Do we really think we can just bolt some sort of “government 2.0 module” onto steam-era bureaucracies and magically bring them into the 21st Century?
Sure, our governments served us fairly well in the 20th Century, at least in the West. They beat the bad guys in WWII, brought us through the scary Cold War and delivered health and prosperity our grandparents would have found unimaginable.
Not to mention Windows ME.
But times are changing. We’re starting to notice that things don’t work as well as they used to. We’re spending taxpayers’ money bailing out economies only to have bankers suck out more bonuses anyway. Conferences intended to agree on Climate Change action produce… well… nothing concrete. Sydney’s suburban railway network is slower than in the 1920s!
Having invested so much time and money on these institutions, though, we’re reluctant to let them go.
This is the sunk cost fallacy.
The Concorde is the classic example. Long after it must have been clear to the French and British governments that no-one was going to buy this aircraft, they continued investing in it simply because they’d already spent so much and didn’t want to lose those “sunk costs”. Yet those costs were gone, no matter what. To continue spending was irrational.
The same happened in the Vietnam War, where US President Lyndon Johnson kept committing thousands of troops after he’d realised the cause was hopeless and America could not win.
I’ve written before, in Risk, Fear and Paranoia: Perspective, People!, that change is being held back by, well, fear and paranoia. But this morning I stumbled across Umair Haque’s The Builders’ Manifesto. He’s got it in one.
20th century leadership is what’s stopping 21st century prosperity.
The textbook skills of the “leader”, which Haque lists as “persuasion, delegation, coalition” were the very specific skills needed to run the giant, industrial-era organisations.
Here’s the problem in a nutshell. What leaders “lead” are yesterday’s organisations. But yesterday’s organisations — from carmakers, to investment banks, to the healthcare system, to the energy industry, to the Senate itself — are broken. Today’s biggest human challenge isn’t leading broken organisations slightly better. It’s building better organisations in the first place. It isn’t about leadership: it’s about “buildership”, or what I often refer to as Constructivism.
Leadership is the art of becoming, well, a leader. Constructivism, in contrast, is the art of becoming a builder — of new institutions. Like artistic Constructivism rejected “art for art’s sake,” so economic Constructivism rejects leadership for the organisation’s sake — instead of for society’s.
Haque goes on to compare the 20th Century leader and the even older “boss” to his new Builder, starting with Barack Obama.
Keith Olbermann recently took Obama to task for “a lack of leadership”. Yet, on the contrary, Obama’s problem is that he’s too much of a leader — and not enough a Builder. He’s mastered the principles of leadership; the result is politics as usual, instead of political reform.
- The boss drives group members; the leader coaches them. The Builder learns from them.
- The boss depends upon authority; the leader on good will. The Builder depends on good.
- The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm. The Builder is inspired — by changing the world.
- The boss says “I”; the leader says “we”. The Builder says “all” — people, communities, and society.
- The boss assigns the task, the leader sets the pace. The Builder sees the outcome.
- The boss says, “Get there on time;” the leader gets there ahead of time. The Builder makes sure “getting there” matters.
- The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown; the leader fixes the breakdown. The Builder prevents the breakdown.
- The boss knows how; the leader shows how. The Builder shows why.
- The boss makes work a drudgery; the leader makes work a game. The Builder organises love, not work.
- The boss says, “Go;” the leader says, “Let’s go.” The Builder says: “come.”
Over at Johnnie Moore’s Weblog, where I found Haque’s manifesto, commenter “q” says:
While I admire Umair for his perspective, I do not see Umair (or many others) providing any practical solution or guidance for leadership that is uniquely different than much of the other leadership “advice” out there.
I see a vision at the meta-level without any substantial & practical micro-level details. It needs to be put into some real-world context
I must admit I also find some of the Principles creepy. “Organise love, not work?” Yes, we must learn to love Big Brother. Ahem. And some of it seems just a bit too evangelical for my liking.
Identifying the problem is a key first step, even if we don’t have the answers yet. And the problem here is that we’re still fiddling with the old gadgetry of governance instead of building new things.
[Photos: British Airways Concorde G-BOAC photographed by Ian Britton at Manchester Aviation Park, 2005. © FreeFoto.com, used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 license. Umain Haque via Harvard Business Review.]