In the extraordinary circumstances of today’s world, we are being bombarded by a myriad of contradictory information, while watching the devastating effects on businesses and people we value. While all this is going on, we also need to deal with the effect this has on us as individuals and leaders, build a coherent narrative, and take action. Different people will be affected by different emotions. They might arrive at diverse conclusions and recommendations on how to move forward. How do we deal with the polarities at play amid COVID-19? What is the best way forward when fear and anxiety are the dominant emotions?
Polarities at play amid COVID-19: Road leading into the future

Polarities at play

Organizational learning researchers, Chris Argyris and Donald Shon, found that when managers were asked how they behaved with their teams, they responded according to the “Mutual Learning Model.” They spoke about values such as collaboration, humility, curiosity, and learning. However, when Argyris and Shon observed these same managers in action, they saw them behave very differently. Their management style was more aligned with the “Unilateral Control Model.” They consistently tried to beat their counterparts, get their own way, and control others. They didn’t admit their own mistakes and instead, would blame others. For too long, traditional education has valued knowing over learning, certainty over uncertainty, having the right answer over asking questions, and assertiveness over curiosity and tentative exploration. No wonder the managers behaved as they did.
At the same time, the managers couldn’t openly act in this way, it would be completely unacceptable. Therefore, they would act like they were not trying to control others and were more consistent with the Mutual Learning Model. When this duplicitousness takes over, organizations (and their people) go crazy.

Some examples of the current polarities at play amid COVID-19 are:

  • Pay attention to the health of our people, but go back into full production right away.
  • Assure people not to worry and do their jobs, but worry about the future and the new normal.
  • Tell the truth, but don’t bring bad news.
  • Take risks in an uncertain context, but don’t fail.
  • Beat everybody else, but make it look as if nobody lost.
  • Be creative, but always follow the rules.
  • Promise only what you can commit to deliver, but never say “no” to your boss’s requests.
  • Ask questions, but never admit ignorance.
  • Think long-term, but deliver on your immediate KPIs.
  • Most important of all, follow all these rules, but act as if none of them exist.

The inability to discuss apparent contradictions, and furthermore, the inability to discuss that they are “undiscussable” such as the last rule states, create what Argyris and Shon describe as “organizational schizophrenia.”
There is no silver bullet to deal with these contradictions. What I am about to say may sound naïve. However, we have tried it over and over with hundreds of executives across different geographies with excellent results.

The way to deal with undiscussables is… to make them discussable

The first step is, with empathy and compassion, to help people become aware that there is a contradiction at play. Even before attempting to solve it, we need to acknowledge the apparent polarity. Once “we have a contradiction,” rather than “the contradiction has us,” we can engage in conscious conversations.
Contradictions happen in organizations all the time. Different people look at a set of data and make their own interpretations based on their personal history, past experiences, what is important to him or her, their intentions and more. They create a narrative that might blatantly contradict the narrative of others. Sometimes those others are influential people, colleagues with more authority than them.

Let me illustrate this with a practical example:

One observable fact: John, the leader of the team, doesn’t speak at all during his team’s meeting with other areas.
Different stories for different people: In Sam’s mind, Sr. VP of Marketing, a leader should voice his opinions, be assertive, and offer guidance to his team. Sam concludes that John has poor leadership skills and will not recommend John for the available senior position in Marketing.
On the other hand, Peter, Sr. VP of Sales, believes that a leader should be measured by how well his team performs. A great leader, Peter believes, is one who makes his people say, “we did it ourselves.” John’s team performed outstandingly during the meeting. They had great ideas and made practical recommendations. In Peter’s mind, this speaks very highly of John, their leader. Peter concludes that John should be offered the available senior position in Marketing right away.
One set of facts, completely different stories, opposite conclusions and recommendations.
The way to have a constructive conversation on the matter is for Sam and Peter to understand how the other has built the story, how the observable facts turn into interpretations, and how these combine with values to give birth to their opinions. They can acknowledge that they both create different stories and value different things.
I can’t promise that they will solve their problem. What I can assert is that they will have a very different conversation about John’s performance.

