Features Leadership On the Edge

Why Companies–Even Yours–Resist Change

officeThere are five reasons organizations get stuck and refuse to change. If you work within an organization some of these may sound familiar to you. Read my full article on

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Failing Upwards: Jeff Zucker & NBC

The New York Times reported today that embattled NBC Chief Jeffery Zucker has stepped down.  Zucker was instrumental in Jay Leno’s questionable move to primetime last season as well as several other high profile calamities (Ben Silverman anyone?) in the network’s core programming. In a scathing opinion piece by Maureen Dowd earlier this winter, she summarizes the structural problems plaguing NBC. Zucker, an able manager of numbers, main critical failing was that he lacked a basic understanding of what Americans like to watch and political competence required to keep creative principles content in their work environment.

Jeffery Zucker tenure raises important questions for those in the realm of organizations. Too often management becomes seduced by the information produced by “hard data” and fails to pay proper attention to the more central question: are our core businesses serving their consumer bases? Anyone with a television in their home could tell you that NBC’s nightly programming wasn’t up to snuff, yet executives continually rolled out shows that would succeed on the basis of “cost per hour.”  This neglect for the viewer has come back to bite NBC in the form of depressed advertisement revenues, which has reduced NBC’s operating budget to fund scripted shows. This self perpetuating cycle leads organizations to employ a Hail Mary strategy- this explains moving Jay Leno to ten.

Mr. Zucker is sadly not the most significant case of someone constantly failing upwards; shareholders and managers continue to be wooed by the promise of success through the magic of numbers. For further evidence of this culture look no further than shamans of Wall Street peddling mortgages with dubious payment schedules.  To be clear, I am not advocating a management approach that does not use statistical analysis to make informed business decisions.  However, it is important to note that number-crunching can never substitute for enterprise and adventure. Leaders should focus upon staying true to their core constituents. Execute and the numerical indicators will follow suit.

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Silence is a Leadership Trait

Leadership implies action, movement, and, for many, it implies noise. We often think that leadership is a force that is constantly in motion and in danger of becoming overplayed and burnt out. Leadership is defined as a series of actions, movements, and maneuvers. Rarely do we concentrate on the reflective, attentive, and contemplative elements crucial to leadership. The introspective moments of leadership are key tools in sustaining momentum.

Between the words, between the actions, between the political strategies, leaders must create silence. Silence that allows for ideas to be absorbed. Silence that allows for emotions to settle. Silence that allows for bonding and healing. Silence that allows people to sit unthreatened and unchallenged.

Smart leaders know how to create these gentle gaps both for themselves and their colleagues. The best part is, it’s not that hard. Creating silence simply requires stepping away from debates, initiatives, lectures, meetings, adjustments, and plans. It’s a period that is filled with conversation and interaction that isn’t absorbed with pressing issues and problems. Instead, these conversations are informal and happen spontaneously. They give people the chance to relax, reflect, and recharge.

Emily Dickinson said, “Saying nothing…sometimes says the most.” Silence can be a powerful tool.  Leaders who take time to create quiet periods can give people a feeling of calm and confidence. It’s an exercise in self and organizational reflection that inspires thoughtful action. Leaders that can appreciate the value of silence can move forward and sustain momentum by taking pause.

Still, silence and an environment of calm can have its setbacks. There’s always the danger of an organizational respite turning into an extended siesta. Constant reflection and contemplation can drag coalitions around in circles. Taking time off for silence can lead to entropy. Silence can shape a period of reflection, but it can also stall organizations.

Taking time to create silence is crucial to leadership. While leadership is about execution, getting things done, and action it also requires time to pause and reflect. It demands informal conversations and the space to create friendships and bonds.

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Do Challenges Define Leaders or Do Leaders Define Challenges?

deng and huThe People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) first generation of leaders were revolutionaries. Mao Zedong and his inner circle studied socialism, history, and philosophy and their accumulated passions and ideas helped them found the PRC. The “second generation of leaders,” best represented by Deng Xiaoping, pushed China into freer markets while still safe guarding the revolutionary principles they had studied and adopted as young men and women.

Then an odd thing happened. China’s leadership, beginning in the mid 1990s, started to look more like a MIT dinner party rather than a group of leaders solely driven by revolutionary concepts. Jiang Zemin became the first president of China who was an engineer. His successor, President Hu Jintao, just so happened to be a engineer as well.

Today, however, there seems to be a another shift in China’s leadership according to Melinda Liu in her Newsweek article, Right Brain. Now, it appears China’s new generation of leaders will have academic backgrounds in law, history, journalism, and other “softer sciences.”

Do Degrees Dictate Leadership Styles?

Maybe. Ms. Liu points to a few examples of leaders thinking with their degrees before considering the whole picture. Notably, Ms. Liu mentions China’s engineering leaders who think they can “build our way our of [our] problems.” When they tried to secure more energy they responded by building the Three Gorges Dam for a jaw-dropping 30 billion dollars. The only problem: they had to move over 1 million people and wave good-bye to a handful of promising archaeological sites.

China’s new batch of leaders will probably look at things from a different perspective. Ms. Liu openly hopes that China’s emerging leaders won’t let business interests trump social justice. She’s openly confidant, as she notes, “Of the eight fastest-rising young Politburo stars, none got their highest degree in engineering.”

Do Leaders Shape Their Organization or Vice-Versa?

Ms. Liu argues that China’s leaders are shaping China. However, China’s case is specialized and we are forced to ask: what came first, the chicken or the egg? Did China’s leaders shape China or did China’s social-economic situation propel them to the top? Leaders fluent in revolutionary rhetoric may have been needed to fill China’s leadership void at the turn of the century. Perhaps technically proficient leaders were required to orchestrate China’s vast infrastructure construction projects. And today, China’s lawyers may gravitate toward politics in order to iron out social unrest caused by China’s disparate economic growth.

What Does this Mean For your Organization?

Leaders with specializations have developed a framework from which to detect, confront, and solve problems. A scientists and a lawyer will look at a problem in two very different ways. As a leader, however, you have to build a new framework that assesses different factors and variables.

Moving agendas requires the ability to locate allies and resistors all while negotiating with different parties and sustaining momentum. It is a balancing act that requires its own specialization.

Leaders with specializations are great because, at times, they can relate to a large body of their employees and are perhaps better equipped to analyze their market. Still, a good leader can’t afford to only see one part of the picture.


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Leadership Link Round-Up: June 1-5