Last week I received my Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) after many years of hard training. In fact I first got on the mat in 1997 and have taken my time in advancing in this remarkable art. BJJ is a distinct martial art that focuses on ground fighting and submissions. It has become quite famous because of the Gracie family and the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships). Jiu Jitsu is such an effective fighting art because even a smaller person can easily defeat a larger person, as the art is not about power but technique, actually a complex system of techniques that takes years to master. But let me talk about the implications for leadership and change as there are some interesting parallels.
In my work I get to visit with some wonderful people and discuss their lives, challenges, and aspirations. This woman is of the Kayan Lahwi ethnic group in Myanmar. They have suffered a lot because of the fighting in the region, leading many families to flee to the Thai/Myanmar border as refugees or IDPs. People are slowly returning to their traditional lands and going about their daily lives, but with considerable caution. Aung San Suu Kyi has a huge leadership challenge of uniting a nation that has been divided by warfare for the past 60 years. There are about 130 different ethnic groups in Myanmar and many of them have their own army. The adaptive work will require each group to give up something in order to attain peace, security, and a functioning nation that generates value for everyone. A dominant faction in this mix is the Myanmar military. They have been running government and fighting battles for a long time. Their work now is to support fully the transition to a civilian government and do the bridge-building work with the ethnic communities to heal deep wounds and promote reconciliation. Hopefully the day will soon come when all groups can sit around the campfire together and share their songs.
Today I watched the Republican debate and Donald Trump made a disturbing but predictable comment pertaining to leadership. He was asked a question about earlier comments he had made pertaining to his view that if he was the president he would allow, even encourage, waterboarding and the torturing of terrorists. The moderator asked him how he would get the military to agree to this, particularly given that they have disavowed these practices. Trump responded by saying "I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about."
Trump is mistaking being a boss for the exercise of leadership. A boss uses their authority to get people to do what they want done, but that is not leadership. Our view of leadership is that it is an activity that mobilizes people to address tough problems and create what is needed to make progress. The fact that people are compliant is not an indicator of leadership.
Trump, along with many political candidates, particularly when running for office, thinks leadership is about prominence, dominance, and tribalizing. Prominence is about getting people to look to you because of your status, celebrity, or expertise ("Look to me, I have the answer"). Dominance is about using what power you have to get people to listen to you or do what you want done ("Listen to me, or else"). Tribalizing is about advancing the interests of your group or tribe, often at the expense of others. When you tribalize you tell your people, "Support me and I will fight and win our battles." These behaviors, when mixed with the currents of frustrating and irrational group dynamics, are very primal and lead people to bestow authority on a big man or woman to fix their problems, make their enemies go away, and take them to a promised land. This is very seductive. It is a form of seduction on the part of the individual who uses prominence, dominance, and tribalizing to get people to grant them formal authority. It can also be a form of seduction when it comes from the group. In other words, the group seduces the desired individual by telling them how great they are and reinforcing the notion that only he or she, because of their extraordinary capability or charisma, can be the group's leader.
It is natural for groups (organizations and nations) to want leaders who promise to make life better for all. But putting that burden exclusively on the shoulders of one individual, even when they want it, is bound to end in disappointment, even failure. Of course it is reasonable to hold authority figures accountable for what they say and do, but let us not mistake authority or being the boss for leadership. Saying to someone, "Your fired!" is not leadership, it is simply the expression of authority. And, let us not mistake chimpanzee politics (the competition for prominence and dominance commonly seen in the animal world) for leadership. Leadership must mean more than that. It should be seen as an intervention process into a group or complex system that orchestrates learning, problem solving, and creative work. That is not easy to do--it is difficult work. It is so difficult, that most people who claim to be leaders really haven't exercised much leadership at all. They are fooling themselves and fooling the people--and that is dangerous.
