The Key to Conscious Reinvention for Exponential Times
A Case of Disruption
When President Prakash D.’s digital native company merged with an iconic industry leader, he knew that his new partners hoped to make an exponential leap, transforming the incumbent player into a digital, software-driven mega force. Several cutting-edge technological innovations and organizational changes were in the final stages of development and when introduced, leadership felt the company would be poised to create a robust ecosystem that would cement its status as a digital leader in its industry around the globe.
Prakash was excited about the prospects, while simultaneously challenged that the reinvention of the organization would also require long-time employees to be downsized out. He was confident, however. He felt he could help lead the new organization through this disruptive time, and was encouraged by those who said they looked to him as a “global disruptor” in the new leadership team.
While initially exciting, it soon became apparent that a rub in organizational cultural differences and personal leadership style differences was going to take a lot more energy to manage in order to effectively guide the organization through transformation. No stranger to acquisition integration, Prakash knew this was par for the course. Yet, in the face of exponential change in the marketplace, and new players entering the scene intent on disrupting the landscape further, he felt an intensity and pressure to reinvent the culture and perhaps his leadership in a way that was somehow new and increasingly relevant to the new context.
Prakash’s software company had built a culture based on extreme flexibility. His employees could determine their own work schedule and meeting times within the small, energized global organization, guided by the principles of meeting customer needs anytime, anywhere and maintaining space for innovation. The office atmosphere was casual, hours were determined by clients’ situations, and there was a fast turnaround time on calls, proposals and projects, often leveraging global virtual teaming. The legacy organization was much more structured, following a detailed and standard approach to all internal work processes, including a robust global proposal response protocol, with checks and balances to verify that global best practices had been integrated. Highly consensus-driven, the legacy culture also moved at a different pace, with a higher degree of discomfort around risk-taking.
Within a few months of the new partnership, Prakash became extremely tired, and even depressed about his ability to lead his group or engage with his new senior management. He was suddenly very anxious about accomplishing his own business unit’s agenda and meeting clients’ needs, uncommonly jarred around something seemingly as simple as a new enterprise-wide standard work week rule. Prakash was aware that his leadership position and visibility would require working within the standardized rules, regulations and policies while simultaneously disrupting the heretofore comfortable incumbent practices, if they were to succeed in guiding the organization to the Digital 4.0 vision. Yet, how could he sync up with the legacy mindsets and business practices while at the same time honoring the flexibility and nimble agility of his software enterprise, which he felt was more in tune with the pace of change in the marketplace? Prakash knew this was more than a personal shift in style, or approaches to project management. It was about a broader transformation and integration of work cultures under the crush of an exceptionally speedy timeline, driven by the exponential change that was unfolding in their industry. Prakash knew change is never easy, but he didn’t think it would impact him and his ability to lead so dramatically.
He soon realized leading in this environment would require straddling two corporate cultures, two value systems, two differing preferences for formality/informality, agility/ structure, speed/quality. This was not the first time Prakash had faced such polarities but he noticed that this time, due to the speed of change and corresponding threat of disruption in the marketplace, it felt more like an exponential leap in growth. That meant Prakash must lead his new group to experiment, explore and transform their uncertainty into positive, collaborative practices that balanced the natural tensions built in to the new organizational structure – and do so quickly — to achieve the new vision before competitors further capitalized on the distraction within the organization.
As he worked on leading in a way that honored dual perspectives, he began to struggle. In the past, Prakash had been an energized and capable leader, negotiator, and facilitator. Now, rather than listening to his new partners, he surprised himself by becoming very aggressive, short tempered, and controlling whenever he met with his team or clients. He wasn’t getting anything done, and felt harsh resistance to take risks from others as he tried to push an agenda. It was exhausting. As he reflected on it, Prakash realized the new company culture challenged his core conditioning, beliefs, and the business model he had built on flexibility. Working faster and harder, pushing people around him for more of a sense of urgency and sharing stories of other incumbents who failed to disrupt themselves and died a slow death was not helping him cope, nor was he winning many new friends in the expanded global enterprise. This would make influencing for critical business transformation more difficult.
