Sunday, November 30, 2008

Paying Attention Goes a Long Way When Leading During Crises

Every interaction is a form of confrontation---a clash of priorities, a struggle of dignities, a battle of beliefs.

--- P. Koestenbaum, In LaBarre, 2000, p. 222

White water rafting is an apt metaphor for surviving in our current environment. Times of crisis, which keep rolling in one after another, starkly show whether a leader can adapt or not. Times of crisis test the leadership within each of us regardless of position. Many don’t make it because of an unwillingness to let go of old assumptions and beliefs and be present to the new. Where are you as a leader in this regard?

For the majority of us, turmoil first comes as external and beyond our control. But, whether we like it or not, our adaptation challenge is the same as those who are in the depth of the chaos: we are left to scramble without having been there before. How can we get beyond the fear and atmosphere of negativity from the terrorist attack in Mumbai and the continued turmoil in financial markets around the world? How can we help those around us both at work and at home cope with the escalating level of uncertainty?

This is the ultimate test of leadership: dealing with the emotional upheaval (yours and that of those who look to you for guidance) and the lack of information and best practices upon which to draw.

Paying attention helps. Robert Quinn in his book Building the Bridge As You Walk On It calls this “detached interdependence”. It means paying attention to what’s happening, transcending a need to control and allowing others to find and express their full capacities. It means being humble and strong and open to others’ views, yet not being attached to whether they like us or not. Underneath the stance of “paying attention” is clarity of our purpose---personally and organizationally. People “get” leaders and managers who are inspired by a reason for being no matter how dire the external circumstances are. They will rise to the occasion.

That’s why it’s fascinating to watch what various leaders do in these unusually turbulent times. What they do is typically a direct expression of their leadership beliefs in relating to people and getting the job done. What they do becomes an internal moral challenge: to serve one’s own interests or those whom they serve. It is a challenging polarity, as Quinn likes to remind us.

An example is the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods. In confronting his firm’s role in causing people to die from an outbreak of listeriosis in August 2008, he demonstrated this moral choice. Michael McCain quickly closed down the suspected Toronto plant and apologized profusely. He repeatedly used words to the effect that “the buck stops here”. McCain did not finger point and he kept the lines of communication open with the media. His pain was obvious, showing his own vulnerability but at the same time his resolve.

In the December issue of the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business McCain said he was doing what was right. “The core principle here was to first do what’s in the best interests of public health, and second to be open and transparent in taking accountability.” Although he emphasized that the handling of the situation was very much about his team not only himself (“It’s just what we are”.), he was reluctant to identify the obvious---his team was dependent on his core values and his willingness to be adaptive.

There is much more to the Maple Leaf story yet to be told. How McCain discovered the greatness within himself to “do the right thing” will become another interesting layer. How he struggled and the mistakes he made while trying to figure his way through the horrible situation will be most informative for preparing others when calamity strikes.

Quinn has some tips and comments related to leading and adapting during great uncertainty which likely mirror some of what McCain did:

--recognize that excellence requires you to go where you have not been before
--understand that leaving the comfort zone is terrifying
--in high uncertainty, you cannot rely on knowledge
--you must surrender your sense of control and begin to learn in real time
--in uncertainty and learning, you must continually clarify the desired result
--keep it simple. Establish a few operating rules, and move forward
--the learning process is improvisational; you must create as you go
--you launch a thousand ships knowing most will sink
--it is normal to be scared
--listen carefully to criticism
--forget self-interest and focus on collective success
--give yourself time to process feedback and get through the emotions
--trust yourself and others

If paying attention is a primary tool for stabilizing a crisis and leading effectively in general, being prepared is equally important. The Mombai massacre unfortunately revealed that India was not prepared, especially at the local level. The Taj hotel burned for more than three hours before firefighters arrived. Numerous police personnel were killed. The soldiers struggled for three days to gain control.

The recent crises in India (terrorism), the United States (financial implosion) and Canada (listeriosis outbreak) make one thing very clear: smart strategic and tactical planning and good governance are essential parts of a leader’s tool kit. Adaptive leadership is the thread that binds.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Barack Obama Activated Our Natural Empathy and Cooperation

The Republicans didn’t have a chance against Obama given the context of fear from which Americans wanted to escape. According to neuroscience, we all hold to a greater or lesser extent two moral world views---conservative and progressive. Sometimes, we hold both at the same time on an issue-specific basis. These modes of thought are hard-wired into our brains through biology and experience. They literally “light up” and drive our behaviour, often unconsciously, depending on the language, images and stories of the world around us.

Applying the world view contexts to the presidential election results, the financial crisis coupled with a myriad of legacy issues (war in Iraq and climate change, for example) tipped the balance towards empathy and cooperation. Since Barack Obama’s language of hope and change related closely to the latter, his stories appealed across a broad spectrum of people who were ready for a change. His messages, so different from the fear, coercion and isolationism of the last eight years, activated en masse the progressive moral world view of millions of American voters and people from all walks of life around the world.

As Professor George Lakoff, a distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley describes in The Political Mind, the differences between the two moral world views are like a nurturing versus a strict parent. The nurturing parent models empathy, responsibility for oneself and others and the strength to carry out those responsibilities. The strict parent model, on the other hand, is concerned with authority, obedience, discipline and punishment.

In political terms, the progressive view champions caring—taking responsibility, acting courageously and powerfully. The role of government is to protect and empower—a social justice model. That means having in place a range of supports for community life beyond the hard services such as police, fire, the military, roads and well-run financial and legal systems. The softer services figure prominently in the government’s agenda---a social safety net, clean water, safe food, accessible health care and education, disaster relief, consumer and worker protection and environmental stewardship, etc...

Unlike the nurturing side of the progressive view, conservative thought politically is concerned with obedience to authority—knowing right from wrong and being loyal within a hierarchy. The role of government is to protect us from evil and minimize constraints such as regulations, taxes, unions, and certain anti-individual freedom laws. This model of government is more laissez faire.
In reality, each one of us and our political leaders link these different world views in a variety of combinations. What holds sway for voters is contingent on the situation and how it impacts our emotional needs. For Obama, the “perfect storm” of issues matched his generally progressive philosophy and acumen at mobilizing people, that is, engaging and empowering individuals and groups in managing their own wellbeing in tough times.

Now that the cheering has subsided, we are left wondering whether this cool, calm and seemingly centred and caring president-elect is who he seems to be. He has yet to create the data which will prove one way or the other. Academics have taken to analyzing his language and thoughts (contradictory) and comparing and contrasting his apparent attributes to former presidents. He compares well to Kennedy, Lincoln, Roosevelt (Franklin D.), Reagan and Clinton. The pundits are conducting their post-mortems in minute detail looking for any signs of what is to come.

One of them reflects the “morning after the party feelings.” Our very own Rex Murphy of CBC TV and the Globe and Mail believes that “Hillary woke Mr. Obama out of his dangerous complacency and gave him a taste of humility—not a welcome flavour…to the Obama palate.” Murphy goes on to explain that “she found his weak spot---the patrician element in him, the high yuppie disdain.” “She also taught him that some people in politics go for the jugular.” So, who will we see? The humble Obama from which empathy and caring arise or the patrician, overly cool Obama?

In that few get training in how to be a president in advance of landing the job, like most leaders, he’ll be learning as he goes. He and we will find out who he is as the issues are confronted and dealt with.

We can be certain though that he will be more curious, open and collaborative than his predecessor based on his track record. That’s good news. In that empathy and “real” reason” are both needed, we might see Hillary again working with not against Obama. For her many supporters, that will be a welcome outcome.