Saturday, October 27, 2007

California Burned: Advantage Arnie

One thing is for sure. We’re in an era of disasters, many of which are due to urban sprawl and people in places that nature reclaims as its own on a predictable basis. You’d think we’d learn.

But Calgary journalist Chris Turner writes in his uplifting book, The Geography of Hope, we do learn and its time to dream rather than despair. His book is chock full of little stories where people all over the world take the environmental challenge seriously and have come up with all manner of ways to align with Mother Earth or Gaia. They are leaders working on a small scale who believe every individual effort makes a difference and in the long run will make a big difference. They are here in Canada, in Ontario, as much as elsewhere.

History tells us that eventually, a leader positioned to influence policy to find workable solutions meets up with the little “guys”. Could this be the case right now for Arnold Schwarzenegger? He’s astute enough to understand the power of timing: act while “the iron is hot” so to speak.

Long ago, Arnie claimed that the environment was not about the left or the right on the political spectrum. “What works” is more his mantra. Under his leadership, California has instituted advanced policies and programs to assist in stemming the tide of global warming such as those related to carbon emissions. Now he’s faced with another facet: people who are in harm’s way because of not balancing the natural habitat with development.

This is a battle faced in all developed and developing areas of the world every day. The direction that results depends on leadership, for better or worse. Smart local leaders attuned to what’s right not what’s left or right combined with wise and courageous regional leaders are a powerful force.

Because Governor Schwarzenegger is highly goal-oriented and experienced in achieving what the majority think is impossible, I’m betting that he will astonish us with actions that clearly put public safety first. That will mean collaborating with the different factions to protect the natural habitat where it makes sense to do so and make it easy and desirable for developers to build communities that reduce people’s vulnerability.

As Turner says, inventors, investors, visionaries, pioneers and capitalists in all parts of the world are the pace-setters in a sustainability movement that is far ahead of policy. It would be very satisfying to see California under Arnie’s leadership narrowing the gap between policy and pace. It would be an admirable and significant contribution to the nascent sustainability age.

Monday, October 01, 2007

When You're in a Leadership "Swamp", Rally Your Fourth Order of Consciousness

Malcolm Gladwell author of Blink and The Tipping Point rightly contends that workforces 20 to 30 years from now will have to be cognitively smarter to meet the challenges of complexity. He uses the term “thoughtful”. Ronald Heifetz at Harvard prefers the term “fourth consciousness” particularly for those who lead. MIT’s Peter Senge and others in the leadership development business have championed this for decades under the names, “systems thinking” and “learning organizations”.

Since “swamp” issues now predominate the leadership agenda, that is, ones with no quick technical fixes, leaders being able to connect the dots in their respective complex systems will find the way to success. Call it better “seeing”.

To put this into more concrete form, consider the education “system”. A recent report from The McKinsey Group (Consistently High Performance Lessons from the World’s Top-Performing Systems) provides insight into strengthening any system. The following is the top line:

Focus on a small number of critical, ambitious goals
Invest in quality teachers,
Be transparent in sharing and tracking the results
Intervene early when performance is stagnant
Avoid major distractions (from the priorities)

These lessons, which one could argue persuasively are universal for any complex system, were drawn from the efforts of the leaders, researchers and individual contributors in places such as Finland, Singapore, Alberta, Ontario, South Korea and Hong Kong.

At first glance, it looks like good planning and execution. But, in reality, this is at a level of complexity that is not easy for leaders to grasp, see, untangle and shape into a workable road map. As Heifetz asserts, leaders must be able to work skillfully between being “on the balcony” and the “dance floor”, deftly avoiding unexamined assumptions and the blindness of conventional wisdom. Sherlock Holmes used to say, “if a clue does not fit the theory, throw away the theory, not the fact.” Considerable detective work separates the “wheat from the chaff”.

In a constellation of multiple, ever-shifting interdependent ecosystems, the leverage points (patterns amongst the chaos) are not obvious. Major cognitive and emotional effort by leaders with their workforces is necessary to “see” how all the dots are connected. It’s less about power, persuasion and personality than the capacity to deal with the unknown, the “swampy” issues that create havoc with what’s known.

To govern and lead in today’s and tomorrow’s “vast net of relationships”, Heifetz invites leaders to “get out of their minds” into a fourth dimension: “thinking about their own thinking”.