Applying this process in VUCA reloaded

If you were able to ask openly, from a place of humility and curiosity, questions like, “how do you expect me to be creative AND always follow the rules?” you might discover what your boss really wants. For instance, perhaps what she really wants is that you don’t put your division in an unrecoverable risk position, should your project fail. By having this open conversation, you will learn how this is not a contradiction to her and that both can be accomplished.
To survive and thrive, you have to be able to put the polarities and tensions created by this hyper volatile context on the table. Talk about them with the mindset of the learner; understand how everything can be true at the same time. You can do so by looking through the lenses of creativity, interdependence, and “yes, and” ways of thinking. Doing so may help you to discover options that, from a place of “either-or,” had looked utterly impossible to integrate. You are making once “undiscussable” topics “discussable.” While it’s easy to say, it’s not so easy to do. But it must be done if you wish to create a more conscious organization that can effectively deal with Covid-19 and the emerging challenges of the new normal.

We are all young revolutionaries in the early years of the biggest revolution in human history. The digital/tech revolution (a.k.a. the Third Industrial Revolution) is barely 50 years old. It took us more than 200,000 years to reach a population of 1 billion and only 200 years more to reach approximately 8 billion. But having more humans won’t help us win this war. To “beat the bots” (#BTB), we will need to BE more human. This isn’t about living in harmony; it’s just about living.
~8 billion of us are still learning what Game of Thrones and Facebook already know:
The best way to successfully pursue happiness and take care of ourselves is to take care of each other.
We are still learning how to become one healthy global community.
The exponential change— VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) — that we are experiencing today brings a spectrum of possible futures and unintended challenges (e.g., algorithmic loopholes). We think it’s going to turn out OK, but none of us knows what’s really going on or what’s going to happen next. It’s like “a horse loose in a hospital”— we’ve never seen this before; everything is changing so fast.
But there are some things that aren’t changing fast enough.
We all seek our own happiness; we’re mostly taking care of ourselves. We have the same survival instincts, selfishness and self-preservation blindspots (biases). We are prone to be focused on protecting our individual throne or on smaller tribal conflicts and drama. “It seems like everyone everywhere is super mad about everything.” In our revolution, there are many isolated individuals and communities and too much unnecessary suffering.
Too many people in the world come to these challenges of disruption, conflict and differences with the wrong mindset and a limited, outdated set of tools:

  • We approach these challenges with arrogance, impotence and counterproductive habits
  • Our brains go “reactive” during the real-life stress, emotional scarcity and sideways pressure of pursuing our goals during times of change
  • We resort to unhealthy social sorting, polarization, hostile sports fan identity politics, negative partisanship, etc.

We’re so ineffective when we’re working on VUCA alone and when we’re not fully awake— even when our intentions are good. Our traditions and fears are stronger and more reliable than our declarations and desires to change. Without a “next level” of proficiency in building healthy communities, expanding constructive cultures, finding common ground and inviting a sense of belonging, there will be continued polarization and isolation.
If all we have is isolation, silos, passive defensive and aggressive defensive norms, then we can forget about adapting successfully, we can forget about innovating effectively, and we can forget about getting to the complex problem-solving more quickly. We can forget about winning this war. 
In a healthy community, the role of the leader is to name the focus, priorities and purpose—the debate. Whether you use Facebook, read stories about Mark Zuckerberg, or have seen the global HBO sensation “Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin, the protagonist in each of these narratives speaks of a similar storyline.
Mr. Zuckerberg has named the similar debate: shifting away from the old, broad mission of “making the world more open and connected” toward the next level (2017) Facebook mission statement: Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.”

Despite our differences, Facebook’s new mission today is to help people all over the world find common ground and bring the world closer together— a new manifesto, presumably with new performance goals that will require increased levels of teamwork, collaboration, agility and innovation.

