I recently heard of a new CEO being appointed at a company. This company had been slowly losing ground for quite some time. In fact, their last big “hurrah” was in the early 1980s. The new CEO has vowed to return the company to its glory days by doing business just as they had then. I immediately wondered if they planned to eliminate the company’s email, internet usage, and smartphones. After all, those weren’t around in the 1980s.
Our business environment has changed and continues to change. Is it possible then that the way we lead should be changing as well?
We have long looked to the military as a model for leadership. You can probably name generals from most of our wars – men like George Washington, Robert E Lee & Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton. Even today you can recall men like Norman Swartzkopf and Collin Powell as exemplary leaders. Many of their characteristics are the same. You might describe military leaders using terms such as bold, courageous, decisive, loyal, command & control.
On March 20, 2003, the United States led an invasion force to topple the government that had controlled Iraq for more than 20 years1. They quickly began targeting senior leaders of the fallen Saddam Hussein government. You remember the collection of playing-card-size cards with the names and photographs of fifty-five of these enemy leaders designated for capture. The task force made quick work of rounding all of them up.
But when attention was turned to the terrorist network later identified as Al Qaeda, the situation took a drastic turn. Suddenly our professional military force that was considered superior in every aspect – lavishly resourced and exquisitely trained – found itself losing to an enemy that traditionally should have been easily dominated. Over time our military leaders realized that their biggest enemy wasn’t really Al Qaeda but rather was an environment fundamentally different from anything for which they had planned or trained.2 Their world had changed.
Not so long ago, business was complicated yet predictable. You knew your competitors and it was difficult for them to truly surprise you. Even if they did, you could easily catch up. Things were methodical, and the pace of change was linear. Efficiency was of prime importance in organizational structure and leadership behavior.
Yet today’s environment has become increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA). Thomas Friedman attributes this to the simultaneous acceleration of technology, globalization, and Mother Nature causing transformation in the workplace, politics, geopolitics, ethics, and community.3
We now live in a world where:
- A single tweet that can cause the loss of $130 billion in the value of the stock market in a matter of seconds.4
- New competition can arise from totally unexpected sources – like a company across the world or perhaps just two people in a dorm room.
- Barriers to entry have lowered dramatically in most industries – often due to technology price/performance. No longer does a new company have to invest the time and capital to build a new data center, for example. Within minutes, they can just spin up what they need in the cloud and then stop paying for it when it is no longer needed. Or companies can take advantage of the sharing economy (like Airbnb) harnessing underutilized resources across the globe without capital investment.
- Regulations may not provide the same protection they have historically. Taxi companies made that mistake with Uber. Many banks continue to depend upon regulatory protection while various financial techs are biting off the more profitable pieces of their business that is not subject to regulation.
- More data is said to have been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of humanity, and yet less than 0.5% of all data is ever analyzed and used.5 That offers tremendous potential.
- Customers know more about your company, products, prices, quality, and service than ever before – perhaps even more than you know yourself. And they expect the same level of service from you that they receive from any other industry.
Why do these necessitate a change in the way we lead?
What the American military learned in the war in Iraq…and what we need to realize in business … is that we are now in a new era that is forcing us to reexamine the organizational and leadership solutions that worked so well for twentieth-century problems.
Our new VUCA environment places a premium on speed, agility, and innovation instead of focusing almost exclusively on efficiency. Time is of the essence. We no longer have the luxury of regularly running things up and down the chain of command. Decision points must be pushed closer to the customer. It’s no longer just about intuition or flying by the seat of your pants. We must use these volumes of data to enable evidence-based decisions at all levels. New competition can arise from anywhere. Instead of having 85% of our employees who are not giving their all6, we need a team investing their hearts and minds as well as their hands. Fuel the innovation fires of your entire employee base!
Our world has changed, and we must look at everything – including the way we lead – with fresh eyes.
1 – Vries, Lloyd. “Front Page: Iraq, March 20, 2003.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 21 Mar. 2003, www.cbsnews.com/news/front-page-iraq-march-20-2003/ https://www.cbsnews.com/news/front-page-iraq-march-20-2003/
2 – McChrystal, Stanley. Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. Portfolio/Penguin, 2015
3 – Friedman, Thomas, et al. “Thank You for Being Late.” – FT.com, Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All Rights Reserved. You May Share Using Our Article Tools. Please Don’t Cut Articles from FT.com and Redistribute by Email or Post to the Web., ig.ft.com/sites/business-book-award/books/2017/longlist/thank-you-for-being-late-by-thomas-friedman.
4 – @crobmatthews, Christopher Matthews. “How Does One Fake Tweet Cause a Stock Market Crash?” Time, Time, 24 Apr. 2013, business.time.com/2013/04/24/how-does-one-fake-tweet-cause-a-stock-market-crash/
5 – Kumar, Vishal. “Big Data Facts.” AnalyticsWeek, 26 Mar. 2017, https://analyticsweek.com/content/big-data-facts/
Terry Bennett is a partner with Fortium Partners, a technology executive services firm providing world-class leadership to clients looking to find solutions to complex IT issues or difficult-to-solve challenges. He is a strategically-minded difference maker who improves business results through people, processes, and technology – in that order. Terry has successfully transformed IT departments into dynamic organizations that are proactive, business-focused, and intent on bringing a competitive advantage. His teams are recognized for achieving the highest levels of satisfaction from those they serve. He has achieved success in startup to turnaround to mature organizations, family-owned to Global 500 companies. Terry has a special passion for helping the C-suite transform their company to achieve the speed and agility needed for success in today’s world.