Collective Brilliance: A New Leadership Paradigm

If you have read Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography of Steve Jobs you will know that one of the central themes of the book – whether intended or not – is the nature of business leadership.   The book’s detailed chronicles of the “corporate misogyny” of Mr Jobs juxtaposed against the failures and ultimate global success of Apple & Pixar makes for compelling reading and raises a fundamental question about leadership:  “To make extraordinary things happen, does a leader have to be an A–hole?”

Or put less colloquially: “Are great strides only achievable through huge and often ‘extra-human’ sacrifice?”

The stories of Mark Zukerberg of Facebook are legendary.  Similarly, at Microsoft, a meeting with Bill Gates would often end with the line. “Are you just ignorant or stupid?”

Is that what leadership has become in technology companies?   You either are a God or you suck;  Your product succeeds quickly or it fails fast.  Binary.  Black.  White?  While in extremely rare cases these leadership approaches can generate huge wins, they are also hugely divisive and create enormous costs to employees and society.  They are also horrible models to emulate for the average technology start-up and their leaders.

The real truth is that leading a modern technology company is a far more complex calculus.

The obvious question to me and many others reading the book is this:  “To create true innovation and shifts in paradigm – something Steve Jobs did at least 3 times if not more in his career – does it require a brutality and single-mindedness that runs counter to norms of civil behaviour and management motivation?”    Could a collaborative and more nurturing leader with equal brilliance have delivered the same results?”    “Are Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zukerberg the leadership archetypes for the next decades”?

These are fascinating questions and they speak to the heart of Leadership and Innovation in the second decade of the 21st century.

My hypothesis is that as we increasingly become comfortable and capable of deep and meaningful collaboration across cultures and ecosystems; as our ability to reach out and touch and process new ideas and concepts from our global customers, partners and stakeholders increases; and – most importantly – as more of our leaders emerge from the generation talent pool that Don Tapscott calls “Grown Up Digital”, the idea of what makes a successful leader is profoundly changing.

Put simply, I think we have become too smart and too connected to tolerate simplistic, ego driven command and control hierarchies.  I think our teams, staff, employees and boards demand better and – more importantly – are easily able to absorb and thrive in a more complex, social and connected ecosystem. They will demand a new type of ‘enlightened’ leadership. As new tools and cultures emerge over the next 5 years, I believe what is emerging is a type of ‘ecosystem’ leadership that will be central to a new leader style I call Collective Brilliance.

Let me give you an example of this new type of leadership – from a centuries old art form – and use it to identify the 4 principles of Collective Brilliance.

Collective Brilliance in “Action”:  Creating a Ballet

Watching the creation of a ballet from concept to creation to opening night is far more akin to what happens in a technology start-up. I have the luxury and the pride of having two adult children who are talented professional (twin) ballet dancers.  I also serve on the board on a $10M ballet company and I have watched the extraordinary journey of how the dancers, the choreographer and the production teams come together when a new ballet is created.

In short, I have seen “how the sausage is made”.

And it is a true example of “collective brilliance” if done right.

Principle 1:  Initiate with Passion; Lead through Inspiration

Choreographers are visionaries in the truest sense of the word:  They SEE things that have NEVER existed before. They feel it with a consuming passion; they imagine movement and music meshing together; a particular piece will consume and drive them.

The selling of this vision is single-minded and single handed – it is not a collaborative effort by and large.  It is a cajoling, selling and begging.  It is about getting people who DO NOT see the vision to SEE it.  It’s about translating the abstract to something that mere mortals can comprehend. Why?  Simple:  Art isn’t free and it needs to be sold to people with money.

Sound familiar?  The best Artistic Directors and choreographers pitching a new work would rival the best of anything Silicon Valley entrepreneurs – past or present – have to offer.   I know. I have seen both.

More importantly, great artistic directors and choreographers know that they cannot dance the dance.  Their passion needs to inspire the artists. When the lights go down and the curtain comes up, the vision, passion must translate into action, interaction and movement. Partially script, partially magic, it must be made personal by every individual dancer and it must come together seamlessly as a group or duet or ensemble.   The singular, passionate vision becomes the troupe’s mission through inspiration and ultimately perspiration.

