Nearly every big problem that persists in our organizations today comes from limitations that live in the mindset of the leadership. Bold claim? Maybe, but I think you’ll see it’s true. Let me explain…
There are a lot of big, hairy problems in our organizations, ranging from turnover to disengagement to lack of agility and so on. (If you want a great list, check out Chapter 2 of my friend Doug’s terrific new book, The No-Limits Enterprise, where he outlines a ton of these challenges in a clear, straightforward way.)
A person needs to spend only about a month as organizational consultant to notice that companies tend to see — and treat — these challenges as isolated phenomena. Upon first glance, a lack of innovation doesn’t look like it has anything to do with workplace toxicity, for example. (It does, of course, but we don’t see it at first.)
This is a destructively simplistic way to think about our organizations.
As you’ve likely noticed before, the word organization shares the same root as the word organism — and yet, the common perception of organization as “mechanical structure” instead of “living being” still seems to pervade.
When we look at living beings, it’s a little easier to appreciate the interwoven systems at play; we recognize the inherent complexity of organic material and all the interactions that allow it to grow, move, learn, and so on. And in complex organic material we also find some kind of “strategic thinking center” that coordinates its movements.
And this is why nearly every problem in an organization can be traced back to the mindset of its leaders.
In the complex organizational living system that is a Company, leaders hold the role of coordinating movement. They paint a vision that is (hopefully) deeply compelling and magnetic to offer direction and purpose. They create “riverbanks” that provide guardrails around behavior — what’s in-bounds and what’s out-of-bounds. They sanction the governing principles people will abide by and the strategic pathways people will run on.
Leadership always creates the “container” for behavior: what’s allowed and what’s not. What’s celebrated and what’s denigrated. As such, all ongoing behavior inside the container of ones’ leadership can be directly traced back to the leader. (I say “ongoing behavior” because certainly people have free will and therefore isolated incidents will happen; what matters is whether or not they are allowed to continue.)
We don’t choose our future; we choose our habits, and they create our future. And so, the existing organizational reality — and all its myriad problems — were created by the habits of yesterday’s leaders.
Albert Einstein reportedly said something to the effect of: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
So, if we actually want to solve the thorny problems of today, there’s really only one way to do it: upgrade the mindset of leaders, so they can encourage better collective habits that will create a different, better future for us all.