On September 8th in the year 1900 the Great Galveston Hurricane, a Category 4 storm, made landfall in Galveston, TX and killed approximately 8,000 people. It was and remains the most deadly natural disaster to ever hit the United States. If the poor people of Galveston had been able to see over the horizon the massive loss of life could have been avoided.
Over time every company or community has the near certain potential to collide with an existential threat. Spotting these threats to the groups’ existence is an absolutely essential capability that we must work hard to strengthen in ourselves as leaders, and also work to engineer into every leader across the organization.
Imagine the returns of being able to push back the horizon and bring greater clarity to foggy situations using what I call the “breathe on the bullet” example. The slightest breeze can deflect a bullet from a couple of thousand yards away avoiding tragedy. To stop the very same bullet from a few feet away takes advanced body armor to absorb and disperse it’s energy of up to 1 kilo-joule.
Breathing on the bullet – with enough anticipation the smallest of breezes can protect the organization
However, this is not the most important difference in the two situations. After all as long as you stop the bullet the tragedy is avoided right? The real penalty for not seeing it coming is in all the work expended to carry around such a heavy and hot burden every day. The extra weight an organization must carry to be protect itself from threats that are already up close is crippling and brings about another entirely different set of risks.
This solution seems simple. Keep your head up. Scan the horizon. Always be on the lookout for big risks. Breathing on the bullet, in practice however, takes incredible perspective. For leaders who face a daily onslaught of real time decisions that are right in their face every minute of every day, this can seem impossible to do. Simply creating the room to even see the horizon can take tremendous discipline and may require reorganizing how the entire company gets things done. Taking the next step to ensure that key leaders can actually see over the horizon and not just to the horizon is another matter altogether.
Seeing over the horizon may be the hardest part of the Engineering Leadership Framework for many companies who are overly focused on making next quarters numbers. It is easy to invest in a body armor when the bullets are already showing up. Budgets can be raided, dividends suspended, borrowing authorized and taking on the extra debt will seem smart and absolutely necessary.
Having the foresight and discipline to consistently invest in the time and space that our leaders require to be able to not only step aside from the bullet that is coming but to use that step to head in a better direction is difficult and rare. Yet it is this unusual discipline that differentiates enduring enterprises from flash-in-the-pan companies that leave their employees broken and their investors broke.
Like the rest of the Engineering Leadership Framework Constants, each of these that contribute to seeing over the horizon must be considered from a 360 degree perspective. Engineering these constants into the organization doesn’t start or stop at the top. From the boardroom to the shop floor, every level of the organization must commit to creating the space each leader requires to engage their marketplace, industry, or community. As our leaders engage they must then be empowered to challenge all of the conventional wisdom in the company and know that “we’ve always done it that way” is one of the most dangerous statements they can ever hear.
With the time and space to engage their industry and the broader market and imbued with the responsibility to challenge the status quo, leaders can then begin to anticipate the future with reasonable certainty. They can do this not through some fortune telling magic but because as William Gibson was famously quoted, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Exploiting this uneven distribution of new technology, disruptive cultural trends and business model innovation is what seeing over the horizon is all about.
Engineering leaders who can breathe on the bullet and protect the team from emerging threats while also guiding the organization to a more profitable and secure outcome requires establishing the principles of Engage, Challenge and Anticipate as constants. We will dive into each of these in some detail next.
Constant 1, Engage – Go Forth and Prosper
Why do we expect that the President visit the scene of a natural disaster in person? Surely they have the resources and information to know everything they need to know about any situation without having to consume the resources needed to support a personal visit. After all during a recovery from a major disaster diverting the resources required to secure a Presidential visit seems like a waste. Airspace it shut down just to get the President into the area and then first responders are called away from local concerns by having to secure routes and locations for the visit.
Yet knowing all of this voters would scream for their heads if leaders at every level of community didn’t personally visit the scene and walk through the destruction first hand. Why? First and most importantly because to not do so in person would convey a callous lack of care and concern. Second we know instinctually that “being there” is not like watching the video. We know the human connections you make in person and the perspective you gain from being immersed in circumstances with other people who are witnessing the same situation we are has a power all its own.
We can be changed by what we read and what we see on screen but not as completely as we are when we live it. More importantly if we “mail it in” we are missing one of the most important aspects of any situation. There is a time worn adage, “they might not remember what you said, they may not even remember what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” This is the element that you simply cannot capture remotely. Even though you may know how you feel by viewing or reading about it, you cannot know how those around you living an event feel unless you experience it with them.
While this may seem like an extreme example, the lesson it holds can be widely applied. From evaluating a new technology to trying to understand a cultural or political trend, it is essential to be there and to be engaging with the people struggling to bring a new idea to life or working to convince others of the wisdom of their movement. We will discuss delegation later, but this one is one of those activities that leaders cannot hand off or ask others to do for their organization. You must do this yourself. No one else can “feel” for you.
The hard part is how to make the time. How do you create the room you need to go engage your market, your industry or your community? There are seemingly hundreds of decisions to be made every day. We must also “be there” to lead our teams as they wrestle with their own challenges and need our help and experience to fight through their day. We need time with the organization to teach, to mentor, and at times to direct.
The tyranny of the urgent is desperately hard to escape. All the more so since we so often feel guilty or delinquent when we are not there to help because we are out of the office on some far flung effort to engage. To engineer our way around this, leaders must build a deeply driven recognition for the importance of broader engagement. This starts by establishing the requirement for on site engagement at every level of leadership across the organization. Every team lead, every supervisor, every manager, every director, every VP, every executive must recognize their external engagement responsibilities.