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. -William A. Ward

Why This Matters Now:
  •  We are living in a time desperate for visionaries and leaders who can make real change happen; Leadership matters now more than ever.
  • The newest generation of working professionals are becoming increasingly cynical and less trusting of authority
  • Vision and inspiration is the antidote to cynicism and mistrust
BUSINESS LEADERSHIP SUMMARY:
  • Greatness and vision does indeed come from passion, but to move it forward the great passionate leader needs to inspire;
  • Spend the time and effort required to ensure everyone on the team can internalize the vision
  • Translate the passion into inspiration; unbridled passion wears people out.  Finding out what inspires teams and individuals is hard but it’s a must if the project, company or product is to move forward

Principle 2: Accelerate with Collaboration and Collective Wisdom

Let’s continue the journey.  Once green-lighted, the ballet creation process shifts to a fast paced, collaborative and very tough and singled minded journey delivered by consummate professionals.

It all develops over many months using a fascinating collaborative process.  But trust me, the collaborative leadership model isn’t weak; it is not for the faint of heart  If you have ever seen a choreographer pull his or her hair out during  the difficult transition from concept to movement and some form of coherency, you will appreciate that there is nothing ‘soft’ about it.  It can be ruthless.  It shouts, it swears, it cajoles, and it can indeed be “I’ll know it when I see it”.  “AH-HAH !!!”,   shouts the director, “That’s IT!!!”  (Now do it again and again 400 hundred more times!)

The production is a global collaborate effort. It is a different kind of “choreography” delivered mostly by virtual, geographically dispersed global teams.  This collective intelligence collaborates in every imaginable way – some effective and efficient; others fragmented and frustrating.

The clear message is that the original passion morphing into an inspiration led effort is as collaborative as anything I have ever witness in business.  Driven by a FIXED date called “Opening Night”, this inspiration is often simply characterised as sheer ‘terror’ but more often it is managed and motivated through the continued inspiration of  the creative leader.

WHY NOW:
  • Solutions to local or global problems are increasingly becoming more than what just one person or one company can solve alone.
  • The social enterprise is becoming populated by connected and aware employees who are comfortable with and will demand access to the tools  and cultures that embraces community and collaboration
BUSINESS LEADERSHIP SUMMARY:
  • The best and the brightest exist out there.  The best new leaders tap into collective intelligence and provide the systems and process to enable these dispersed team to engage and work consistently toward the goal;
  • Break down the physical, cultural and technical barriers that make distributed work so challenging
  • Invest in tools and process that celebrates and enables collaborative decision making and collective intelligence

Principle 3: Demand Professionalism and Perspiration

Have you ever seen a ballet class or witnessed young boys and girls aspiring to dance in one of their many daily session in the multi-mirrored hell called the ballet studio?

I have often said that I would love to take a few of the so-called professional / ‘creative types’ I have met in business and force them to watch a ballet class and understand what it means to be a real professional:  Focused work, repetition, hours and hours critically staring at your ‘instrument’ in the mirror, and challenged for “more” at every turn, the studio work – class, rehearsal, repeat – is a study in discipline, simplicity, focus and pain.  To even get to be considered a professional takes all of Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.  I would challenge many of the overpaid so-called professionals in the business world to hold their professionalism up to that standard.

The reason:  To make magic happen on stage requires something a lot less than ‘magic’ in the studio.  This is the other side of dance that most don’t ever get to see.  It is fundamentally about driving the choreography into the nether regions of the brain so that it is forgotten by the conscious and become rote. Over and over it is repeated.  10 seconds in the ballet can be rehearsed for half a day.

It’s because when that happens, the dancer can actually DANCE beyond the steps.  They can move.  They can deliver the emotional elements that take it from a series of pretty and athletic steps to art, emotion, passion and – hopefully – cause the audiences’ hearts to collectively skip a beat.  And it’s the hardest thing I have ever witnessed.

The best directors know that it is the underpaid and passionate professionals that deliver the goods.  No matter the praise heaped on the show, at that moment on stage it is about the people who put in on the line and made it happen.  And if you ever been back stage at such a performance you will know that there is always considerable drama and stress.  But the customer never sees it.  The show goes on.  The team rallies, the petty dramas of the rehearsals of months past, disappear; it’s all about the audience.

The bottom line:  If you are in the technology business, hire the best, demand the best and give them every opportunity to fine-tune their craft.  There is no other way.   In the ballet, the dancers and team constantly have to learn new choreography, sometimes multiple performances at the same time.  Individual dancers can be the star one time and supporting the next; they are consummate team players, fast learners and constantly keeping their ‘instruments tuned’.  Sound like a recipe for the best professionals in a fast-paced tech start-up??