This week, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali died. His passing has led me to reflect on the dangers and demands of leadership, and why so many people fail. When he was in office, he did a mediocre job. On his watch, the Rwandan Genocide took place leading to deaths of 800,000 people. He failed to mobilize the UN system and the international community to tackle the problem when the early signals indicated that the situation was incendiary. In his autobiography he blamed primarily the Americans (Bill Clinton and Madeline Albright) for their unwillingness to support him. And it was true--the US provided very little support for Boutros-Ghali.
He also failed to reform the UN, a bloated bureaucratic institution beholden to conflicting political forces. Of course, UN reform was an overwhelming and daunting task as the UN was, and had been since its inception in 1945, primarily a container for the competing and often divergent interests and demands of all of the nations of the world. Generating agreement, support and alignment on any program or initiative was an almost impossible undertaking for previous Secretary-Generals, and for Boutros-Ghali.
On January 18, 1993, Boutros-Ghali was on the cover of Time Magazine’s international edition. The article about him stated: “A year after taking office, Boutros-Ghali will not admit to disappointment, but it is evident that his ambitions to help shape the architecture of a new world order have run into trouble. Under his stewardship the UN has dramatically expanded its peacekeeping mandate – only to find itself stymied, even rejected, on several of its recent initiatives. Though the secretary-general acts at the behest of the Security Council, he is being saddled with much to blame. Rightly or wrongly the Secretary-General has become the lightning rod for dissatisfaction with the UN, and, more generally, widespread frustration at the way in which nationalist ambitions and ethnic hostilities are threatening to convert the desired new world order into the very opposite. Never mind that the UN, for all it good intentions, lacks the military force, political leverage, perhaps even the moral suasion to fulfill its expanded mandate.”
A primary reason for lack of progress, Boutros-Ghali thought, was due to insufficient support from the United States – and he was very public about this point of view. In January 1996 Boutros-Ghali gave a lecture to students at Oxford University where he stressed in his speech the importance of the secretary-general’s position being independent and not beholden to the interests of any one country. He also called attention to lack of United States support for the UN and said that there was an “urgent need to find new ways to finance UN operations as the Unites States refused to pay its contribution.” His speech was followed up by an article in the prestigious journal, Foreign Affairs.
His words were considered to be too provocative by many in the United States. Indeed, he angered the White House and some members of Congress. Senator Bob Dole, the Republican Party candidate for president led the attack, openly mocking him by calling him “Boo-trus, Boo-trus” in his speeches.
Boutros-Ghali wrote of what it was like for him during this period: “I looked over a collection of recent American journals, op-ed pieces, and newsmagazines; most carried nasty articles about me. I had, I read, entangled the United States in Somalia and taken command of its forces there; I had prevented President Clinton from bombing to stop the perpetrators of war crimes in Bosnia; I had tried to impose global taxes in order to aggrandize my power at the United Nations; and I had blocked the admirable efforts of the United States to reform the United Nations. Despite polls showing the vast majority of American citizens favored the United Nations and wanted to see it strengthened, I was portrayed as responsible for America’s lack of faith in the United Nations and Congress’s unwillingness to pay huge American financial debt to the United Nations. In reality, the Congress’s turn against the United Nations and refusal to pay what the United States owed…dated back to the 1980s, well before I had arrived at the United Nations. I was even unpopular with some friends of the United Nations and some former employees, who seemed to prefer the United Nations remain as it had been in the cold war years: morally superior and generally passive. To them, the new secretary-general had taken the world organization down a dangerously activist path.”
The press attacked him as being arrogant, abrasive and heavy handed. He was generating too much disequilibrium and people did not know how to deal with him. Boutros-Ghali wanted to meet with the Senate Foreign Relations committee and explain his goals and request greater participation and support from the United States. Madeline Albright, President Clinton’s Secretary of State, tried to get him to call it off. She said he was “massively unpopular on the Hill. He is the butt of jokes. He doesn’t present his case well to Americans. He is too elliptical.”
For Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in his five-year tenure as Secretary-General of the United Nations, stone-throwing at him was a daily phenomenon. The attacks culminated in his removal from the post as the world’s most powerful (or is it powerless) statesman. After serving for one term he was not reelected due to a successful campaign launched by the United States. But to understand why he was attacked, it important to understand what threat he represented to the United States.
Boutros-Ghali tried to provoke the Americans to be more responsible in how they interacted with the UN. But many Americans perceived the UN to be a large and wasteful bureaucracy riddled with civil servants from around the world who did little but shuffle paper and have expensive lunches. Their inefficiencies led to slow responses in troubled hot-spots such as Rwanda, Ethiopia and Bosnia. Many Americans were tired of funding this “bloated parasite” that showed little if any return for the investment. Given their tiredness, they were reluctant to make financial contributions and contributions in terms of political support.
Boutros-Ghali needed to speak to the American people to help them understand that the institution was playing a vital role in the world and truly represented hope and a better future for peoples in Third World countries in particular. There was learning to be done on all sides, and the leadership task was to put the spotlight on that learning work, so that United Nations would ultimately be in a better position to contribute to its mission.
If you are going to exercise leadership, you will get attacked. People may see change as a threat to their identity and their community, and therefore do what they can to thwart change by neutralizing the change agent. They might be afraid of change because the change triggers feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability, therefore they seek to retreat or hold on to what they know. They might oppose change for ideological or political reasons and dig in their heels as a way to defend their interests or advance their cause. They might believe the change agent is simply wrong. No matter what the reason, if one takes on the role of change agent for a demanding challenge then one should be prepared for opposition, resistance, and even personal attack. How one deals with opponents, critics, and stubborn groups, may well determine if the change succeeds or not.
As a lightning rod, you are the conduit for people’s expressions of frustration, fear, and anger, but also the desires, hopes and aspirations of many people as well. The challenge for the change agent is to have a set of principles for being a lightning rod and deflecting the “sticky” attention from one's own person back onto the work of change.
Toyota has finally decided to "go places" from a management point of view. Last month they appointed their first foreign vice president in the company’s long history, a Frenchman, Didier Leroy. The first female senior manager was also appointed, as well as its first African American top executive. Clearly the CEO wants to shake up the stodgy corporate culture and ensure that more diverse voices are included in the problem solving and strategy formulation processes of the company. After all, 83% of Toyota vehicles are sold outside Japan and most of its vehicles are made overseas. It is unbelievable that an international company such as Toyota has taken so long to harness the power of diversity, to some degree at least, to enhance its capacity to create and sell better products.
Last year, Toyota’s competitor, Honda appointed its first female to its board, which is also a step in a positive direction. Japanese companies have been, and many continue to be, too hidebound, and many Korean and other international competitors are giving them a run for their money or even leaving them in the dust. Therefore, the leadership work of busting boundaries is critical work, particularly if you want to stimulate the creative juices and respond with speed to shifting markets, new competitors, and changing customer preferences. It is also essential if you want to go from being just a Japanese (or national) company that operates internationally to being a genuine global company. "Let's go places" Toyota, and keep on going!
Today, Lee Kuan Yew the former Prime Minister of Singapore passed away at the age of 91. I met with Lee a number of times--I interviewed him at Harvard and also conversed with him at the Istana in Singapore. He was truly an extraordinary man, with great insight, foresight, and political prowess. It is rare that someone with that kind of leadership capacity arrives on the stage and takes the helm of a country for thirty years, turning it from a poor British colony into a thriving, prosperous, modern metropolis state. He knew the critical importance of the chief authority figures embodying the "mantle of the ideal" and ensuring that they represented the highest values of the society--discipline, focus, learning, and no corruption. His approach to leadership was based on pragmatism--what would work best for Singapore. In the 1950's and 60's other Third World countries embraced a socialist path and were ideologically driven--and made little progress politically, economically, or socially--but not Singapore. It was a small, vulnerable state and had to do things differently. They could not afford to make too many mistakes, as the stakes were just too high.