In the Game of Thrones series, rulers of various thrones struggle mightily to bring the world closer together as one community, to join forces, to fight together, to focus on a common goal and a common enemy. The final season 8 airs April 14, 2019. In the last episode of season 7, the protagonist Jon Snow and many of the rulers of other thrones put aside their differences to build an alliance. All of these are very different communities and some are life-long, brutal enemies— and they are now risking everything to come together.
“There is only one war that matters — the Great War. And it is here. There is only one enemy worthy of our attention.”
They are more aware that the time has come to stop fighting each other and instead join forces to become one united community, with one goal, standing side by side, fighting one new, unexpected enemy (it’s in the box). In this scene, Jon Snow intends to reveal what they are up against. Jon Snow names the debate. He says:
“This isn’t about living in harmony, it’s just about living. The same thing is coming for all of us…a general you can’t negotiate with…an army that doesn’t leave corpses behind on the battlefield. A million people live in this city, they are about to become a million more soldiers in the army of the dead.” 
Every expansive shift from our “current level” to our “next level” happens more predictably, more quickly and more deeply in community. In an earlier scene of season 7 in the caves of Dragonstone, Jon Snow sees drawings on the walls from the Children of the Forest depicting White Walkers. He realizes that the Children and the First Men fought together against a common enemy, and now he shares that in order to win, they should too.
“They fought together, against their common enemy. Despite their differences, despite their suspicions— together.  And we need to do the same if we’re going to survive, because the enemy is real. It’s always been real.”

Rising to the next level happens during the ongoing, mutual process of raising one another up, shifting to higher levels of awareness and higher standards of purpose, relationship and performance— thus changing the way we think, behave and collaborate so we can more effectively get to the complex adaptive problem-solving needed to deliver next-level business outcomes. When you “take your eyes off of yourself” and take care of each other (train together), amazing things happen.

Just like Game of Thrones and Facebook, we are shifting from our current level of performance (previous mission) to our next level of performance (a new master plan).
In order to rise to the challenge of our next level, we have to walk that talk. We have to BE the kind of people and BECOME the kind of community that can deliver on the new mission. At the end of season 7, they tip the box over and the horrible creature is revealed…the enemy that defies their logic. It doesn’t defy our logic; it’s a zombie story about a zombie apocalypse. We all love zombie apocalypse storylines. The leaders of the thrones are in shock and disbelief about what they have just seen. Jon has made his point…he thinks.
But like Game of Thrones, in real life, we never get around to focusing 100 percent of our resources on the bigger goal of fulfilling the mission and delivering on the growth goals until we get past our own smaller conflicts, drama and distractions. Getting to the next level doesn’t happen unless we can first win the war— the Great War. For us, it is right here. Do you see it?

Note the box with the next level/new mission. What do you see standing between our next level (new mission) and us?
This line represents a massive transition, a massive transformation and a massive local+global breakthrough. To rise to the occasion, we will need to become masters at getting unstuck, liberators of our unsober minds, and masters at winning the transition. Those with the fewest blindspots win. We all know that, right? So why do we delay and struggle when it comes to prioritizing our own deep/identity work and our culture transformation programs?
As a fellow crusader, I have worked in the business transformation domain, innovation strategy space and studied social and cultural change (revolution) for a couple of decades. I have been focused on learning all I can about the challenges happening in the trenches of the Great War, specifically about this transition point. I have found insights from people you may know. I have studied the work of global scholars and collaborated with researchers and thought leaders like Gene Sharp and Jamila Raqib at the Albert Einstein Institution. They have documented the most effective techniques and strategies for nonviolent action from almost every revolution throughout history. The mission of the Albert Einstein Institution is “advancing freedom through nonviolent action.” There is an award-winning documentary on them and their work called “How to Start a Revolution.”

People all over the world seek after this documentary and their books. In some countries, being in possession of one of these books will get you thrown in jail. Countries around the world seek these books—anywhere where people are:

  • Opposing dictatorship, combating corruption and pursuing economic fairness.
  • Shifting the politics and strategy of dominant social power structures.

Securing civil rights, women’s empowerment and environmental protection.

