The Learning Leader: You

By May 14, 2015 Coaching No Comments
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In our first post we introduced the concept of the “Learning Leader”. We advocated for a new way of looking at what is required to succeed in the world of business and in life, which included the concept of the “Learning Cycle” (the four elements of learning about yourself, your world, what you want, and how to get it) and the “Speed of Learning” (the three elements that drive how fast you learn).

We developed the concept of the “Learning Leader” as a response to what we saw as failed approaches to dealing with the increasing frequency and unpredictability of change in the world. In future posts we will outline that change and show why we face an unprecedented business and personal challenge. But before we begin, we thought it would be useful to explore what it means to be a leader in today’s world .

Defining Leadership

“Leader” is one of those words that people use frequently and therefore without much thought. The Oxford English Dictionary (edition 2, page 749) says that a leader is, “One who guides others in action or opinion.” The first use of the term in this manner was 640 years ago. “Leader” as a word describing someone taking responsibility for getting others to act or believe has been around for a very long time.

The “one leads many” definition of leadership made a lot of sense for the first 50,000 years of human civilization. Certain people had power, attributes, connections, knowledge, capital, and/or resources that made them “special” in some unique and important way. It is difficult to coordinate the actions of any group of people. And while leaders have done a lot of damage over the years, they have also been able to use their ideas and their will to bring us all to where we are today.

But the English language is nothing if not adaptable, and we think new circumstances call for a new reflection on what it really means to be a leader. Leadership as commonly defined cannot exist in and of itself. Leaders always need followers. For every one person who says “follow me,” many more people need to say “yes.” Followership takes many forms, but while definitions differ, it makes sense that a leader and a follower cannot be the same person. As far as we have always understood, someone must follow in order for there to be a leader, and someone must lead in order to follow.

This is the problem: followership increasingly doesn’t work as a means of progress and productivity. A dramatic increase in connectivity, rules-based systems, automation and money have increased our freedom and our choices. Confusion is the natural outcome of those changes. Depending on leaders to tell us how to deal with that confusion is decreasingly effective, especially when the leaders are often confused themselves.

Followers cannot deal quickly and effectively enough with the escalating speed of change in the modern world, and cannot handle its increasingly unpredictable nature. As organizations and individuals face more and more complex and confusing situations and environments, each individual needs to take control of their ability to act, make choices, and grow.

The new world of business needs a new idea of leadership. We think that given these changes we must redefine “leader” to “one who guides themselves first, and others second, in action and opinion.” This is not an arbitrary redefinition of the word; it is an evolution. A leader has always been someone who influences people to make choices and act. In this new sense, everyone is a leader of at least one person: themselves. The Learning Leader is about taking control of your own life, and taking responsibility for your own development and growth.

Distributed Computing and Leadership

Modern computers started as large central processors, connected over time to many dumb terminals. The computer (leader) did all the work, the terminals (followers) took all the output and followed instructions. If you wanted to increase the power and productivity of the terminals, you needed to increase the power and capability of the computer. This thinking lead to increasingly powerful mainframes, which we eventually called “supercomputers.”

But in the 1970s something started happen: computers became cheap enough that many people could have them. Instead of creating ever larger central computers, we started investing in local productivity in the form of more capable local terminals (home computers). And these home computers eventually become networked together in data centers to become far more powerful than the big mainframes ever achieved.

It had been the conventional computing architecture wisdom that the path to increased power and productivity required bigger central computers. People eventually figured out that massively parallel and distributed computing was a superior path to achieving advanced computing goals. These new computing architectures give you lower cost, greater fault tolerance, greater scalability, and greater overall computing productivity.

Leadership has followed a similar, albeit slower, path. The conventional wisdom about leadership has been to find and train ever more capable leaders. These leaders would find ways to break through our confusion and lead us to a better understanding of our world and ourselves. The old business playbook depended on this thinking about leadership: identify people with the right attributes and increase their power. But this has failed to deliver on its promise. Instead that notion of a leader is connected to increased organizational and personal cost, fragility, unpredictability, and scaling difficulty. This in turn is connected to our “widening productivity chasm.”

That is why we have proposed a new definition of leader as one who leads themselves first, perhaps returning to a Platonic ideal of a leader who commits to their own wisdom first. Everyone must be their own leader, a leader of the understanding and shaping of their reality, goals, designs, and evolutions. This thinking, given the right set of tools, can lead to organizations and people who are more flexible, agile, adaptive, and anti-fragile.

We believe that people becoming their own leaders is a critical component of enabling the new business playbook. People taking responsibility for shaping their own beliefs and actions creates the capability to build organizations that can compete in our new reality. The new business playbook is the way we harness those leaders into a cohesive, interdependent whole that achieves organizational goals.

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