The Power of Pausing While Accelerating
Rather than continuing to push and drive harder, Prakash hit the pause button and took some time to reflect with his leadership coach. Through a series of exploratory conversations, he discovered that he had an unconscious bias about rules in general. He valued loyalty to his past beliefs about success and his vital social network, and above all, loose rules about work time. Upon reflection, he realized that for 46 years he had been rewarded for his belief in absolute flexibility and creativity to work around the rules, as evidenced by both organizational results and his leadership advancement. This was no longer rewarded, and, as a result he became unanchored and adrift.
As part of his coaching session homework, he became more observant of his new colleagues’ high value of universal rules and procedures because this created a sense of fairness, quality and consistency. He needed to release some fundamental assumptions about growing a business based on few procedures and policies, even in the face of disruptive times. Upon exploring some fundamental beliefs of his new partners, he came to appreciate how they prided themselves on impartial laws, principles, and equal rights as their growing brand image. He began to see how favoritism and a lack of consistent standards was inefficient for a growing enterprise with new opportunities he would help lead. He also realized how his lack of consistency about his own time at work was actually more time-consuming than it needed to be!
With Prakash’s new appreciation for the value of equal rules and rights, he could understand why he was losing his leadership edge. In this new light, he realized that he was behaving in a disrespectful and obstructionist way. Rather than complain and debate the way he wanted things to be, he practiced speaking more authentically and optimistically about the potential benefits of the standard policies to the prospects of scaling innovation effectively and leveraging best practices across the new enterprise. Another part of Prakash’s coaching process was to organize a more standardized time frame to speak with clients, for example. With practice, and optimism in leading colleagues and engaging with clients, he became more comfortable and collaborative in the new expanding global initiatives.
As he continued to drive business growth, Prakash also deepened his own leadership and personal development activities to accelerate his growth. He learned that he did not need to add more skills to his already successful repertoire. Rather, he needed to ‘let go’ or unlearn beliefs, habits and assumptions that drove his past success and allow space for more nuanced leadership mindsets and practices that would accelerate him and the team forward. Prakash consciously practiced key accelerators of new beliefs and behaviors to increase his impact on aligning partners, employees, and staff toward the new vision. Over time, Prakash noticed that he had become a trusted member of the newly merged organization and began to role model the releasing of old beliefs and practices that hinder the reinvention necessary to lead the organization forward in times of exponential change. At the end of his first 180 days in the new role, Prakash realized the old saying, “If you want to travel far, pack lightly” had relevance in leadership too.
Exponential Leadership and Disruptive Times
Prakash’s industry and organization is operating in a world where the globalization of information and access, new technologies and new business models are disrupting the landscape almost daily. Disruption, for leaders like Prakash, ultimately means that they must make decisions and lead people who are thinking, acting, and relating in entirely new ways that “interrupt” their company’s predominant ways of doing business. The very system within which they must lead is undergoing a transformation. This is not only happening at a business model and strategy level, but it impacts the way their companies are organized, how employees grow, learn, adapt and lead. Prakash, like many leaders today, must accelerate and transform his thinking and behavior in exponential ways.
This ultimately means that the lives of leaders like Prakash are moving forward at exponential and sometimes incomprehensible speed and complexity. Much like Moore’s Law, which states that the computing power of integrated circuitry doubles each year, the pace of change today is accelerating by exponential rates, sometimes by powers of 10 magnitudes, driven by the confluence of cutting edge technologies¹. To our human brains, this is simply incomprehensible. Sustained exponential growth becomes so big and inconceivable that we lose all sense of the possibilities and variables. There is no particular, predictable guide about what will happen next. Leaders like Prakash drive and drive and drive and suddenly become aware of that this approach will not yield sustainable results within the astonishing pace and level of disruption.
In the space of constant disruption, we as individual leaders must learn to slow down to unearth personal beliefs that hinder rapid transformation and then accelerate new practices to move exponentially forward. This will require identifying key accelerator beliefs and practices that each of us can utilize to advance our thinking and development.