Jamila Raqib works with Gene Sharp in Boston, Massachusetts, where she has been the executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution for the last 15 years. She was a 2017 Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Interestingly, Jamila is also a research affiliate at the MIT Media Lab where she has been exploring how innovations in technology and education can contribute to more effective, nonviolent strategies that lead to healthy, liberated communities.
Jamila and I have talked about some interesting lessons to be learned from their research that can be applied to business transformation today. You can decide if this applies to your business. I’ve been experimenting with these insights with Jamila’s help for the last decade.

One of my biggest takeaways was this: In the face of both business transformation and social revolution alike, we hear ourselves say that it is easy to spot the champions of change (revolutionaries) and the resistors of change (evil dictators). In our hearts, we instinctively feel like we are champions of change over on the right.

And since we are “champions of change (the good guys),” we are (of course) focused on the mission and are committed to defeating the remaining “resistors of change” that are defending the status quo. Very few of us, if asked, would ever say that we are in the “resistors” category. They are the problem, not us. It’s us versus them.
But if we are over here in this camp championing the mission of change, why do we still have so much trouble with change? How is it possible that only a few remaining “resistors of change” could wield so much power over the system, undermining our progress?

What do the defenders of the status quo know that we don’t? What is the counter force or the dominating power they have over us champions? What’s the other secret in the box?
The power of the status quo doesn’t come from the resistors. It comes from the implicit consent of non-resistors…the silent neutral majority…the folks in the middle.
The essence of Jamila and Gene’s theory of power is this: Without the implicit unconscious consent, obedience and silence of non-resistors, the dominant power structure would have little power. (A dictator’s source of power is not violence, guns, tanks, armies…it is the people that are cooperating, manufacturing the guns, delivering the equipment, etc.) The power of the status quo comes from the silent neutral majority’s unconscious obedience to the norm and the current-level priorities, traditions and preferences to focus on other things.

Without full awareness of what’s happening, we tend to react unconsciously in autopilot mode. We let our brains go to sleep, like the Zombies that Jon Snow was talking about.
What does that sound like or look like in business? Organizational contradictions are a clear symptom of this unconscious obedience to the status quo. When the people inside of our company are only partially awake (also partially asleep), our companies exhibit this as organizational “walk the talk” contradictions. The more leadership zombies, the more dominant the zombie culture, the more contradictions we have.

We all have individual “walk the talk” contradictions where our behavior does not match our constructive values. They may show up like common aggressive-defensive and passive-defensive leadership styles that we resort to under stress. If these styles are blindspots, that’s trouble. We can’t fix what we don’t notice.
It can also be rooted in mindsets that sound like this: “I’m not against the new mission. I’m all for change and the future, but I’m really busy,” says the zombie leader.  Busy is another safe place for avoiding the work that matters. We don’t get points for being busy. Points are for successful prioritization, efficiency, productivity and progress. “No points for busy.”(Seth Godin)
Many of us are trapped in a scarcity mindset, fixed mindset or knower mindset. These contradictions + mindsets + frozen worldviews create a sense of powerlessness.

This unconscious obedience is NOT a conscious choice but a preconscious choice. Thousands of years of evolution have taught us to focus our attention in the wrong place— the place that does not make us more resourceful and does NOT make us CHAMPIONS of change. Instead, it points our focus in places that make us trapped along with the silent neutral majority. Most of us will resort to old habits, like when we diet or have a New Year’s resolution to lose 20 pounds. For example, when it’s late at night, I’m tired and there are cookies in the pantry, I’ll give in. Or when I promise my wife and kids that I’m going to try to not yell so much or get angry so quickly over little things. Or when I tell my boss that I’m going to try to ask more questions, be more curious at work and collaborate with my colleagues more often because I’ve been told that I seem controlling or too forceful. It isn’t that I’m consciously resisting doing what I said I wanted to do; it’s my unconscious obedience to the current level–a blindspot of obedience to the devil I know.
Part of the problem is that our instinct isn’t to prepare or get ready for this kind of war. Our instinct says “just GO; go change your behavior; just do it now.” And we try to shift to new behaviors using our old mental models, summoning more willpower so we can try harder. Seriously, that’s how many of us try to fix evolutionary brain biases. Then we’re surprised when it doesn’t work.
This preconscious, zombie-like challenge especially affects those of us who think of ourselves as successful, accomplished, intelligent leaders of change and champions of the new. It affects us the most because our identity (our ego) couldn’t possibly let us believe that we might be trapped in the silent neutral majority. We think, “I got this.” We couldn’t possibly believe that we might also suffer from the same learned helplessness and unconscious biases as others. We think we are over here, but most of us are unknowingly and unconsciously trapped like everyone else in the middle.