So how did LKY lead? He once said a leader is like being a sheepdog--herding the sheep in the right direction. That approach might work if the leader knows what direction to go. Lee clearly had a good sense of direction--not because he was so smart, but because he was willing to learn. He was an observant man, noticing the fine and subtle details of how a country was managed and the management of streets and parks of the places he visited. He was an astute observer of global economic, social, and political trends--threats, dangers, and opportunities--always considering the implications for Singapore. He was a questioning man--always seeking out different voices from around the world to give their opinion on how Singapore should progress. He once called me to the Istana to meet with him. I was curious as to what the meeting would be about. He began with a question--"Prof, how can we build and strengthen the leadership of Singapore going forward?" At that time, he was in his eighties, yet still displaying the curiosity of a young man. When one met with him you did not feel it was about him, but always about Singapore. He never promoted a cult of personality and his picture does not grace the walls of government buildings.
In exercising leadership to rapidly develop Singapore, Lee was savvy. The common belief of many outsiders was that Lee forced change. That is far from the truth. He was actually very cautious and experimental in his approach, pacing the process of change at a rate that the people could tolerate and ensuring that there was sufficient time for people to shift their values--particularly in the context of expanding people's notions of culture, language, and identity from clan, religious, and ethnic affiliation as the primary sources of identity to a shared Singaporean identity where most people spoke English.
Coming back to the sheep dog metaphor. Yes Lee could bark, and he could also bite. But he also knew how to listen and to communicate. In fact, he was an extraordinary communicator who had a good sense of how to explain complex policy challenges so that the ordinary Singaporean--from the executive to the taxi driver--could understand. He regularly visited homes of "heartland" Singaporeans to hear directly from them their complaints, their concerns, and their aspirations. Of course he was a tough man at times, but only at times. He always explained his reasoning to the people regarding any decisions he made or actions he took. His toughness was born of growing up in tough times--he lived under the British colonialist, the Japanese, and was a part of a region immersed in racial, religious, and political turmoil. He told me that his style and approach was appropriate for the time but would not work with the new generation of younger Singaporeans. That's why he resigned as prime minister at the age of 70 and moved from the foreground to the background. In his view, let younger and more flexible men and women provide the day to day leadership as they would have a better sense of the pulse and mood of the people. At a period when so many so-called leaders were holding onto their power to the day they died or were overthrown, Lee's move was unprecedented and a testament to his wisdom.
The real testament to Lee Kuan Yew's leadership is that Singapore is more than Lee Kuan Yew. While too many authority figures generate dependency on themselves, Lee gave the work back to the people. He ensured that the country built managerial and leadership capacity at all levels, and that sufficient initiative and imagination was shown to create a dynamic state that functioned with efficiency and effectiveness. Wherever you go in Singapore you see outstanding men and women running organizations like Singapore Airlines, Capital Land, Temasek Holdings, the Economic Development Board, and the ministries of government. In the social sector, running the NGOs and NPOs, you will find bighearted men and women working on the frontlines providing leadership for some of the toughest social challenges. Singaporeans love their country, and are proud of their accomplishments. In any coffee shop on any day you will hear a variety of opinions on Lee, but all will agree that he was the father of Singapore, a father the country was lucky to have.
A few years ago, at the UN General Assembly, I had a brief chat with the then president of Iran, Ahmadinejad. He had just finished his speech, which was a drama in itself--not just because of what he said but also because of the reaction of the audience. Predictably, the American delegation walked out in protest, along with the Israelis. In our conversation he invited me to come to Iran and see for myself the progress the country was making. To date I have not been able to take him up on that offer, although I hope to one day. What really is going on in Iran, particularly as it pertains to its nuclear ambitions is anyone's guess. One thing is certain, dealing with Iran is a sensitive and critical leadership challenge given that it is a powerful and proud nation of nearly 80 million people with an ancient civilization.