Learning, Leading and the Mind in Exponential Times
Prakash’s plight is real. Every week, we coach dozens of leaders around the world who, like Prakash, are grappling with the same incomprehensible amplitude of change, and the exponential rate of disruption. In the face of inexhaustible change and disruption, it begs the question: Is the human mind capable of processing at this intense speed? How can leaders cope and reinvent how they lead in these exponential times?
It turns out that insights for daily leadership today requires an understanding of the human brain and how the brain differs from what scientists call the “mind”². Our minds can disassociate and observe ourselves and others non-judgmentally, dispassionately, which then allows us to examine the value of underlying beliefs to achieve outcomes. This is a precursor for letting go. We can adopt new beliefs to accelerate our thinking and behavior for exponential times and engage others to do the same.
In Prakash’s case, he was disrupted into becoming more conscious about himself and his new surroundings, and began to dispassionately observe his own beliefs and biases, while simultaneously observing others’ mental models without judgment. This kind of insight requires what scientists call Theory of Mind—someone must be able to adopt a third person perspective and see the self as others do. The Theory of Mind³‚ (often abbreviated ToM) is the ability we all have to recognize and attribute mental states not only in ourselves but in other people, and to understand that feelings and beliefs we have may be different than others. For example, when we are interacting with others or thinking about them, we make guesses at what they are thinking and feeling. This is our ‘theory of mind’ about them – we “make up stories” about what they are thinking, how they are motivated, etc. We also do the same to ourselves, when we step back and observe ourselves think and feel as we try to work out how to handle a difficult situation, for example. This ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to ourselves and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from our own is crucial to not merely coping in disruptive times, but transforming ourselves and our leadership.
A leader like Prakash, with good insight, is better able to accurately deepen his self-understanding by comparing oneself with others and by viewing oneself from the perspective of others. The challenge is how we do this under times of extreme disruption, change and therefore, stress, which upend our old, long-standing beliefs about what it takes to succeed and maintain leadership presence and effectiveness.
Indeed, this becomes imperative when we as leaders must engage others in a collaborative relationship and a shared process of transformation that fosters the collective capacity to create new realities. Prakash’s job – beyond the technical aspects – is to engage, inspire, and influence others to achieve meaningful, shared outcomes together. Innovating together, for example, requires an inclusive and vibrant engagement of often contradictory values and disparate viewpoints within teams, partnerships, and across functional units in an organization. The goal is to act together in intentional, effective, and co-creative ways. Not only is inclusion of such diversity a challenge in itself, but, as Prakash experienced, in the face of relentless change and pressures to perform, we often want to deny the urgency of it by controlling everything ourselves vs. working with others in a positive, generative manner. It is common when our nervous systems are overwhelmed. Cynicism overrides possibilities because there is a huge gap between the current reality and the ultimate vision of success. For Prakash, transforming his leadership is required to energize not only himself, but also his colleagues’ shift to connection vs. defensiveness. When the collective nervous system is under stress, his role is to also manage the needs of the group toward clarity and collaborative behaviors.
To transform his leadership, Prakash learned he would need to bring greater attention to his own denial and cynicism about change, and find the courage to lead collective adaptation toward the achievement of collective goals. Without a conscious connection between his own heart and mind, for example, it will be difficult to be attentive and engaging with the hearts and minds of others. When Prakash can manage his own nervous system, he has the presence and energetic capacity to manage the nervous system of the teams and organizational culture around him. He has the ability to focus in the ‘here and now’ and to stay in the present moment. Through attention and observation, he learned to notice all the judgments, quick decisions, and irritations he often had on his mind. It took some time, but Prakash eventually became more attuned to others’ judgments and concerns even if they did not discuss them in meetings.