Jon Snow says: “There is only one enemy worthy of our attention.” Can you see who our enemy is now?
We all have this latent zombie source code already in us: unconscious obedience to the norm. It’s how our inner game (mindset) drives our outer game (our behavior). It drives the results we get unless we choose to be conscious and rewrite it. Without awareness, we only have our default ways of thinking and behaving. Without awareness, we only have habit. We are on autopilot (asleep) like zombies.

The enemy is our own lack of awareness and socially defined, default (status quo) reactive state. Most companies are investing in the individual and collective shift away from a current level that’s stuck in a bureaucratic, zombie-like, drama-filled culture known for being too slow, territorial (siloed) and driven by toxic competition, perfectionism, risk aversion, command and control, CYA leadership… toward a more constructive culture with healthier achiever-oriented norms that are humanistic, encouraging and full of engagement.

With awareness, we have a choice. We can learn to see more and use new paradigms/mental models. With awareness, we have the ability to add multiple outside perspectives, ideas and distinctions to our own. We can choose whatever is most resourceful and effective. More options and choices help us make better decisions, design better strategies and take better action— all of which lead to better results. When we see more, we can intervene more effectively in the things that we care about most.

You are Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Sheryl Sandbergand Mark Zuckerberg. You are the protagonist/revolutionary of your life, your family, your team and your community. I am the protagonist of my life. Anything that happens in my life is my responsibility. Anything that happens in your life is your responsibility. Being the kind of person that orients from a protagonist mindset more often is not an intellectual exercise. To actually rewrite the source code, walk the talk and be a champion of change versus a zombie leader, it takes practice…a lot of practice.

It is not a trivial thing to do, but it is a compassionate and kind thing to do. It takes practice to help others realize that their current story is not the whole story. We can help each other recover more quickly and help everyone find their power without insulting, labeling or blaming each other.
Transformation is a learned capability. Everybody has these muscles; they just haven’t been developed yet. To grow them, we have to train them every day. We have to get our reps in— in every conversation, every phone call, every meeting, every agenda, every disagreement, every failure and every celebration. It has to be an integral part of our community, not something we heard in a workshop or read in a book. It has to be integrated into who we are.
If we want to build these muscles and get stronger, faster, we need to train together. That’s how adult development works: peer-based learning communities of practice, constantly building protagonist mindset muscles…together.
The protagonist knows we are always practicing something—every second of every day, we’re practicing something. Either we will practice keeping the old knower/victim mindset and zombie traditions in place, or we will practice the new ones. Whatever we practice grows stronger.

Breakthroughs don’t just happen. We have to prepare for them. And to do that, we have to come together and learn to stay awake—learn to BE more human – to stay in the tension and discomfort long enough to learn how to win this war together. We won’t beat the bots alone. We won’t make it through as individuals. We make it through as a team. The more of us who are ready, the further we get.
If you are not yet motivated to be more human – then at least be a dragon.  Just don’t be a zombie or a sheep.

Would it benefit you if you knew in advance what mistakes not to make so you could avoid the pitfalls and false starts that other champions in similar situations like yours will unknowingly make for one, two or three years before they realize it’s not working? I’ve written before about high-performance team programs, conscious business facilitators and international coaches at Axialent. They know how to design and facilitate the step-by-step learning journeys and culture change programs that help leaders embed the protagonist mindset, nurture high-engagement organizational environments and achieve exponentially better results.

