Leadership in the 21st Century

This is my story about how I think about leadership in the 21st century. This is, at its essence, a story about the importance of the art and science of telling a story. The importance of this skill is particularly visible in leadership, where one is in a defined position of influence over others’ well-being. So, in short, I guess you could call this my Philosophy of Leadership and Why I Think It’s Important.

Organizations of the 21st century shouldn’t be led by either emotional, philosophical intelligence (words), or rational, scientific intelligence (numbers), alone. They should be led by both. They should be led by biological intelligence. As human beings, since we’re able to comprehend both languages , we are able to get a fuller picture should we choose to tell the full story of both sides of our thinking. This choice is in the hands of the leader.

Let’s start with the architecture of the thought guiding this text:

The intelligence of biology, life, is exquisite. On one hand, evolution forces biological intelligence to optimize for sustainability at maximum effectiveness – using the simplest equation for maintaining existence, “f(x) = x”. Fundamentally, biological intelligence is perpetually driven by the emotionally told story of “it is what it is”, y = x. Maintaining existence is a really boring story – we’ll return to the concept of a story in stasis (maintaining existence) and a story in motion (explaining why) in just a bit.

Cyanobacteria, the oldest living thing on the planet, originated 2.8 billion years ago and is still just hanging out. Talk about a sustainable organisation! They started the story of life on our planet and figured out how to fight to survive, just enough, in order to watch the story unfold – by being just intelligent enough to not go extinct. They realised that, by sticking with the optimizing equation f(x) = x, they are their own, linearly predictable, reproductive fuel at all times, no matter what variable x (a conscious state of their being) is.

They accept everything, as long as it means they still exist. When you only have one success factor – existence – you either have to control the entire operating environment to remove randomizing factors, surprises (complete influencing power), or be willing to submit to and be capable of withstanding any destructive outside pressure that you might encounter (complete chaos resistance). Consider this paragraph in the context of the organisations of authoritarian regimes, for example, and you’ll start to slowly see how dangerous simply optimizing for existence can be.

Optimizing for maintaining existence is the equivalent of being the Supreme Leader of Cyanobacteria. If the Supreme Leader was a chaos resistor, then the message would be: “Accept everything that is. Don’t change things proactively – the less surprises, the easier this is. Exert just enough effort to not die.” If the Supreme Leader was a complete influencer, then the message would be: “Destroy all threats to existence.” It does seem like a good thing that we have bacteria in our bodies doing this kind of optimization to maintain our existence, but it does not seem a very good train of thought at the scale of global organisations, for example. 

Indeed, the only mathematically practical way to optimize for an existence maintenance strategy over time is to work in removing all surprises from the equation, no matter which mentality you do it with – chaos resistance (resistive power) or complete influence (influential power). This strategy will leave you with a one-dimensional story of maintaining existence. A boring story of digging towards zero waste, or remaining at just above zero.

Human beings will, generally, not be too motivated by this message – the question in the background function f(x) is “do we still exist?” and the binary success measure is simply “yes (x = 1)/no (x = 0)”.

In financial terms, this is the exact same thing as simply looking at the bottom line and not giving a damn about anything else. It’s simple, binary intelligence. That’s what the financial industry mostly does (so it is refreshing to see big funds, like the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund take an ethically active role).

The main point is this: if an organisation can’t communicate more than a story of how it is simply maintaining its existence, then it is a symptom that the organisation is fighting to survive. It doesn’t sound like a very fun or inspiring place to work, when the why part of “(why) an organisation is maintaining its existence” isn’t communicated. Stories without a why are in stasis – “an organisation is maintaining its existence” – but, with a why, the story is in motion – “why an organisation is maintaining its existence” followed by an explanation, with the explanation providing the motion.

Symptoms of stories in stasis, non-motivational stories, can be seen all around us. Just look at the companies whose level of leadership aspires no further than for increasing production efficiency and minimizing costs. They’ve lost philosophical intelligence and fallen back on one-dimensional, existence maintaining thought. That’s a sign of impending industry consolidation and a preparatory move for an organisation that has no idea what will happen next, signaling that it is starting to become defensive. It starts to argue towards simply maintaining existence – its story stops for as long as it takes for it to figure out what will happen next.

Organisations can, and should, understand their own acceptable conditions for maintaining existence. If the push for industrial efficiency is high, then an organisation should have pre-defined value-based backstops beyond which it won’t accept going, such as how it treats employees or the environment. It should awaken itself and its employees, as early as possible, if their industry seems to be heading into an existential war – and whether that is acceptable (a product being commoditized) or not (a competitor using unhealthy amounts of market power and becoming a monopoly).

It should also talk about the potential of its own death. If an industry operates ethically (removing societal arguments about externally caused price wars), and an incumbent simply can’t keep up, then it needs to talk openly to its employees, early on, about their options: fighting harder, being bought up, or entering controlled liquidation. No one benefits from being held on a pre-death leash of “Everything’s fine! We’re just going through a rough patch.” When confronted with realities, organisations might even strengthen and rebound out a love for the team – the brand.

