Introduction to Leadering: Change Your Mindset, Change The World
“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” — Amelia Earhart, American Aviation Pioneer and Author
Despite only having locations in Texas and Mexico, H-E-B is one of the most beloved grocery chains in the U.S., beating out giants like Costco and Amazon. And because I live in Austin, I am lucky enough to be a customer. Founded in 1905, H-E-B is still privately held and, with around four hundred stores, ranks as the twentieth largest retailer in the U.S. by revenue. When the pandemic hit, H-E-B teams were ready, having taken the role of community first responder seriously during past hurricanes and the previous virus scares, doing whatever was necessary to ensure folks had a reliable source for food and water (though the pandemic run on toilet paper caught them off guard, too). It tops the list of favorite grocery stores by shoppers because we are convinced every day that our store really cares about what we want and need — from their high-quality produce and private labeled products, to their investments in sustainability, their communities, and supporting their workers.
Their continued success, however, is not simply about extraordinary crisis management. Or being deeply committed to their customers’ well-being. Or investing in digital preparedness with an extensive new tech hub. It is about all of this and more. While the grocery industry has been slow to wake up to the winds of change — operating nearly the same way since the first modern supermarket was opened over a hundred years ago, H-E-B is working hard to be prepared for the future. They know change is coming fast.
Kroger, the second-largest U.S. grocery retailer, has made aggressive investments in digital transformation, including opening six Ocado-robotic run automated warehouses to fulfill online delivery orders faster. Amazon is expanding its cashier-less checkout and integrating Alexa Help stations throughout their new Amazon Fresh stores, while the number one retailer in the country, Walmart, just teamed up quickly with Oracle to buy a 7.5 percent stake in controversial social video platform TikTok. Game on. We can already see how data changes food shopping in China with HEMA, a store that requires all shoppers to use the app, and how 5G is re-shaping a leader like Emart in highly urban Korea. As sensors in both our refrigerators and Tupperware take inventory of what we eat (and what we don’t), and drones and self-driving delivery vehicles respond quickly to our needs, tomorrow’s grocery stock up is going to look entirely different.
So what will it take to navigate this kind of big change?
Many leaders now recognize that for years they spent too much time looking backward and only considering near-term goals. This has left them unprepared to move forward in what is rapidly emerging as an extraordinarily transformative, highly ambiguous future.
It is clear that disruption can erupt from anywhere, jump across markets, and quite suddenly, challenge service and product delivery, business models, and the entire ways we live, learn, work and shop. A worldwide pandemic, societal justice movement, and escalating global tensions are calling into question most of our assumptions about how things get done and how we can do things better. But even aside from such global phenomena, we know that a scrappy startup can swiftly change how your customers seek out or interact with your offering. A new technology or acquisition in an unrelated field can send waves through your industry (think Amazon’s unexpected purchase of Whole Foods). Even more daunting, innovators far outside our industries — and field of vision — now have the opportunity to radically transform it. It is amazing how a delivery service like Instacart is impacting the auto industry and the desire for car ownership. And as business becomes more digital, it is data versus heavy infrastructure that becomes the moat that protects us. We have to approach things differently now.
For years, corporate strategists and futurists have been encouraging organizations and government leaders to become more adaptive, to try new approaches, to shift behaviors to address things like climate change as well as growing societal and economic inequities. From most, we heard back some combination of, “It’s too hard,” “Too expensive,” “Too disruptive,” “Too impersonal,” “Too insecure.” Often, inertia won the day. So, one of the most stunning and lingering things about this shocking moment in history is that suddenly everyone is being thrust into this new era together.
Now that we are all more awake, this book will clearly present the kind of dynamic “leadership” necessary for this brave new world.
As we imagine our place in this moment of significant transformation, we find ourselves confronted by a lot of new questions, which often swarm in simultaneously. The concerns I commonly hear from leaders are:
Does my current business model still hold? Do I have the right team in place? Who should we partner with, and how? How do I reduce fear and instill confidence in my teams, colleagues, bosses, and investors? What new technologies should I invest in? How do we fill the growing gap in the skills we need? How do I manage investor expectations while leading my company through transformation? How do I wrap my arms around unpredictable global demands and shifts? How can I drive change when there are so many regulations in my industry? How do I collect enough data to make good decisions yet ensure I do it respectfully? How should I respond to competitors with a different playing field or moral compass? How do I create a culture that enables people to learn versus feel like they’re failing all the time? How can I get my “real” work done when there is so much change to manage? How do I manage information overload as I try to stay up to date? How do I better integrate my values with the choices I’m making at work? How can I get folks to move faster when the organization isn’t ready? How do I prepare my kids for a world in constant flux?