In an ever-connected world, it’s very easy for an organization’s faux pas to be blasted all over the internet. Just look at the recent Starbucks incident.
Two black men, while waiting for a friend to order, were arrested in Philadelphia because they tried to use the restroom without first ordering anything.
In just a few hours, the arrest turned into a gigantic problem, affecting the company’s reputation. As in many other similar cases, the incident was disclosed by a customer who was at the coffee shop and captured with his/her mobile phone how police officers talked to two black men sitting at a table, handcuffed them and escorted them out, while other customers were explaining to them that the two men were not doing anything wrong. Impact on the media was immediate at a worldwide level, and millions of people wondered if this situation would have occurred with two white men. This is a textbook example of how an employee’s incorrect action, inflated by social media, can turn into a major complication for any global organization since it reveals the vulnerability thereof.
Starbucks’ CEO promptly reacted, regretting the occurrence and said, The video is very hard to watch and does not represent the values nor the mission of our brand. Furthermore, he asked to meet with the two men who were arrested and decided to close 8,000 U.S. stores for half a day on May 29. The purpose of this meeting was to create more awareness around unconscious bias.
The employees were not living Starbucks’ values as stated on their website, which includes phrases such as: We are committed to upholding a culture where diversity is valued and respected. So it’s only natural that as a guiding principle, diversity is integral to everything we do.” And so training was needed.
Are those values stated real or just a marketing strategy? Closing the stores for one afternoon is not enough to achieve any sustainable cultural change.
A strong and healthy culture is part of the value of the company because it helps to develop a competitive advantage difficult to imitate. Such transformation can only be achieved by defining and developing behaviors, systems and symbols aligned with the publicly stated goals and values, lowering the occurrences of unethical behaviors, including abuse, theft and fraud.
There is an increasing number of customers and shareholders who prefer to do business with organizations that apply sustainable and conscious policies, providing them with a higher public value than that of organizations that do not apply them.
In these uncertain, complex and connected times, the organizations’ priority is to consistently align their business or strategy with sustainable behavior and leadership. The cost of not doing so is the reputation, trustworthiness and perceived value of the brand, even before the loss of income.
Think about Volkswagen, United Airlines and Well Fargo that went before them, and many more will follow.

Remember William Hung (aka Hung Hing Cheong), the now world-famous American Idol singer of Ricky Martin’s hit song “She Bangs”? We love William. Over a decade and a half ago (early 2004), he entertained us all with his charisma (he says) and with his unconscious example of the Dunning-Kruger effect (others say).
The Dunning-Kruger effect is “a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is” — Wikipedia. Psychologists Dunning and Kruger say that “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self.” They write that for a given skill, unconsciously incompetent people will:

  • fail to recognize their own lack of skill
  • fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
  • recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only AFTER they are exposed to training for that skill

William Hung’s (and many other Idol’s) example of unconscious incompetence on live TV in front of millions of people satisfies at least one of the primary premises of the show. It lets the audience feel superior and relieved (for the moment) that at least we’re not THAT clueless about our own talents and abilities — as far as we know anyway. However, the Dunning-Kruger effect (aka the American Idol effect), like most cognitive biases, is a condition that we ALL can suffer from in our professions as well. Thankfully, we can all overcome it too, with a deliberate approach to training, rewiring default/reactive habits, surrounding ourselves with reliable feedback loops, increased mental complexity, increased levels of emotional intelligence and expanded curiosity muscles. (Note: The best way to develop curiosity muscles is by first working on the humility muscles.)

