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Underscoring leadership in self

What worked in the past may not work in the present landscape, so one has to make a 'shift'

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A few decades ago, two shoe salesmen went to Africa and landed in a remote village. Everyone in the village was barefoot.

The first one sent a telegram home saying – What a waste of time. Stop. They don’t wear any shoes. The second salesman sent a message home saying – Outstanding opportunity. Stop. They have not discovered shoes yet!

This is a fantastic story of how two people can look at the same situation and come up with starkly contrasting reactions. One firmly rooted in limitations, while the other in possibilities. The framing of any issue is critical because it defines our response to it. Let us look at the world of work. How is that reality changing and how are we framing the same?

Saying that we are in a world that is highly uncertain, complex, resource scarce, diverse and interdependent will be stating the obvious. What is not so obvious is how should we respond to this changing reality? The way we have led and managed in the past doesn’t always work in the new landscape. So what is the ‘shift’ that we have to make in the way we lead ourselves, others and our organisations to emerge on top of it all? That is the core guiding question for this continuing column and hence the name: Leader_shift.

I do believe that leadership is a verb and not a position. A person who can shift him/herself and others along the growth continuum is a leader. Leaders ‘underscore’ shifts in self, others and in organisations. Given the times we live in, the ability to make the ‘shift’ could prove critical for our ability to meet the challenges we encounter. In the months ahead, we will explore ideas that speak to the what, why and how of this ‘shift’.

In the first of these series, I want to share three key ideas I find useful when thinking about leader_shift. The first is that organisations, just like individuals, lie on a maturity curve. One person’s revolution maybe another person’s minor evolution. Context cannot be ignored in any conversation around innovation or shifts. If demands on the individuals and teams exceed their capability, then the shift can move us backwards rather than forwards. In the case of Yahoo! and the much discussed withdrawal of flexible work arrangements, this seems to be one of the issues. The culture, evaluation of performance and collaborative spaces may not have been ready for reaping the potential of flexi work. Hence, when under pressure, the system proved regressive rather than progressive.

Secondly, moving along that maturity curve is not just a question of resources. It is also a question of mindsets. A problem cannot be solved with the same mind that created it. Just as the problems of today cannot be solved with mindset of yesterday. For instance, when any practice is questioned the response of that is how we always do it here is problematic as it shows almost no engagement with the issue at hand. The mindset geared towards change would make it a point to find a better alternative and put an end to the obsolete practice. As noted by Dan Rockwell, anyone can start something new but it takes a real leader to stop something old.

Thirdly, when we look to capture leader_shifts, we have to take a multi-level view. A shift at the individual level may not always be matched with the organisational level shift and vice-versa. For instance, employees can be highly adept at social media but the HR department may not even have a company account on twitter. Being mindful of the interplay between levels will help us note where the gaps lie in moving the organisation forward as a whole.

Reframing how others see HR and how HR sees itself is a key task of HR leaders. As Henry David Thoreau said, “It is not what you look at that matters, it is what you see.”Here is to seeing things differently.