Don't Take Me to Your Leader

By Jarrod Shappell

Tuesday, October 17th 2017

My maroon cap and gown were hanging in the closet. My $60 Payless dress shoes had been polished. On the eve of my undergraduate convocation, my girlfriend asked one simple question, “What do you see yourself doing with this degree?”

“I want to be the boss someday,” I replied. “All I know is I want to lead.”

12 years later, I am not sure that is the case. And my peers agree with me.

We no longer admire our leaders. President Trump’s decisions are questioned on a daily basis. Media moguls befell to scandal. Frauds are uncovered daily. It is no wonder that CEOs are being let go at rates we’ve never seen before. Collective distrust of leaders has risen. And yet conversely, the expectations of what a leader can accomplish have sky rocketed. Trust is down, expectations up. It’s a set up for failure for almost any leader.

To develop leaders to meet this unique challenge, organizations create “leadership-cultures” and focus on “high performance leadership teams.” Management consultants reduce leadership to a formulaic practice of tips and tricks. Gurus publish books correlating behaviors to Dow Jones success. But are any of these things working

Perhaps you are feeling what we have felt as we’ve worked with clients: it’s not that simple anymore (and perhaps it never was). Leading in this age is a unique challenge. Why?

We live in an age of anxiety.

Studies show that 1/3 of Americans suffer from anxiety. It is now the largest mental health disorder in the United States. This is an important topic for organizations and its leaders to consider today. If 1/3 of your organization is suffering from high levels of anxiety (including you as a leader) they likely perceive threats when there are none, irrationally seek certainty, and move to resolution prematurely. In a good hearted attempt to listen and respond to the fears and concerns of those around us, leaders often forfeit the kind of firm decision-making and moral fortitude that our families, institutions, and legislature need. What leaders today are struggling to understand is that easing the anxiety of others does not necessarily mean giving into the overestimation of danger. In an age of anxiety leaders must help others believe in their ability to deal with that danger (imagined or real). A leader in this age must have their own convictions so that they are responding thoughtfully and not reactively (even in the face of being called cruel or reckless).

We live in an age of sameness.

As humans we all have a desire to belong. Today’s technologies have intensified our ability to bond together. We are in Facebook groups, Slack channels, and message boards that connect us with those we share things in common with. And while born from our need to belong, these technologies often draw us further from respectful dialogue into fanatical fundamentalism. In this age, leaders that attempt to have sane dialogues and make thoughtful decisions run into the polarization that affinity groups tend to divide us with. We certainly see this dynamic in Western politics, but we are also seeing it in companies today, as their organizational divisions (business units, regions, product lines, departments) become fault lines hosting border wars and leaders rivaling for resources and advancement. Leading in this age requires that we bind together people of difference into trusting relationships and resist the urge to troll and be trolled. What makes that painfully hard is leaders must surrender some of the very individualism they drew from to distinguish themselves in order to rise up to assume bigger leadership roles.  Now they must set that rugged individualism aside in favor of more inclusive leadership – something that they are likely ill prepared to do.

We live in an age of speed.

In 2012 a study showed that if a website does not load in less than four seconds, users are 7x more likely to leave the site. Today the expectation is less than one second. As a society, we want it all and we want it NOW. And like a fish in a stream, most leaders speed through difficult times in their organization hoping that when they get downstream there will be some evidence of progress. The enormity of effort required to lead is at best overlooked and at worst actively avoided. Leadership in this age requires we stand against the raging waters and demonstrate intentional, thoughtful, decision-making – which takes far more time than those around us are conditioned to expect.

We live in an age of possibility.

Magazine covers promise Mars landings, artificial intelligence, and flying cars. Marc Andreesen, a now legendary silicon valley VC and investor in the aforementioned futures, recently said, “For the first time in history, humankind, liberated by computers and robots from physical constraints, will be able to express its full and true nature.” This kind of language both inspires the mind and can cripple action. With great possibility, comes great responsibility. And as technology increases our abilities to analyze, manufacture, travel, discover, and relate the possibilities for our organizations can feel limitless. Therefore making a decision (the Latin word ceder actually means “to cut”) in an age of possibility requires a willingness to give some possibilities up, knowing that there will be disappointment, so that some possibilities can flourish.

This Navalent Quarterly 12 is for those who want to LEAD in this complicated age. It is for 22-year-old-cap-and-gown-me. And it is for 33 year old me, and it is for future 45 year old me. It is for those who believe that if more is being asked of leaders, then more should be delivered. Whether you are a start-up founder growing into your CEO shoes or a tenured executive approaching retirement. Whether you are in an established industry at a company with cornerstone products or in a technology rich industry full of disruption and consolidation. Leading in this age requires imagination, resilience and nerve. We hope that the posts that follow can restore the desire to lead and lead well. 


Kyle Williams - Wednesday, October 18, 2017 @ 1:49 PM
Great article, Jarrod! Help me lead in an age of anxiety, sameness, speed, & possibility!
jarrod - Monday, October 23, 2017 @ 10:00 AM
Thanks Kyle. Maybe we can help each other?

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