And, of course…this one:
How should I navigate my role in a future that is constantly changing?
The future will look very different from the way things have operated until now. Some have declared that retail will change more in the next five years than it has in the past fifty, and society will change more in the next fifty years than it has in the last three hundred. A recent headline declared that, “We are approaching the fastest, deepest, most consequential technological disruption in history.” Major industries, from medicine to energy to travel to entertainment, are radically transforming, putting pressure on others such as manufacturing, construction, transportation, finance, education…frankly, all of it.
None of us can afford to sit on the sidelines. Now is the moment we must all play bigger.
We have the insight to build an even better next. We have the opportunity to carve a clear, galvanizing path forward — today and tomorrow. But to do so, we need to cultivate the mindset, capacities, and internal compass that enable much more sustainable and powerful decision-making.
Through years of work helping organizations and teams embrace and build a thriving future, I have come to clearly appreciate that we don’t need to change what we think as much as we must change how we think.
Why We Are Failing To Meet The Demands Of Change
Our conventional version of leadership — the traditional one practiced de facto in most organizations today — was built to fit the demands of the Industrial Revolution. It is that outdated. It is ill-equipped for the challenges of our increasingly digital and transforming world. Leaders have traditionally been taught to think and operate in centralized, siloed, hierarchical structures, to focus on efficiency and predictability in order to scale reliable, consistent delivery of products and services. Despite talk of double and triple bottom lines and innovation hubs, many leaders are still being measured by narrow definitions of success and taking only incremental steps forward. And in most companies today, leaders are so focused on (and wholly incentivized toward) short-term thinking that they often don’t invest in long-term potential. Which is all at odds with today’s mandate for breakthrough responsive thinking.
A study by Duke University and the University of Washington provided an example of how distorted our thinking has become when they asked business leaders the following question: “If you knew you could invest in an initiative that would offer a huge financial benefit to the company in the long term, but you would have to take a hit in the short term, would you do it?” Their response was startling:
Eighty percent of respondents said they would decrease value-creating spending on research and development, advertising, maintenance, and hiring in order to meet (short-term) earnings benchmarks. More than half the executives would delay a new project even if it entailed sacrificing value.
Why? Especially when the scenario assured a massive financial reward for the organization down the road?
Because we have been taught that leadership is about creating steady, consistent growth while controlling for risk, and because we have been increasingly incentivized to protect the status quo. Sadly, such conventional thinking sacrifices huge advances for the sake of short-term comfort and security. If we continue to use a twentieth-century industrial playbook, we will be put at ever-greater peril — especially as the speed of change accelerates, and the stakes become higher. Facing radical change with our current leadership approach will cause the breakdowns to increase, severely compromising our success (and well-being) ahead. We must evolve beyond outdated leadership beliefs that lead us to:
· Resist change and maintain the status quo.
· Keep the power at the center.
· Compete alone, win alone.
· Extract value.
· Be incremental to reduce risk.
· Rigidly commit to a single plan.
It’s time to ditch the old playbook and develop a set of dynamic practices that improve our abilities to orient, innovate, and create long-term, caring solutions.
Leadering: The Mindset We Need To Build The Future We Want
“Leadership,” the noun, is often synonymous with management: it’s static, directive, exclusive, and hierarchical. It is focused on month-over-month sales growth, share price, market valuation, and an ever-expanding GDP.
Leadering offers clarity and urgency around what twenty-first-century stewardship demands. It shifts our approach to a verb: the continual practice of sensing and responding, rather than seeking best practices. This new mindset, required to face the future, challenges entrenched thinking about how success is actually created and rewarded in enterprises as we move ahead.