From existential to aspirational stories

So, our hope for motivating employees towards the future lies at the other extreme end of the scale of intelligence, the aspirational end. To reiterate, the first extreme was optimizing organisational thought for remaining in existence. 

At the other extreme of intelligence lies the most advanced form of life on the planet – us, human beings. We have aspirations.

Let’s consider ourselves as evolutionary descendants of cyanobacteria. Let’s assume our story is, well, quite a bit different (to put it mildly):

“At our core, we as humans are just highly evolved cyanobacteria optimizing to stay alive. As bacteria, we quickly learned to reproduce, so that we could begin striving to last across generations in perpetuity. It’s just so simple why we made this learning investment: existence is just so worth it as compared to not existing. But we had to de-risk the organisation, because we were on the cutting edge all the time, and it was starting to become a pretty heavy burden. So, back in the day, when the planet was young, we figured out that it was a lot less risky to invest into existence as more complex species than it is as cyanobacteria. As more complex species, and especially now as humans, we can exert so much more influence over our operating environment. So, we continued making learning investments and, over time, learned to guide ourselves more and more effectively towards our aspirations – seeking to free ourselves from the heavy existential pressure of staying alive as bacteria, and learning to aspire towards becoming our true, individual selves (we really had to standardize as bacteria, so that we could work together at maximum efficiency. Individualism is much more fun – when everyone’s weird, you get to be weird as well!).

We really have to give a big up to our bacterial ancestors for showing up and starting to tell us the story of life and existence. They went through a lot of pressure to get us to where we are today!”

This is what’s so amazing and remarkable about human intelligence. It is our ability to tap into both extremes of existence – existential and aspirational – and flip the cyanobacteria story from “fighting to survive (don’t ask questions)” (existential story) to “figuring out how to live (and why)” (aspirational story, based on an existential story that respects past accomplishments and learns from them).

We can take stories in stasis and, utilizing our aspirations, set them in motion again.

Our aspirations, and how we talk about them in the modern age, shows that most of the younger generation has an aspirational mind-set – an existence in motion, as compared to accepting all that is and remaining in stasis.

Instead of just continuing the fight to survive as a group, to simply maintain existence, we’ve started to individualize and begun to aspire towards figuring out how to live our best possible lives and be our best possible selves, according to our own terms – not (only) those of societal norms. When fear of existence is no longer a relevant issue, humans begin to shift perception and optimize towards our aspirational motivations of being, towards the infinite range equation of emotional outcomes “f(x) = ?”

Our dreams are always, once experienced, ultimately defined for ourselves by the experienced emotional outcome. What does one need to do to experience the simultaneous emotion of peace and pride? Perhaps, as an example, lead a big project at work that led to organisational success (pride from accomplishment) and a significant bonus for the executing team (peace from financial security). In practice, we aspire to experience an emotion or a set of emotions.

There is value in your experience for others, as well. The value is defined by the story we live to tell, and the learnings we convey that can perpetuate to start new stories for those listening. Progress is all about setting goals, striving for them, and living to tell the tale of learning. Learning is the key word to ingest.

Note: if you understand this, you’ll realise that you get to define the guiding equation to avoid zero – say, for example, f(x) = x+1 – and the aspirationally variable goal ‘x’ in your life – say, for example, the ultimate choice of labeling existence with a “fight-to-survive burden” or with “an aspirational goal adventure”. Things don’t have to be as they are for you, as they do for a cyanobacteria that can’t influence its surroundings much. That one label is pretty heavy, but I’d personally prefer to consciously label existence with both, so that I’m left with the emotional outcome of feeling logical – of course work is sometimes a burden, but it’s all worth it when you’re working towards your goals and learning on the way. Leaders should really focus on that last sentence, and think about what they should be communicating to their organisations, and their individual employees.

Here’s the beef on leadership:

To speak to the new generation, of which I consider myself a front-runner, organisational leaders need to recognize their responsibility in communicating both sides of the story. At work, we naturally aspire to exist and ensure our paycheck, and the financial numbers depicting how we’re doing need to support that. But, even more importantly, we aspire to exist as better versions of ourselves and strive for pre-defined emotional outcomes – we want to be given the tools and potential to learn to someday take full charge of our own destinies.

So, we seek to become members of organisations projecting levered power to build a better, more sustainable world. Our employer-selection criteria are exceedingly high in comparison to those of previous generations.

In other words: the most forward-looking ones amongst us realize that large organisations need to actively do their part in building a better world, and we won’t settle for anything less than commitment to sustainable values. We respect the employee base that maintains our current existence, but only want them to hold us back by the necessary amount so as to not become a risk to organisational existence – such as allowing for over-investment into a risky new venture.

So, on the one hand, it is accurate to say that it is rational to talk about the numbers and ensure a baseline of sustainability, a financially optimized existence for the organisation. A leader must communicate an existential story of what the organisation must do to stay alive in the now and near future, and that boils down to the bottom line. Being alive is a prerequisite for changing the world for the better, so it’s good to not get ahead of oneself based on the purity of idealism – this is a lesson eager youths need to, and undoubtedly will, learnBut it needs to be said out loud – otherwise, eagerness will turn into cynicism and improved maintenance will turn into normal operations as opportunity-seeking eagerness begins to fade from the organisation’s emotional map.

