positive outcome no matter what the circumstance may be.
To a large extent this is something that leaders have a responsibility to help create: The environment and circumstances in which those that follow them feel that they have a measure of control over their lives and over the conditions in which they have to live and work. If you are able to achieve this you will have more fulfilled, more motivated and more productive followers. Basically people want work that provides meaning and they want circumstances in which they can express their talents to the full.
There are so many things that leaders can do but here are a few ideas that will help the process along:
• Be consciously in the present when you engage with those that you lead. Be focussed on the here and now and tune in intensely to what your followers are saying and expressing, verbally or otherwise. This way they will know that they have your attention and that you really value their contribution.
• Always try to keep things in perspective. Try not to make small issues bigger than they need to be. The world is big and complex enough without further complicating it by blowing things out of proportion to their importance.
• Learn to bounce back from setbacks. Do this quickly and positively. Help everyone to concentrate on where you are attempting to go, and what you are trying to achieve, rather than on the past and the recent setback. The setback is what it is and nothing can change it, but you most certainly can affect the way of the future. Make bouncing back a way of life and this will breed a culture of resilience. Part of successful bouncing back is doing so with a healthy sense of humour. Help your people always to see the lighter side of life. A sense of humour is a great stress reliever.
• Always be committed. Be passionate about what you do and show it. It is infectious and will enthuse your followers.
• Concentrate on building a strong sense of teamwork at the heart of which is a commitment to each other, and a genuine seeking out of opportunities to help and support each other.
• Play to your strengths. Understand what you are really good at and use those strengths to motivate others to do the same. Select people as far as possible that compliment your strengths so that you do not end up competing for space but rather helping each other to completely fill the available space with your collective energy and drive. Working together we will always be better than the sum of the parts.
• Be positive. Strive to look at the optimistic side of life. No-one finds negativism and pessimism attractive. Those who constantly find fault and see the downside in everything seldom attract the kind of followers that make a positive difference.
• Maintain an action orientation. In the end, no matter how much reflection and planning may be necessary, the only thing that really counts will be action. You need to show that you ‘do’ things and not only talk about doing things. Take action!
• Be kind to your people. Show them that you really care. This will be experienced, not in the big things, although these are important, but in the little things. Just by helping people along without wanting the fanfare of mass recognition will help to build a reputation as one who truly cares; someone who does things from the heart and not for public recognition. It is easier and more sustainable to be good to people and for them to experience your niceness first hand than to behave in a ruthless uncaring manner. People don’t hang around to be abused for too long! Part of doing this is to show true gratitude when it is due. Let people know that you truly appreciate whatever it is they have done to make a difference. When you do this you send a message to the whole organisation about what values are important and what behaviour should be repeated.
It is your organisation to make and mould and will be a reflection of who you are too! So what kind of legacy do you want to leave?!
I often wonder what the world was like before the Great War of 1914 -1918. I have read many historical books and books on history. Indeed I majored in History at University. I wonder whether people then found the world they lived in busy, unpredictable, subject to dramatic and uncertain change, confusing, noisy, and incessantly rushed?
Perhaps this was so, relative to their own histories. Life seems to me to have been more genteel and to go along at an easier pace. Even in my own lifetime the pace of living has changed exponentially and the quantity of data that floods us is simply astonishing. I read somewhere recently that we have been hit with more information in the last two and half years than in the rest of history! I don’t know if this is true and I am not sure how one would even begin to measure this but the certain fact is that we are all infinitely more connected in infinitely more ways than even our own parents could have dreamed possible.
General George W. Casey, retired U.S. Army Chief of Staff, referred to this sense of being overwhelmed by the flood of information and the speed, rapidity and unpredictable nature of change when he addressed graduate officers recently. He used the acronym, VUCA, to capture the essence of the world we live in. This concept was developed in the US Military and apparently initially used in Special Operations, whatever that may mean. VUCA stands for: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity.
It is however a very useful way of looking at and beginning to understand the world we are in. The reality is that is our world and it is the way it is because we have made it that way. All of human ingenuity has contrived to make the world bigger and smaller at the same time; faster and slower; bigger and smaller; more accessible and significantly less accessible; simpler and infinitely more complex. It is these apparent paradoxes that create the whirl of confusion in our individual brains. The problem is that the more expert the experts become the more they have to have tunnel vision in order to grow their expertise which means in turn that they live in tighter and tighter cocoons. And to a lesser extent the same begins to happen to us dependent on our education, financial status and interests.
It is in this condition that the world’s biggest democracy, India, and South Africa face their general elections. How is it possible for people to make sense of all the conflicting messaging with which they are bombarded? It is in this environment that people seek leaders and leadership that is able to Smooth the Volatility, Reduce the Uncertainty, Decipher the Complexity, and Remove the Ambiguity. This is what the best leaders do.
Go back in history and it is evident that this is what the world’s best leaders have always done. Within the last few generations this is what Churchill did, and Roosevelt, and Gandhi, and Mandela. They had the amazing knack of making extremely difficult and complex issues seem much simpler and within touching distance of even the most humble amongst us.
It is a sad reality that there seem to be too few of these types of leaders to help us to make sense of all the complexity around us. But here is what can legitimately expect from our leaders at any level in society, in any organisation, including government:
1. They must provide us with a clear and unequivocal picture or vision of the future and we need this picture to be sufficiently inspiring for us to want to be co-creators of the future vision. Otherwise why bother?!
2. Our leaders must communicate clearly and simply to help us understand the context and issues in which we are expected to live, work, perform. This means that leaders have to stop and really listen actively to what the people they purport to lead are actually saying to them. This will create understanding which will enable them to communicate better.
3. The mission of the leader once he has created his picture of the future and properly understood the people is to clarify future relative to the present and the pathway as best he sees to get from where we are to the future we have agreed we wish to reach. One speech will not do it, nor memos, nor PowerPoint presentations. It will require being present, being mindful, reaching out, listening to reactions, explaining again and again and again. This is the only way to gain the trust of the people so that they put their trust in the hands of the leader. Once he has done this he has their heads and their hearts!
4. The final essential necessity is to ensure that everyone understands that because of the type of world we live in we need to be able to move as fast as a cheetah, change as quickly as a chimp and have the perseverance of an elephant to see things through to the very end.
This is the VUCA world; it is our world and we should demand that our leaders lead us accordingly!
VUCA preparedness, anticipation, evolution and intervention