To do this, we need to understand why our outdated playbook is now dead and commit to shifting our mindsets to:
Wonder (vs. Resist). As technology is advancing, information is growing, and culture is shifting exponentially, we must be willing to expand our current understandings, approaches, and beliefs. A constantly changing future requires a constantly learning person, team, or organization. In Chapter Two, we explain why wonder and curiosity are essential for innovation and should be prioritized and incentivized as important. “What if…” must become a point on our compass.
Navigate (vs. Replicate). To thrive in a state of permanent ambiguity and opportunity, leadership must shift from command and control best practices to an ability to sense and respond in real-time. In an environment that demands continuous innovation and on-demand delivery, we need to build the capacity to rapidly design, test, iterate, and collaborate. This is the thrust of Chapter Three.
Connected (vs. Alone). In an increasingly complex world, no single individual or organization will have the capacity to build everything alone. In Chapter Four, we describe how we’ll need to leverage the resources and strengths of external partners and internal teams — even, on occasion, your competitors — to innovate and ensure harmony within the environments of which we’re a part.
Contribute (vs. Extract). As the environmental and societal breakdowns become more evident, it is no longer sustainable to simply extract resources for the benefit of a small number of investors or shareholders. In Chapter Five, we cover in detail how future success of business will be dependent on generating value for a much broader set of stakeholders; this includes current and future societies.
Be Audacious (vs. Incremental). Given we are about one percent into what exponential technologies will make possible, the vastly different future is being built as we speak. In Chapter Six, we offer a motivating call to address escalating gaps, as you imagine the boldest contribution your organization can make and orient your teams toward that north star.
Thrive (vs. Die). Rather than going all-in on one uncertain future and building a solid plan, only to get it wrong, we must commit resources to multiple eventualities that prepare us for the unexpected. In Chapter Seven, we offer tangible ways to cultivate the practices that ensure we are ready and able to harness the potential of the moment. And the one that comes after that.
As we have experienced so viscerally these past few months, dramatically changing conditions require a completely different way of leading: one that allows organizations and teams of all sizes to drive rapid transformation and respond quickly and collaboratively to new pressures and opportunities. Leadering makes it possible to confidently shift from reading routes on the well-worn map to having confidence in being guided by a reliable compass and a motivating north star. It requires we adopt a mindset relentlessly committed to human-centric innovation, building relationships in mutually dependent ecosystems, and focused on creating sustainable value.
We are standing in a unique moment in time in which we have huge opportunities to impact our world in far-reaching ways. Even better, these are not way out there in some distant future — they are waiting for us right now. Today it is possible to 3D-print a solid house for only $7,000 in twenty-four hours. It is possible to grow healthy food with 95 percent less water and 390 times the efficiency of conventional farming. It is even possible to perform robotic heart surgery from miles away. All of which will dramatically broaden access to those essentials — food, energy, housing, medical care — that determine the quality of our lives.
This points out another — highly important — reason to shift our thinking. Applying old mindsets to new, exponentially-more-potent technologies can create damage at a scale we never considered. The consequences of twenty-first-century mistakes will be even more difficult to clean up than the twentieth-century ones we are dealing with now. To enable radical change, we need radical solutions. Accepting radical solutions requires a radical openness of mind…and heart. We need to shift to a mindset framed by audacity and ingenuity as well as by compassion and humility; the innovations and technologies of the future will demand nothing less.
I believe the future is rich with potential. By marrying exponential technological advances with the mindset that can turn these opportunities into practical solutions to our problems, it will become increasingly possible to reduce suffering and provide more than enough for everyone. In order to make this possible, we need to be able to absorb and respond much more effectively than we have been groomed to so far.
A client beautifully summarized my thinking on Leadering this way: “To change what’s out there, we need to change what’s in here. And to change the future, we need to change the present.”
The Journey To This Book
My own professional journey played a major role in how I chose to write this book. I spent the first half of my career working in top-tier ad agencies to build and launch iconic brands and then consulting with prominent organizations such as Nestlé, The Coca Cola Company, Sprint, and Acumen. I saw visionary leaders who could sense change was happening and were committed to real transformation…and many more who denied it and struggled to absorb and respond to new information about what the future holds. While I sometimes met executives who were confident and ready to adapt to the expectations ahead, I confronted many more who were simply looking for the next intervention they could quickly put into action. I often felt as though I was trying to explain the world is round to those who couldn’t imagine it as anything other than flat.