So, on the other hand, organisational leaders must remember that it is important to talk about the emotions an organisation faces and our words explaining them, and ensure motivation towards a potential, aspirationally optimized existence for the organisation – even in the toughest of times. Cynicism is a cancer that will arrive and remain until an opposing force, aspirational eagerness, returns.

Leaders must communicate an aspirational story about the future, which the younger generation will one day have to lead. So the older generation does need to understand that, yes, the up-and-comers do need to have an ever-strengthening say in what direction an organisation is going in as time progresses, because the younger generation will have to take over one day and deal with whatever state things are left for them in.

The co-operation between elder realism and youth idealism will balance out as a “relatively understandable set of existential demands and aspirational goals”, if an organisation has good interpowerful and interfunctional internal communications. Interpowerful depicts relative influencing power of an employee within an organisation (on an organisational power scale) and interfunctional of functioning position within an organisation (in an organisational matrix)

So, to put it simply, communication needs to be ensured between leaders and subordinates – interpowerful internal communications – and between the different functions like marketing and finance of an organisation – interfunctional internal communications. Only a communications-network that integrates an organisation into one will be able to balance the existential demands and aspirational goals of the whole team.

This is what makes some organisations great to work in – everyone understands what’s going on and why. Understanding common knowledge provides an emotion of belonging – perhaps the most fundamental emotional derivative of existence. When people feel like they belong, they feel like they exist – a strong prerequisite for aspirational motivation, as discussed above. I can definitely recommend Emily Esfahani Smith’s “The Power of Meaning” as a book to introduce the “four pillars of meaning” and what they mean to organisational leadership in practice.

Optimize for teamwork between and amongst organisational layers, across all necessary function and power positions and relationships.

That’s the mantra of a 21st century leader. To set up an organisation as what is effectively a communications network, optimizing for an exchange of information that aims to balance between reaching the rational existential demand goals and the emotionally aspirational supply goals of the organisation. “Why we need to stay alive and learn to work as a team, now and in the near future, so that we can start becoming what we want to be as an organisation, and begin projecting our aspirations into reality.”

Once employees are able to understand both stories, existential demand goals (how the world works) and aspirational supply goals (how we want it to work), and their own function’s contributory role to the organisation’s goal and their personal power position within reaching it, the organisation will have the opportunity to strive towards balance. This will allow employees to build the ability to self-navigate as their organisational role grows over time.

Over time, balance between the now (executing current strategy numbers to stay in existence) and the future (using aspirations to guide word choice of future strategy), based on understanding the past (learning and telling the story), is sought for.

A note on that last point: moving towards the future requires understanding the past, meaning you need to understand how your strategies have worked in the past (how and why their outcomes materialized) and be capable of telling the story to others of what you’ve learned (to reiterate, recount stories about your past strategies and convey understanding about why they did or did not work). If you can systemically learn to tell the story of what you’ve learned (and are learning) within an organisation, then your ability, as a team, to build forward-looking strategy, is greatly strengthened. You then understand your organisational strengths and weaknesses based on historical (and real-time) fact – something most can’t do! It is possible to measure organisational well-being much more accurately than it used to be – so do it. Again, learning is the key word to ingest.

To conclude:

The 21st century leader sees that it’s great to aspire to set just the right level of difficulty into a strategy. Success in outsmarting oneself, successfully executing on a more difficult strategy than what’s been done before, is a source of great pride. The leader will project a more evolved version of leadership and intellect to the world, and build the organisation’s reputational equity – it’s trusted brand.

Moreover, considering the potential societal externalities of an organisation’s functioning, and striving to remove all the negative ones, will allow a leader to take their pride to the next level. The challenge is great, but so are the rewards. Indeed, the possibility to tell a story of success with a societally clean conscience, a societally trusted brand, is the key to building the sustainability of an organisation – a true “hero of a leader” level goal to aspire towards. 

If the art and science of sustainable leadership, telling a new story about what it means to be a leader, promulgates throughout society, it would not surprise me if the first corporate organisations to last a millennium are already amongst us. Religious organisations have lasted millenia, political organisations are starting to reach the age of a millennium, and some family-owned companies are already centuries old. Needless to say, these are all aspirationally-led organisations.

Why not try to be your own hero at work and be part of building a sustainably-led organisation? Be a 21st century leader and start building the big picture story – the potential success stories of yourself and your teams, of the balance between your emotions and your rationality, of your current existential realities and the proposed paths towards aspirational goals. There is no reason not to, except the excuses you’re telling yourself about why it isn’t possible.

Of course it is – nature is bad-ass in how awesome it can be with the right amount of self-confidence.

Welcome to the gates of the organisation of the future. Start building your organisation’s collective, biologically intelligent, story.

© 2017 Jens J. Sørensen