Reinvent for Clarity and Buoyancy
On a personal level, the question to ask ourselves is: How might I surface, acknowledge and transform my own beliefs and feelings of doubt, anger, fear or loss in the face of disruption? We are finding in our work that the most successful leaders today intentionally pursue accelerated personal excavation and development work to enhance their leadership capabilities. By doing so, there is a direct correlation with the clarity about their own thinking, emotions, belief systems, and behavior with their ability to adapt to the dynamic change and engage diverse individuals, teams and organizations.
Connection and engagement of a collective depends on a leader’s ability to engage both the heart and mind for exponential change4. This has become more true than ever. The clarity about one’s own human dimensions anchors the ability to adapt and be buoyant while engaging and leading others. This ability to calm our nervous system accelerates the quality of the engagement with others5.
We think of this ability to gain clarity in the face of disruption in a way that uplifts self and others as the capacity be “clairbuoyant”6. It is central to leadership of modern dynamic organizational and collective agility. Behavioral buoyancy or style shifting, for example, is necessary to foster rapport and trust of those who think, believe, and behave differently from you as a leader. Without this behavioral ability to build trust and connection, there is a tendency for individuals to default into protecting themselves from one another rather than taking the risk to cooperate. Without the social trust, there is little emotional or cognitive certainty that risks will be shared under enormous change and dynamic shocks throughout the organization or global system. Organizational long-term survival and success depends therefore on its ability to build and maintain trust quickly.
Exponential leaders know that trust is an often overlooked asset and that it is probably the most critical, almost impossible, behavioral challenge they face in an era of constant disruption. At the same time, these leaders know that human systems, brains and minds want to know what’s coming next, so they consciously acknowledge and manage with others the insecurity and tension they and others are experiencing. They also know there will be a tendency by others for protection or defensiveness when there is uncertainty, ambiguity and turbulence. Like Prakash, exponential leaders manage the culture and energy of the relationships within the organization. Exponential leaders achieve presence and a state of being as being anchored to their own identity and needs, and can be supportive and buoyant with others. Their presence has an attractive, almost transcendent, quality of attention, clarity and buoyancy to develop trust.
An exponential leader also knows that developing trust uses a lot more resources than the default mode of mistrust that our conditioned human brains would prefer to use. Therefore, discipline and preparation are required in order to behave in a way that connects and includes and does not separate and exclude others. So, how is this done?
Leadership Accelerators for Personal and Collective Adaptation
Throughout our work with leaders around the world, we have observed and tested which leadership beliefs and practices seem to accelerate leadership growth and provide the clarity and buoyancy required today. Novelty, uncertainty, unpredictability, constant learning, unlearning and relearning put many physical demands on leaders today. These disturbances and turbulent conditions are not conducive for our human brains to quickly develop the neuro links for building social trust. Modern science offers us insight about what neuro chemicals can increase or decrease trust, risk tolerance, and insight in social groups. This new knowledge provides a great accelerator in leadership trust building, shared meaning, and adaptation despite the disturbances often faced.
If leaders want to progress forward up the spiral of exponential leadership growth, they must face the natural fear that disruption generates, excavate the old beliefs that have become unanchored to in order to accelerate forward effectively with new mindsets and skillsets.
Accelerator beliefs and practices re-train our minds to forge clarity in the midst of ambiguity, allow congruence with exponential thinking in the face of prevailing linear logic, and embrace leadership courage to proactively drive transformation7. “Blind spots” and attachments to unconscious habits and beliefs can be transformed. This is part of the practice in order to respond to current waves of disruption from a deeper place that connects us to the emerging future rather than reacting against the patterns of the past, perpetuating them. This “inner place” from where we all operate from can be understood with accelerator beliefs and practices, which basically involve the following steps:
Gain Clarity – Focus our attention to what is working and not working, seek contrasting perspectives to see more fully, and widen thinking by allowing old structures to dissipate.
Allow Leadership Congruence – Let go of long held beliefs, flip the thinking or reverse the assumptions, suspend judgment about what we have learned and are unconsciously attached to and energetically recalibrate self to facilitate the team to do the same.