Fortunately, I’ve found frustration to be a great source of motivation. Whenever I became stuck trying unsuccessfully to inspire a clear (to me) improvement in an organization I was working with or in, my impulse has been to get closer to the source of resistance. What is really getting in the way here, I often wondered?
After many years of working with Fortune 500 leaders and seeing up close that current approaches to facing change were rapidly losing their effectiveness, I decided to join the disruptors themselves. I dove into the tech world to help form an artificial intelligence start-up and began actively working alongside the designers, technologists, and entrepreneurs who are building the code, the solutions, and the structures shaping our collective future. My curiosity about what’s to come led me to help launch the global TEDx movement, band together with extraordinary thinkers at Singularity University and learn from organizations of all kinds about what it takes to confront change — internally and externally. I have delivered close to eighty keynote talks around the world these past few years, each time learning something new from the organization and audience about the concerns they are facing.
Today, I’m part of another AI start-up dedicated to empowering organizations of all sizes to harness the power of their data in effective and ethical ways. I am also contributing to global teams passionately applying what I call “horizon-technology” that will deliver a distributed internet and new economic accountability metrics that can dramatically improve the ways we create and coordinate resources ahead — from food and financing to labor and energy, and so much more.
I wrote this book to link these worlds: to connect the leaders who are seeking to reorient resources and implement innovation in thoughtful and valuable ways today, with the confident, visionary people who are building the technologies and emerging societal structures of tomorrow. Together we become more empowered to shape a future in which all thrive.
Despite all this preparation, I’ll admit that it is damn tricky writing a static book about a dynamic world in complete flux. I have been experiencing firsthand the stress of learning and leading simultaneously, for while I am very clear on the future I want to live in, I’m learning more each day about the systemic weaknesses and risks that are informing it. The future is fluid, and so is my thinking. It has to be. So I invite you to stay in the conversation and join me at leadering.us for updates and gatherings that allow us to explore together how to apply this new thinking.
This Is The Moment
As we think about the individual roles each of us will play in the big transformations of the future, it’s easy to get caught in a flurry of insecurities. We ask ourselves, Am I good enough? Am I bold enough? Am I smart enough? Am I (fill in the blank) enough to drive this future forward? The place to start is in believing we can.
I am calmed by this quote from Steve Jobs:
When you look around and see that everything around you that you call life is made up by people who are no smarter than you; and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use — once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.
The current constructs in which we and our businesses operate have all been created and invented by real, flawed people — and they can just as easily be questioned and reconceived by you. Are the current structures in your industry serving you? Go even bigger: are the constructs of work, education, food systems, energy, healthcare, or any of people’s basic needs, working for you and others? Can you imagine improving each of these in the future?
Leadering is the crucial shift we need to navigate our way to the healthy, accessible, safe, and inclusive future we all want. It advocates for a new mindset that allows you to embrace possibility and recognize your agency to act. This one change can have a massive impact on how you orient toward the future and ensure your organization navigates confidently — and even enthusiastically — forward.
Throughout this book, we’ll examine specific ways this new mindset takes shape. Through stories and statistics, concepts, and charts, we’ll discuss how you and your organizations can understand and begin practicing Leadering. Starting now.
Let’s Begin With A Breath
Here is the critical bit: Embracing ambiguity and complexity requires heavy doses of self-awareness and self-care. As we get ready to dive in together, I invite you to start this exploration with a deep breath.
Seriously. Allow yourself to take a deep inhale right now.
And an even bigger exhale…
Now with your eyes closed, take a couple more as you imagine clearing a wide-open space among all these competing thoughts and worries. Slowly exhale each time. Sit tall and feel yourself calmly making each next decision, with clarity and confidence. Use this moment to congratulate yourself on all you have already learned and created.
Each time you pick up this book — and ideally, as you start and close each day — I invite you to take a deep breath or two just like this and reconnect with your strength, compassion, and your own sense of purpose.
I sincerely hope Leadering gives you the confidence and practical guidance you need to be the visionary leader you are ready to be — no matter your age or tenure. None of us can afford to sit on the sidelines. Now is the moment we must all play bigger.
The future is counting on you.