Why is it that leaders tend to revel in the results of their work without developing their potential?
During a recent Leadership Team meeting, we discovered a potential fatal flaw. We were extending and defending what we do well without introducing any innovative thoughts. This brought to mind Joseph Schumpeter’s statement about organizations extending and defending what they do well until their efforts are meaningless.
Background: The Problem(s)
We have four major organizations: an event planning & catering company, a social-driven gift company, a creative agency and a private-label food manufacturing entity. Some of our employees started the last three companies I mentioned and now share equal ownership with my brothers – the funding partners. They were brilliant in their approach, changing an expense stream into a revenue stream. This transference of the monetary stream required innovation. It required passion. It required risk. The bright, educated co-founders of these companies were rigorous in their pursuit of these opportunities.
Seven companies emerged from the “mother” company over a period of 6 years. Then the growth slowed. The revolutionary thought leaders were transforming into maintenance leaders.
The Leadership Team meetings were on a repetitive cycle. Review financials, discuss sales and business development, examine expenses, review marketing plans and then address operational issues. Meeting over.
The excitement had waned. Energy was not positive or negative. It was just neutral.
There are several respected publications describing the business cycles of an organization. Dr. Ichak Adizes’ Ten Stages of Corporate Life Cycle is a favorite. Our Leadership Team was in #6 (Stability) and on its way to #7 (Aristocracy). Past experiences with business failures told me that we would have to do creative destruction within our group, or we would soon render ourselves meaningless (#8 through 10).
We were no longer leaders, but instead we had become managers. We were managing systems. We were reviewing processes. We had increased our ability to maximize productivity and performance of our business products but had begun to ignore the business model.
I realized that I was failing as a leader. I had become content.
Then, inspiration struck!
How We Creatively Destructed
Peter Drucker, the revered business thinker, was a disciple of Schumpeter, having often listened to conversations about this problem of leadership lassitude from him.
This is when leaders stop using their cognitive abilities and critical problem solving processes because they had achieved enough experience in those areas that they could rely on wisdom-based instinct.
Drucker stated that management is “a liberal art,” and he infused his management advice with lessons from history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, culture and theology. He had mentioned that a graduate degree in one of those sciences may be more appropriate for a leader than an MBA. He also said, “I think the growth industry of the future in this country and the world will soon be the continuing education of adults”.
Our challenge was to transform our leaders’ discretionary thinking back to the thinking that is innovative, creative and exciting. So, we studied philosophers in an attempt to broaden our thought processes.
We bought the book Great Thinkers of the Western World edited by Ian P. McGreal. The book contains insight into 100 great thinkers. Each thinker has his own 4-5 page chapter containing a brief biography, major published works and three to six of his “major ideas.” The author then explains how the major ideas were applied at that time in history as well as implications for future thinkers.
Our Monday afternoon Leadership Team now begins with each member taking no more than 5 minutes to discuss his or her “thinker of the week.” The discussion includes the following: his time period, his major ideas and how his thoughts apply to our organizations – or don’t. We do summations of the important points. Because the reader randomly chooses the philosophers, or “thinkers,” two people may be discussing the same person that day. Sometimes answers are harmonious, and sometimes they conflict.
This exercise was difficult in the beginning because it is academic speak. Some leaders had to refer to Wikipedia to understand the major thoughts. Now, after six weeks, it is an exciting period of the meeting, and post-meeting discussions always seem to focus on the philosophers’ ideas.
What Does This Mean Now?
This means that our leaders are now intellectually stimulated. The thought leaders are influencing our leaders’ critical thinking outside the realm of daily work responsibilities. They are learning about people. They are learning about altruistic motivation.
Within 100 weeks, our leaders will have studied each of the philosophers. They are earning a graduate degree in philosophy together. We look forward to watching what impact this has on our leaders and our staff. Will these lessons about philosophy trickle down? Will our leaders’ brains become recharged? Stay tuned for the “rest of the story.”