Embrace Leadership Courage – Attune to the emerging new opportunities and ways of doing things, experiment with new ways of being, and lead from a wider perspective
Applying these leadership accelerator beliefs and practices as we search for greater clarity, congruence and courage is a unique journey for each leader and each situation. Below is one example of how one leader used this process to reinvent his leadership in the face of change and challenge.
Diego’s Story: Using Accelerator Beliefs and Practices to Transform Leadership
Diego had always excelled at delivering tremendous market growth locally, building extraordinary teams in the process. Known as a highly inspirational, entrepreneurial leader, he had successfully turned around three different Latin American markets in the past 7 years, growing each through a deep understanding of the unique cultural, political, social and economic differentiators in the market and crafting targeted strategies that were highly appropriate to each local market. Throughout that period, his global consumer products organization had a broader strategy that relied upon highly differentiated local market plays, driven by entrepreneurial flexibility, experimentation and innovation.
After a decade of this highly differentiated local market strategy, however, the broader global organization faced increasing costs, duplication of effort across markets, lack of best practice sharing, and confusion in the marketplace around the global brand. Employees began referring to the various local markets as “kingdoms” and the General Managers of each market began to be viewed as inflexible local “kings”, resistant to global integration and change.
At the beginning of this year, under the new CEO and executive team, a massive global restructuring effort was undertaken, creating a regional layer in the organization, designed to coordinate best practices among markets, ensure more global integration and economies of scale, while tightening local experimentation that was seen to be impacting the global brand.
Diego knew this was a shift in power and was happy to collaborate across markets to achieve the rebalancing of global integration and local differentiation that the organization desired, but he also felt strongly that local market results would be jeopardized if there was not deep understanding of why local strategies had evolved to meet unique needs.
After the first 9 months of operating under the new structure, Diego felt increasingly frustrated that his boss, who hailed from Asia and was unfamiliar with the local Latin American market nuances, was pushing global and regional policies indiscriminately, without truly stopping to listen to the local market needs. Fiercely proud of how each of his teams in the three countries where he had operated had built a strong market presence and were empowered to develop creative solutions to local challenges, he stood his ground in global meetings, giving voice to what he perceived was not being heard. The tension increased significantly when a global compensation policy was being rolled out, without any regard to local precedent, in Diego’s mind. With emotions high in a global meeting, the conversation escalated until Diego publicly confronted his boss and stated the potential loss in talent, revenue and growth in each market if the policy was implemented. His boss responded in anger, filling out his annual review the next week with biting words, denouncing Diego as resistant to change, inflexible and unable to grow to an enterprise leader level.
Upon receiving his written review, Diego reacted initially with equal anger and frustration – he felt unanchored. But working with his leadership coach over the following few days, he chose to pause to accelerate his way forward. He realized that how he responded to the local-global paradox would impact not just his team, but the broader Latin American region. As he worked to calm his own nervous system, he knew it would simultaneously reset the system of many others. But first, he had to find greater clarity. Three accelerator beliefs and practices helped anchor him to see more completely:
- Face the darkness/grey: Diego asked himself, “What about this situation or change is new for me? What are the greatest losses I am experiencing and why?”
- Seek contrast: Diego then stepped back and worked with his coach to assess what he might be missing from his vantage point. He asked himself, “What am I not seeing from where I sit? What would the opposing perspective see? How might the opposing side feel?”
- Allow structure to disintegrate: Holding on to the old structure clearly was not working. So Diego then ventured into new space to widen his perspective, asking himself, “What if I let go of what I think “should be” and allow “what could be” to emerge?” In this reflection, he actually had a breakthrough in seeing a possible “third way” forward that would honor both local differentiation and the need for global integration.
Through another exploratory conversation, Diego worked with his coach to forge congruence with more exponential leadership around this issue. Again, several accelerator beliefs and practices proved useful:
Drop the rope: To step out of a philosophical and energetic tug of war, Diego needed to let go of judgments he had learned against differing perspectives and attachments to ways of thinking that served well in the past, but may be holding him back from success today. He gained altitude on the dialogue by asking himself, “What outcome or higher vision are both sides after?”
