In the current series of Survivor one of the participants has the unenviable career description of being a ‘rocket scientist’. ‘No really’ must be something he is quite used to saying having had to repeatedly answer the stock question we all get asked, ‘So what line of business are you in?’ I can only guess that one advantage of being a rocket scientist is that he must get to meet a lot of brain surgeons and helicopter pilots as others try to match his apparent wit and creativity! I mean come on, how many rocket scientists have you met?
I say ‘unenviable’ because with this job must come huge expectations, scepticism and no small amount of mystique. Take for instance my reaction to the very first challenge the two tribes encountered in their Amazon adventure: I sat there thinking, ‘how can the men (the tribes are split according to gender) lose this oneâ€Œafter all there is a rocket scientist on board!’ Wrong again. Rocket scientist and all, the women put one over the men in no uncertain fashion and none were more surprised then the men themselves. It seems Sisters are indeed doing it for themselves!
In some ways the description ‘leader’ in its various dressings be that, ‘Chief Executive Officer’, ‘Managing Director’, ‘President’, ‘Chairman of the Board’, ‘Principal’ or whatever it may be, runs a similar risk of association as does ‘rocket scientist’ and endures the same potential gauntlet.
Much is expected of people that carry such lofty titles. Both the failures and successes of corporate leaders are glaringly over-exposed in our ‘instant-saturated’ culture thereby only heightening the scepticism and mystique that surrounds the subject. In pursuit of the elusive holy grail of leadership, an understanding of just what it is and how it is lived, some offer complex explanations that emerge from detailed research. Others would have us believe that effective leadership is as simple as following a tried and tested recipe in much the same way as one would bake apple pie (and more often than not such approaches originate from the ‘land of apple pie’!). While undoubtedly we can learn from both approaches, the reality is that the art and form of leadership is changing. This should hardly be surprising as it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (see what I mean about that job!) to work out that the world of business, and therefore the responsibility of leadership, is changing. Nick Segal, Director of UCT’s Graduate School of Business was quoted the Financial Mail (July 25, 2003) as saying that what is important in the study of leadership is recognizing the style and context which has an element of cultural specificity. For many leaders navigating the change can be something like attempting to paint a running rhino from a moving vehicle through the African bush. In any ones language, it is a tough ask!
What then serve as helpful navigational points for leaders negotiating such complex times? Perhaps the best ‘navigational points’ available are those that would have leaders look both backwards and forwards, embrace both the old and the new in their endeavour to provide authenticate leadership.
In 1992 two worlds representing the past and the future, the old and the new came together in a poignant manner in the Pacific Ocean at the equator. The Hawaiian people, desperate to reacquaint and connect with their heritage, had constructed a replica of the ancient canoes that had once transported their ancestors in what is known as the Polynesian Triangle, an area spanning some ten million square miles and embracing some of the wildest sea imaginable. Using only the stars and currents, together with their own considerable affinity for the ocean, these intrepid seamen of old would purposefully navigate their canoes over 2000 miles of uncharted open ocean between the respective islands dotted in this vast expansion of ocean. The view that such voyages were both deliberate and repeated and not the result of random luck, was a something many contemporary anthropologists and historians believed impossible until proved wrong by the recreated voyages. The reconstructed replica canoe, christened Hokule`a after the star whose scientific name is Arcturus, was completed midst a blaze of publicity in the Spring of 1975. It was to become a significant cultural symbol and icon for the Hawaiian people. An article in the Honolulu Magazine at this time referred to the Hokule`a as a ‘space ship of our ancestors’. And so, fast forward to 1992 where Hawai`i astronaut Charles Lacy Veach onboard Challenger makes contact from space with those sailing the Hokule`a as they both crossed the equator. One orbiting the future – the other navigating the past.
The contrasting and paradoxical image that this picture conjures becomes a guiding metaphor for effective leadership today.
