Leadership for our fragile oasis

Last week the NASA astronaut Ron Garan, and the great Muhammad Yunus addressed the Global Social Business Summit. They conveyed a similar message, but from totally different perspectives. Ron Garan is one of those elite who have seen the planet from the outside, and as with several of his peers, the experience had a transformational impact. They see things from a new perspective – the “orbital perspective”. Svetlana Savitskaya, the first woman to walk in space expressed it this way:

When in orbit, one thinks of the whole of the earth rather than one’s country, as one’s home.

At the conclusion of his talk, Ron Garan presented a spectacular video of the return to earth of his spacecraft, Soyez TMA-21 in September this year. Here is a short segment from YouTube. (The music is Peter Gabriel’s Down to Earth).

Soyez TMA-21 re-entry 

Muhummad Yunus connected back to Ron’s talk beautifully stating how it is an “unfortunate thing that we can’t keep this home as a home for a happy family”. He then spoke about the worm’s eye perspective. When he returned to Bangladesh from study in the United States, his country was experiencing warfare and famine. He found his economic theories hollow and impotent in the face of human tragedy. When he went to the neighbouring village he learned about life from the ground level – the worm’s eye view. Here he is explaining the concept.

The bigger you grow – the more distant you get away from the ground level.

Muhammad Yunus’s strength is his ability to operate from both perspectives.

Following Ron Garan’s space experiences he has dedicated his efforts to improving life back here on earth. He is a member of Engineers Without Borders, the founder of both the Manna Energy Foundation and Fragile Oasis.

Although Ron Garan adopted the posture of a student before the master (Muhammad Yunus), both men epitomise the quality of leadership required for our “fragile oasis”.

The higher ambition leader

On reading Harvard Business Review’s September 2011 article, The Higher Ambition Leader, I am struck with the parallels to the concepts championed by Muhammad Yunus and Ron Garan. The article extols the leadership by CEOs of companies such as Standard Chartered, an international bank. The bank’s vision is to be “the world’s best international bank” by “combining global reach with deep local knowledge to become the ‘right partner’ for its customers”.

The article is centred on studies of three companies whose CEOs manifest higher ambition:

to create long-term economic value, generate wider benefits for society, and build robust social capital within their organizations all at once.

These lofty ideals are achieved through creating powerful strategic visions, world class levels of engagement and a constant leadership focus on achieving the strategy.

The link to engagement

The examples of Ron Garan and Muhammad Yunus, alongside the three companies featured in the HBR article illustrate the importance of engagement. Campbell Soup’s CEO “relentlessly drove progress on two measures: total shareholder returns and the level of employee engagement”. Employee engagement levels at Campbell Soup exceeded Gallup’s benchmark of 10:1 for world-class engagement. By 2010 the company achieved “a ratio of 17 engaged employees for every actively disengaged one”. Is it a coincidence that, for the six years up to 2010 Campbell Soup achieved a cumulative total shareholder return of 64% (S&P packaged food index return is 38% and the S&P 500 return is 13%)? I don’t think so.

The leadership described here is becoming the default standard of leadership. We need leaders with both the worm’s eye view and the orbital perspective – those who can focus on the needs of their communities and companies, while also committing to sustaining our fragile oasis and its communities.

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Staff engagement – more evidence

The evidence for the vital role of staff engagement continues to mount. The July/August 2011 Harvard Business Review includes a series of articles on collaboration. Yochai Benkler’s article The Unselfish Gene explores the fundamentals of human nature, challenging concepts of rational self-interest promulgated for so long. Scientists, psychologists and economists are now stating that people are less selfish than previously assumed. There is also “neural and, possibly genetic evidence of a human predisposition to co-operate”.

These findings support Jeremy Rifkin’s vision of an empathic civilisation, based on our inherent capacity to empathise. Jeremy Rifkin asserts:

We have to rethink the human narrative…If we are truly Homo empathicus, then we need to bring out that core nature, …if it is repressed by our parenting, our educational system our business practice and government, the secondary drives come, the narcissism, the materialism, the violence, the aggression.

Benkler’s HBR article presents the command and control systems that still dominate the business landscape as an emanation of the assumption of dominant self-interest. As our inherent collaborative nature is fostered, organisations will benefit from building cooperative systems encouraging communication and, “fostering empathy and solidarity”.

Other articles in the issue emphasise:

  • the need for collaborative leadership
  • create space for collaboration
  • building community
  • creating a culture of trust and teamwork.

Déjà vu?

While the biological basis of our empathy and cooperative nature have only been determined over the last decade, much of what is written will be familiar to those who have studied business. It’s over 50 years ago now that Douglas McGregor articulated theory x and theory y in his book The Human Side of Enterprise. There is a tidy correlation between the theory x position that people are inherently lazy and need to be coerced to work, and the assumption of people driven by self-interested. And the theory y position – that people can enjoy work and are intrinsically motivated aligns with the assumption that people are wired for cooperation and empathy, and want to belong.

So why, after 50 years does command and control remain the default management practice? I suspect it is because these practices have dominated human relations for millenia – such patterns of behaviour will not atrophy easily.  Jeremy Rifkin’s insightful observation that the secondary drives will dominate, reinforces the need to rehabilitate our social institutions and allow our inherent cooperative, empathetic nature to emerge.

Among the business writers to champion our higher nature is Stephen Covey. In this video, he traces human history and the legacy of command and control.

Engagement emerges as an essential pre-requisite to build the relationships that embed cultures of trust and teamwork. Engagement practices are generic, enabling them to be used for the full range of stakeholders, internal and external, that businesses need to co-create their futures with. Yochai Benkler, in his HBR article provides at once pragmatic and aspirational “levers” to achieve this:

“encouraging communication, ensuring authentic framing, fostering empathy and solidarity, guaranteeing fairness and morality, using rewards and punishments that appeal to intrinsic motivations, relying on reputation and reciprocity, and ensuring flexibility”

What do you think?