In recent days we have witnessed two competing strategies for dealing with Iran. The first strategy was by forty-seven members of the US congress who undermined the US president by sending a letter to Iran's president telling him not to take seriously anything Obama says or does as it pertains to a nuclear agreement. This action, led by 37 year old freshman senator Tom Cotton, was wrong, and an embarrassment. Sadly, no leadership there.
The second strategy was a little more interesting, and that was Obama's video message directly to the Iranian people. Taking advantage of the fact that it was the Iranian new year, Obama sent a carefully crafted message aimed primarily at the young people of Iran, and those whose minds were not trapped ideologically, politically, or culturally. The essence of the message was that there would be great benefits for Iran if a nuclear agreement could be reached that ensured the development of Iran's nuclear industry would be exclusively for peaceful purposes. The benefits would include cultural exchanges, an increase in trade, and partnerships for education, science, and technology. It was a powerful message, complete with some verse by the 14th century Persian poet Hafez, who is known for lauding the joys of love and wine and speaking against religious and political hypocrisy.
Obama's strategy was wise. Sensing that some of the Iranian boundary keepers were blocking progress, he is attempting to start an informal movement amongst young people to pressure their authority figures to do the right thing and make an agreement. Given how Tom Cotton and his crew have irresponsibly muddied the water, let's see if it helps.
Today, Industry Week published my article on why businesses need to develop global change agents, a new kind of leader that can move with ease and velocity across boundaries to break down silos and mobilize diverse groups to participate in problem solving and stimulate creative processes to discover new solutions to complex challenges. I have met with a number of companies recently to discuss what they see are their most critical leadership challenges--and their answers are remarkably similar, as captured in the article. Essentially these companies are skilled in execution and development, and they create great products, and this has led to extraordinary growth. They also have amazing technical talent in the organization, but the challenges they face today are adaptive and interdependent, and therefore technical capacity is insufficient. Multiple parts of the organization must now work together to protect what value they have amassed as an organization, to generate new products, and to service the customer. They now need global change agents, men and women who are global in mindset and practice, who can harness the power of diversity, are willing and able to display initiative and cross professional, hierarchical, and process boundaries, and can lead either with or without formal authority when needed.
These kinds of change agents are multidimensional in terms of style and approach, and can apply the appropriate kind of leadership for the adaptive challenge that they face. Unfortunately, global change agents are few and far between, and therefore this is the next big leadership development challenge facing organizations. They neglect this work at their own peril!
Yesterday the world lost a great man, the former PM of Australia, Malcolm Fraser. I first met Fraser as a graduate student at Harvard in the 1980's, literally bumping into him while walking across the campus. We chatted briefly and he invited me for another chat in his office. He was a fellow for a few months and was using the university as a place to rejuvenate after eight years as prime minister, and focus on a huge leadership challenge--bringing an end to Apartheid in South Africa. In the international community, he was at the forefront of that leadership effort.
I met Fraser again in early 2001 when he came back to Harvard. I conducted a long interview with him and joined him in a series of meetings and talks. He was a very big man, somewhat dour in manner, but affable enough and unhesitatingly forthright when talking about the challenges facing the world. I joined him in one closed-door meeting with the former prime ministers and presidents of a dozen countries that had come together to address the US intervention into Iraq and Afghanistan. He was against these interventions, or more to the point, against the unilateralism of the American approach. Watching him in action was a delight. He knew how to speak with gravitas, to present a cogent argument, to highlight the flaws in the arguments of others, and to be provocative when needed. When he spoke, people listened.
Fraser was truly a wise man. He was also a moral man. He was not beholden to any political party, lobby group, wealthy donors, or corporate interests. As prime minister of Australia, his achievements were many, but to me his most significant accomplishment was transitioning Australia out of the old white Australia mindset to a more multicultural nation. As a fellow Australian, to Malcolm Fraser I say thank you sir.
