The Nature of Leadership

By Narelle Hooper

First a quick quizz.

  • Q:1 Are you expected to devote extraordinary amounts of time to your work?
  • Q:2 Do you seem to spend more time with your work colleagues than anyone else?
  • Q:3 Has work taken over your life?

Actually I borrowed these questions from reFocus.org, a web site dedicated to helping former cultists recover.

Has work become the new cult?

These questions underscore just how much and how quickly work has jumped the old boundaries of the physical workplace in the connected world. If you still aren’t sure that these boundaries are thoroughly broken, let me ask how long since you used your smartphone in the loo?

Thanks to our smartphones and social technologies, how we live, work and play have all collided with a bang.

It is also massively disrupting how our leaders and companies do their thing. If there’s a problem in the organisation it can quickly go viral. Or a competitor can come from left field and disrupt you without warning.

So many of society’s institutional structures and leadership mindsets, even our business operating models, are still firmly stuck in an era that doesn’t fit the new economy.

So how best to adapt?

It still floors me that in spite of all this connectedness, within work (i.e. the place where most of us spend most of our waking hours!) we still see from statistics that more than 70% of people aren’t exactly what you call engaged: they’re not mentally turning up.

And it's one of the strongest, most direct links to economic productivity.

It is a massive opportunity being overlooked.

Much of what's lacking comes down to that most critical of relationships - the one at work where we spend so much of our time; between you and your boss and your workmates, and the capacity for us all to find a purpose in what we do there.

Over the past decade at the Financial Review and BOSS, I’ve interviewed scores of top CEOs and their teams and studied companies closely. I’ve talked to the business gurus.

Out of that I’ve distilled some basic lessons about what counts and how we start to reinvent leadership to help us adapt and engage people so we can grapple with the big challenges organisations face.

I’ve also been doing a bit of travelling in the bush recently and here’s one way to think about it:

We usually think about business and nature fighting it out; in competition with each other.

But if watched closely it offers some handy principles.

If you look into nature there is abundance but there’s also hard headed smarts. Nature is cleverly, brutally efficient. It is eternally adaptable and dynamic (unlike some people or organisations we might know of).

So here, briefly are a few just for starters.

1) Human instincts

If you want to understand more about how your organisation is really working, go watch the apes at the zoo. Organisational life - and change is harder than it needs to be often because we try to squeeze people into boxes. The practices we’ve adopted are contrary to human instincts.

Evolutionary Psychology holds that we’re hardwired in certain ways. It goes back to the cave days. Not to say we can’t change it, we just need to understand it better.

For example, we’re wired to fear loss more than to be excited at the opportunity to gain; gossip is an effective communications tool and small groups and tribes work best. (It can also help explain why that incompetent dickhead in sales keeps getting all the bananas!). Some companies have used these ideas well including Flight Centre, Symantec, Philips Healthcare.

2) The edge effect

The cool stuff happens on the edge. In the transition between terrains and microclimates, new stuff grows and old stuff fades. Innovation rarely flourishes in the middle. So try to get your team to do some stuff that’s out on the edge.

3) Different strokes.

Check out your garden when it goes to seed. It’s a riot. One of the basic rules of nature is mix it up - diversity is strength. Monocultures are weak and prone to fail.

You can apply that to top teams or services - if they all look pretty much from the same mould, it's time to break it.

Diversity isn’t just about race or sex, it is also about people who have different perspectives and ways of thinking. The bosses and teams that allow space and create trust for people to feel empowered to voice a truly different view should be prized.

This is one for the risk managers: there’s well established research that shows that the companies that have diverse teams and boards perform better financially for investors.

4) What are you leaving behind?

We know nature doesn’t waste. Everything gets used and has a purpose.This segues into the notion of the bigger purpose of what you and your team are doing. What are you leaving behind - chaos, roadkill or something better?

Or flip it on its head - what’s some good stuff you and your team can leave behind? How can you be of more service?

One of the most clarifying and important things you can do as a manager is to find out how you are helping those around you articulate a purpose that can be common, go viral in your own organisation; communicate it often enough and differently enough so it becomes infectious to others. So when they get up in the morning their first thought is not... "Not this again!"

Don't let your employees or team become one of the 70% who aren’t engaged!

When we’re spending so much of the available space in our lives at work, that's kind of important.

It is the nature of real leadership.

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