An important side effect of such efforts at driving engagement at every level is that doing so creates room inside the organization for ongoing leadership development. We have probably all met those “extremely dedicated” people who never take their vacation, work insane hours, and literally live their job every minute of every day. Those people are often seen as irreplaceable and recognized as the most dedicated members of the company or team with which they work. The reality is that while short stints of extreme effort may be necessary at times of real crisis, operating in this mode on a routine basis sets the organization up for disaster.
Not only does such an approach smother initiative among other team members and stunt their ability to develop their own capabilities, it destroys those leading in such a manner over time as they burn out. The outcomes for all involved are at best dismaying and at worst utterly tragic. Recognizing the need to get out and engage the wider world on a routine and planned basis can break up these dangerous situations. It forces those with the best of intentions who otherwise chain themselves to their desks to get up and get out there and in doing so create room for those around them to grow and develop.
Thus engagement not only introduces new perspectives from outside the organization, the space created by the absence of key leaders from the day-to-day execution also reveals or encourages new perspectives on routine activities that may otherwise be mired in the status quo. This leads us to our next constant that must be engineered into our organizations if we want to see over the horizon, Challenge.
Constant 2, Challenge – Everything can be Improved
In the mid-19th century, about five women in 1,000 died in deliveries performed by midwives or at home. Yet when doctors working in the best maternity hospitals in Europe and America performed deliveries, the maternal death rate was often 10 to 20 times greater. On May 15th 1850 obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis stepped up to the podium of the Vienna Medical Society’s lecture hall to announce his solution. It was simple. Wash your hands. Amazing as it sounds today such a practice was not recommended at that time.
As stunning as this sounds, this incredible example of the danger of “status quo” it is not the reason I use it as a reference. The real lesson is just how hard it is to change things even in the face of overpowering evidence. In the case of Semmelweis even after being presented unequivocal proof of the efficacy of hand-washing in preventing the deaths of new mothers, it took the medical community almost 20 more years to widely recognize and accept the change!
Challenging the status quo and overcoming the inertia of current practices and customs is a fundamental requirement of leadership. There is no more dangerous phrase in the annuals of human experience than, “We have always done it that way.” Untold thousands have perished because things were always done a certain way and challenging that conventional wisdom was beyond the leaders involved or they where themselves part of the problem. For some this challenge is a heavy burden indeed. In Semmelweis’s case, he lost his clinical appointment at the Vienna General Hospital and his colleagues were outraged by his assertion they were causing the deaths of their own patients.
On average people hate change. We all know the warm comforts of well-worn habits and familiar surroundings. The familiar just feels good. It seems certain that the known is inherently less risky than the unknown. Yet in assuming what worked well yesterday will apply equally well tomorrow is to sow the seeds of our demise. No technology, market, industry, or community is constant. Which is why continually challenging how things are done must be a constant of leadership.
This is even truer now with the pace of change today. We have billions of people connected in real time to the internet and the resultant information and innovation that washes over us daily is at a pace none of us can comfortably digest. This overwhelming wave is enhancing the allure of the familiar leading many to cling even more strongly to what they know works. This new reality means that leaders must themselves digest increasing amounts of information more quickly than ever. They must then work even harder to separate the passing fad or novelty from those innovations that present truly impactful change.
Leaders must filter out the merely novel from the meaningful and material.
This leads us to two important conclusions. First the engagement required to stay abreast of changes and trends in our communities and industries is more important than ever. The broader and deeper our connections to the “mission critical” ecosystem around us the better able we will be to filter out the merely novel from the meaningful and material. Second when we challenge the status quo inside our organization or community, we must do so while leveraging all of the Heart of Leadership Constants – Optimism, Trust, Courage, Humility and Love.
Those trusting us to lead, who are feeling assailed by a stream of constant change, desperately need constants in their life and in their relationships. To effectively challenge the, “we’ve always done it this way” without fighting every persons very rational attachment to the familiar you must replace the attachment to practices, processes, traditions and habits with an attachment to the organization itself and to all people in the company. A team bound together by trust and love who stays humble and optimistic will have the courage to change.
Constant 3, Anticipate – Expect and Enjoy
Predicting the future may be impossible but developing a well informed expectation about what is likely to happen is not. Importantly we are not using prediction, foresight, vision, or any other terms for this important constant. Anticipation means not only developing the perspective that is needed to see a change coming in the future but doing so with a sense of pleasure and enjoyment. Engagement and challenge are both important, but installing anticipation as a constant in your leadership framework also requires optimism.
Most company’s do not fail because they suddenly became spendthrifts or because the chose to neglect their customers. Commonly companies that fail are in fact doing the opposite of those things. They are tightly controlling costs. They are laser focused on delivering great customer service. They are disciplined and focused. Then seemingly suddenly they are dead and gone.
We also find that in many of these situations the companies involved were not blind to innovation. They had often been investing heavily in research and to the outside world were completely on top of the changes going on in their industry. Yet despite being able to see the changes and disruptions coming they were unable to adjust course and dodge the bullet while making the most new opportunities. This is the essence of why anticipation is more important than prediction or foresight or vision.
Embracing change with happiness is anticipation, facing change with fear is anxiety, both conditions are highly contagious.
Without the positive sense of enjoyment and excitement associated with making the most of what is coming over the horizon all the foresight and vision the organization invested in obtaining is most often wasted. You have to not only expect the changes that come and be able to see them coming, as a leader you have to enjoy it!