Leaders need to undertake a ‘journey of discovery’ – a personal Hokule`a, in order to discover and connect with the most vital of all leadership ingredients, that of character. More so than ever, leadership is about the who rather than the how and what. It is the ‘content of character’ as Martin Luther King coined it during the caldron that was the Civil Rights movement in America, which matters most. Many leaders have spent years constructing impregnable walls around themselves, masking any shortcomings, concealing any vulnerabilities and in the process have even become a stranger to themselves. For such leaders it may seem that undertaking this inner journey goes against their every survival instinct on which they have relied to keep themselves alive in the shark infested waters of the corporate world. And in some ways it is.
However, effective leadership demands an authentic understanding of who we are and the active development of what Daniel Goleman refers to as, ’emotional intelligence’. This is not attained by attending a conference or reading a book. The journey that is required takes courage, determination and means embarking on a life-long pursuit in this regard. It can take many forms and will certainly at times mean embracing risk and uncertainly. During the course of such a journey feeling lost, exposed and adrift is to be expected. Author Richard Barrett, in an interview with Fast Company put it this way: ‘This is not work for the tentative heart. The benefits of it are immeasurable. Yet it requires personal struggle. Only when you change internally will you see those benefits reflected in the outside world. You have to go through a process, and it is painful. You have to show up fearlessly.’
The ancient Polynesian adventures were guided by Wayfinders, skilled men to whom the task of navigation, and by implication the lives of their fellow sailors, was entrusted. These Wayfinders navigated by the stars, currents and trusted their own instinct. Leaders who have not embarked on their on their own inner-journey and who have neglected finding the means by which to undertake such a voyage, cannot serve as trustworthy Wayfinders for others. Finding the constellations and guiding instruments initially must seem difficult but they are there and each must find their own to use and trust. Learning to trust them may initially prove hard, especially in a world where we have been schooled to use detailed maps that offer true north through seven habits, ten easy steps or 21 laws to ensure we find the promised land.
Whilst the Hokule`a is a journey of rediscovery, the Challenger offers a journey of unique perspective. The Challenger enables us to see and understand the world from a whole new perspective and if Hokule`e represents the way of leadership, then the Challenger points to the task of leadership.
Effective leadership creates the kind of perspective which enables individuals, companies or even nations to see themselves differently. It is seldom about ‘having the right answers’ but rather about, ‘asking the right questions’. This is a shift from many traditional models and understanding of corporate leadership. For leaders to gain this kind of perspective and better understand their complex world, they need to periodically turn away from that world and hold it at a distance. It is that discipline which procures the breathing space in which perspective is developed. Without the understanding that comes from such perspective, meaningful change of any kind is impossible. Today, more so than ever, leaders are required to break the stranglehold of industrial-age thinking that shackles so many corporations. An entirely new system of thought is needed, one that realizes the rich promise of the emerging relational / emotional economy in which the primary focus is people and relationships, rather than products and goods. In today’s world, leadership is no longer about preserving the status quo (however tempting that might be), keeping others comfortable and ensuring balance. Leaders have to be able to help others cope with an ever-changing world and not merely, survive in such an environment, but learn to thrive in such a context.
Just as the Hokule`s and Challenger’s voyages were mysteriously linked, so is the way of leadership linked to the task of leadership. To attempt one without the other is tempt fate and endanger others.
What then am I saying? Well to record it in the ‘Captain’s Log Book’ for fellow travellers who may be tempted to think it impossible, the entry under todays date would simply read:
* Effective leadership involves an inner voyage of discovery. It is not without risk or reward, but nor is it optional for those who truly desire to provide authentic leadership.
* Failure to embark on such a journey distorts the necessary perspective that enables a clear understanding of the task of leadership. Without this, change is not possible.
* Effective leaders are contemporary Wayfinders. There can be no greater responsibility.
Stuart Coleman’s excellent biography, Eddie Would Go (MindRaising Press, Honolulu). The story of Eddie Aikau who sacrificed his life for his fellow adventures on board the Hokule`