Subtract your way forward: He then needed to uncover assumptions of what he believed was the “best path up the mountain”, challenge his beliefs that it was the only way forward, and let go of outmoded thinking to make space for a more integrated level of leadership. Remarkably, by identifying the beliefs that were most getting in his way, his energy completely shifted, he began breathing more deeply and literally sat back, laughing at how two core beliefs had hardened over time and created a massive stumbling block in this situation. By letting them go, it opened up the energy for more creative problem-solving.
Energetically re-set: Working with his coach, Diego then began to realize that when leaders calm their own nervous systems in the face of disruption, they simultaneously facilitate the re-setting of the nervous system of others. For Diego, because emotions ran high in this situation, this energetic recalibration required immense mindfulness, breath work and emotional intelligence to side step old triggers, release and find new ways of dialoguing and collaborating.
Finally, Diego knew that to transform his leadership into a style and process that would foster the broader collective in his market and throughout Latin America to thrive in the new structure, he would need to practice leadership courage. Several accelerator beliefs and practices assisted here:
Excuses are incompatible with excellence: Diego knew that ultimately, while his ego felt justified in defending his position, his approach was holding the broader team and organization back from achieving higher results together. If he was about achieving the extraordinary, then not transforming his leadership was simply an excuse, and excuses are incompatible with excellence. This realization required Diego to let go of or unlearn any fears he had underneath that releasing his hold on his position would weaken him.
Step into experimentation: When we suspend judgment and the certainty that lies behind our opinion, we can then step into playing with new approaches. As Diego committed to experimenting with (or relearning) approaches that would bridge the gap, he found he and his team generated a variety of ideas and insights that would generate results, honoring both local differentiation and global integration.
Reach out for support: Facing the fear of transformation and reinventing our leadership, especially when leading in the visible eyes of many, can be a lonely path. Diego realized that in order to recalibrate his leadership responses to the ongoing dialogues on this natural global-local tension, he would need a sounding board, so as to not revert back to older, less effective beliefs and practices. In successive leadership coaching sessions, Diego practiced the new ways of being until he re-trained his mind successfully.
Call to Action
Exponential times call for accelerated inner growth of leaders to match the pace and amplitude of external change. Beyond adding new skills and knowledge, exponential leaders must subtract or let go of outmoded beliefs and practices. Leaders need to positively accelerate not only their own growth, but the collective ability to create new behaviors and opportunities. As individual leaders anchor a deeper understanding of themselves, they can connect and engage with others toward collective goals. This anchor of understanding allows leaders to style shift and be buoyant in their behavior as they lead others; they become clair-buoyant for today’s exponential change and disruption. In this way, a community of exponential leaders can create a better world by taking responsibility for their own personal power and engaging organizations and social networks to co-create a new future together.
Lee Ann Del Carpio co-authored this article.
¹ Brynjolfsson, Erik and McFee, Andrew, The Second Machine Age. WW. Norton & Co, NY London, 2014
² Siegal, Daniel J., The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, Second Edition. Guilford Publication, 2012
³ Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Hill, J., Raste, Y., & Plumb, I. “The Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test revised version: a study with normal adults. Journal of Child and Psychological Psychiatry, 2001
4 Scharmer, Otto and Katrin Kaufer, Leading from the Emerging Future Barrett-Koehler Publisher, 2013
5 Swart, T., and Chisholm, Kitty, Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage, Palgrave 2015
6 Walch, Karen S., The Power of Understanding: Achieving Buoyancy for Negotiation Impact, Acanthus Publishing 2014.
7 Clarity, Congruence and Courage™ are what we call leadership guideposts for transformation (Source: Inner Power International, Inc. ©2015-2016).
Other articles by Karen S. Walch, PhD
The Whole World is Turned Upside Down
Accelerating the Shift Toward Exponential Leaders
How Can I Begin the Shift to Exponential Leadership Myself?
Transformational Leadership Forum with Action Logic Applications Recap and Download