WHY NOW:
  • Technology design, development, marketing and implementation is a very complex calculus.  It requires the best talent who can handle hard work, disciplined feedback and multiple objectives simultaneously while managing their place in a complex group dynamic.
  • Critical thinking is becoming rarer and is essential for achieving breakthrough thinking. Disciplined and trained professionals understand how to manage distraction and avoid the simple solution. As Einstein said, “everything should be made as simple as possible; but not simpler”
BUSINESS LEADERSHIP SUMMARY:
  • Great work is hard.  It requires a level of discipline and professionalism that happens over many hours and years;  Hire professionals and demand professionalism in all aspects of the job.
  • Understand that a chain is as strong as the weakest link and that the ultimate evidence of professionalism is in doing everything and more to ensure you hold up your convenent with the team
  • To be agile requires the best people to be able to move quickly and maintain quality and professionalism.
Principle 4:Support through Engagement & Recognition

Dancers in an average ballet company (especially in North America) earn approximately 50% of the average median salary of the full-time workforce.  They train longer than doctors to become professionals; they are often physically scarred and emotionally fragile –  they live, after all,  an insecure, contract-to-contract life and are one snapped ankle from the spotlight to the unemployment line.

So why do they do it?  At the heart of the answer is in the difference between intrinsic recognition and external rewards.  As passionate professionals whom our North American society has decided to pay subsistence wages, there is something much deeper at work.   The intrinsic rewards that come from driving to perfection, taking their physical and emotional selves beyond what they thought possible and being on stage to the sound of the audience appreciation is what drives most dancers.

Studies have clearly shown that intrinsic recognition is a far more powerful motivator then extrinsic reward based systems.  It’s why companies such as KudosNow (www.kudosnow.com) have emerged in response.  They – with others – have recognized that the best of us – individuals who understand perspiration and professionalism – need much more than money to motivate. Many corporate performance studies show a direct & positive correlation between employee engagement and financial performance. Yet, in recent studies the majority of the workforce is disengaged. Lost productivity in the US alone is estimated at $370 Billion, annually.

Would the average dancer want to earn more money?  Absolutely.  But it is clearly a fascinating balance at work.  But to do what they do – day in and day out over many years – there is much more going on.  I have spent many hours with these special people and I can tell you that they can teach us about the balance between the simple pleasure of doing great work, the extrinsic rewards and the meaning of recognition.  What they do has meaning and in my experience as a leader, in the absence of meaning no amount of money will retain the best.

WHY NOW:
  • To the newest generation of professionals, meaning matters;
  • Engagement  to an inspired purpose is becoming a real requirement in attracting and retaining talent
 BUSINESS LEADERSHIP SUMMARY
  • Base your compensation and performance  on a recognition systems as well as reward systems;
  • Understand that the best are professionals and professionalism need engagement and recognition; not rules and reward
Summary

“Collective Brilliance” is alive every day in the creative process of creating magical art such as the ballet.  While it can be messy and subject to the imperfections and drama of everyday life inside an organization of well-meaning people – it works:  Very rarely does the show not go on.  Not every performance or vision is a four star rave. But it does survive and the process has much to teach us.

So, back to Mr. Jobs and our question:  The net for me is that Steve (and Mark, Bill etc) were very rare creatures whose skills as leaders will be greatly debated for a long time.   I don’t think however their models are ones to emulate.

I do believe that today’s leaders – especially in the crucible of technology and innovation – can deliver massive innovation and break-through performance if they recognize some the simple truths of how professionals work, how to harness the collective and how to translate passion into inspiration.  Above all great leaders need to surround themselves with individuals who value intrinsic recognition over extrinsic reward.  Individuals who CAN be inspired and can inspire their audience/customer.  Managing professionalism, perspiration, inspiration, collaboration and engagement are the new watchwords of leadership in the era of collective brilliance.

The Four Principles of Collective Brilliance: a Business Leader’s Summary

1:      Initiate with Passion; Lead through Inspiration

  • Greatness and Vision does indeed come from passion, but to move it forward the great passionate leader needs to inspire;
  • Spend the time and effort required to ensure everyone on the team can internalize the vision

2:     Accelerate with collaboration and collective wisdom

  • The best and the brightest exist out there.  The new leaders tap into collective intelligence and provide the systems and process to enable these dispersed team to engage and work consistently toward the goal;
  • Break down the physical, cultural and technical barriers that make distributed work so challenging

3:     Demand Professionalism and Perspiration

  • Great work is hard.  It requires a level of discipline and professionalism that happens over many hours and years;  Hire professionals and demand professionalism in all aspects of the job.
  • To be agile requires the best people to be able to move quickly and maintain quality and professionalism.

4:      Support through Engagement & Recognition

  • Base your compensation and performance  on a recognition systems versus a reward system;
  • Understand that the best are professionals and professionalism need engagement and recognition; not rules and reward.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s