The former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, last week made a fracturing statement by saying in a public forum “Obama does not love America… he wasn’t raised the way we were.” This kind of statement is the expression of what I call tribalizing. Tribalizing is the use of language, power, or position for the advancement of your own group’s interests, sometimes at the expense of other groups. Tribalizing is not always a bad thing, but it becomes fracturing when comments or actions are taken that trivialize, marginalize, or harm another person or group and lead to the avoidance of the real issues that people must come together to address to make progress. The fracturing speech, for example, is divisive and exclusive rather than uniting and inclusive. It perpetuates the myth that “We are good and the other is bad.” It exploits the group’s noble traditions, sacred values, and cultural pride to promote a sense of preeminence or uniqueness. It appeals to your own group’s narcissism and sense of superiority. It assigns all the bad stuff to an outside person or group and the good stuff to your own group, and thereby allows people to avoid dealing with their own group’s deficiencies and maladaptive practices.
No one can deny the extraordinary leadership Giuliani provided New York during and after 9/11, but just because one provided leadership in one context does not mean you will provide it in another. These days, everyone is feeling a little anxious given the troubling events in parts of the Middle East and the political fights at home. There certainly is no shortage of problems that demand our attention and demand real leadership. At a time like this, when boundaries must be crossed and bridges must be built, and when you are such a prominent individual, it is silly to contribute to the fractures that already exist by questioning the loyalty of your own president. Giuliani should know better, after all in 2002 he wrote a bestselling book called “Leadership”!
Srdja Popovic dropped by my class this week and shared his thoughts about leadership, activism and social movements. His new book, Blueprint for Revolution captures his thinking and experience on the subject. The subtitle of his book is wonderful; How to use rice pudding, lego men, and other non-violent techniques to galvanize communities, overthrow dictators, and simply change the world. Indeed, Srdja has a lot to say about this, as he was the one that led the student movement in Serbia that culminated in the removal of the dictator Slobodan Milosevic. His organization, the Center for Applied Non-violent Action and Strategies has trained activists all around the world, including those who led the Arab spring. As both our books came out this week, Srdja asked if we can get a photo capturing each of us signing our books as a gift for the other.
I am pleased to say that the new book is completed and the publication date is early February 2015. Writing the book has been a long and tiring but exhilarating process. But it is done! The title is Leadership for a Fractured World: How to Cross Boundaries, Build Bridges, and Lead Change, and the publisher is the wonderful San Francisco based publishing house, Berrett-Koehler. They have been amazing to work with. The essence of the book is this: It is indeed a fractured and crazy world and we need to think about leadership and change very differently. Leaders today must be global change agents, whether operating on the international stage or at the local level. By that I mean they must have a global perspective and see how complex problems are systemic, interdependent problems that require crossing divides to mobilize diverse groups to engage in problem solving and to do the creative work of generating something that adds value for all.
The book addresses the demands and challenges of crossing boundaries to exercise leadership. It also presents the challenge of busting boundaries. Sometimes the boundaries of a group (a team, organization, or community) are so constraining, the boundaries need to be busted to allow new information and resources in and to help the group get connected to the larger system. There will also be times when boundaries need to be transcended--the group must leave the safety of the ordered world they know and embark on an adventure in pursuit of creativity, innovation, and discovery. And there is also the leadership challenge of building bridges to connect groups separated by deep divides. These could be groups in conflict or groups that are simply a mystery to one another. The book also addresses the challenge of keeping yourself from fracturing and succumbing to the stress of being a change agent in a crazy world. It is very easy to burnout because you take on too much, or to be burned at the stake because you are such a threat to the boundary keepers of the prevailing order, therefore wisdom is needed to manage the self and navigate the cultural and political terrain in which the problem resides. But the book also speaks to the joy of being a change agent and working with inspiring and extraordinary people who share your commitment to make the world a better place.