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”.

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