We are often unconsciously unaware of our own incompetence, in fact, that David Dunning goes on to say in the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast that “of all the irony of the things we don’t know, the one thing we definitely don’t know is where the borderline is between our knowledge and our ignorance.” That, he says, applies to everything including our decision-making in everyday life, not to mention the highly valued business decision-making arena of our professional life. It applies to our role as leaders of our family, our community and our company.
This psychological insight illuminates one reason why so many executives have heard themselves (including myself) say that innovation is hard. Maybe we say that because we don’t want to take responsibility or blame. Maybe it’s because we like to self-congratulate and brag about ourselves for doing the hard things that others won’t. Maybe we’ve bought into the party line. Either way though, innovation (change) is not hard or easy. It just is what it is. “Hard” or “easy” is not an attribute of innovation or change but merely a relative comparison of two things: 1) the challenge and 2) our ability/inability to respond to the challenge effectively.
Whether the challenge is to sing a hit song on the American Idol stage, squat 300 pounds or respond to changing market conditions in my industry, there are two ways to approach it: I can say, “singing at a world-class level is hard,” ignoring my own competence/ability/skill level, or I can say, “singing at an elite level is hard for me. My vocal skills/muscles aren’t skilled/strong enough to sing at that level yet.” But we don’t say that. We say it’s too hard to do. “HARD” is only relative to our ability to respond to the challenge of singing the song (on key), lifting the weight or accomplishing the innovation goal. If our muscles aren’t ready for the innovation challenge, then the challenge/change is harder for us. But that same challenge is NOT hard for many other leaders. Change (innovation) is not hard for teams and leaders who operate from higher levels of consciousness — less subject to pitfalls of outdated thinking patterns. Conscious leaders make better innovation leaders. Their cognitive muscles, mental models, mindsets, relationship/teaming productivity and fear/stress management skills are developed/trained and ready to respond effectively to VUCA (i.e., volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity). But you can’t work on it if you don’t even notice it.
We likely don’t even realize that we are blaming innovation/change for our own lack of ability to respond effectively to changes in our business environment and market conditions. Years of neglecting the change-readiness individual and collective leadership development work are a root cause that explains the leadership complexity gap. That’s why we are unconscious and unaware — we don’t know we are. If we don’t notice it, we can’t work on it. Conversely, if we do notice it, then we can choose whether or not to work on it. Either way, it’s better than falling victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

We can’t just try harder.
That doesn’t work. Trying harder is not the same as deliberately training our innovation/change muscles to be able to respond better.

Experienced innovation leaders and conscious business Jedi (like Oseas Ramirez Assad, co-founder of Startup // Cisco) inside of David’s (startups) and Goliath’s (large corporations) will agree that innovation/change is easier when you:

REactivating your company’s startup DNA will require you to face entrenched cultural norms, fear of change, career risk and other obstacles that will require you to be working from well beyond your current level. You will need to be working from your “next level” of thinking — more open and more grounded as a conscious leader. This grounding is the platform to recognize old/new paradigms (yours and others), to be less blissfully ignorant, to engage in difficult conversations/healthy debates, to untangle explicit agenda versus hidden/unconscious competing commitments, their feelings versus emotional triggers, etc. Getting to our next level of Jedi thinking and behaving takes practice.

  • Even the biggest companies were startups once
  • Design a grass roots effort and apply startup innovation best practices that are right for your company (e.g., lean startup, BMC, design thinking, service design)

Focus on training mindsets, biases and core values (to help amplify the new growth strategy and fulfill the company purpose). This is an essential part of an innovation-centric lifestyle. Innovation can only be driven by a conscious leader who embodies the right mindsets, is aware of his/her own biases, and actively works to defuse them. Otherwise, people will immediately spot the incongruousness and slew of organizational contradictions. This will speak louder than the mindset itself.

  • Build a strong cultural foundation of expanded capabilities that help increase conscious awareness, broaden cognitive diversity, and deepen mental complexity and emotional intelligence
  • Apply startup constraints and bend/ignore rules as long as it’s clearly aligned with shared goals and core values

Target corporate antibodies (e.g., the fear of failure). You will have to earn the right to influence the corporate system. Even if you have the hierarchical authority, you will need moral and social authority (e.g., trust, respect, confidence) for the community of people to want to follow you. You could try and force them to follow you via command and control techniques, but compliance does not generate the same energy or integrity as inviting voluntary commitment.
The moral/social authority that is earned by being a more conscious leader will always be surprisingly more powerful and sustainable.

  • Address the organizational contradictions, competing initiatives, undiscussables and cultural/social norms (policies) designed to preserve/protect the status quo
  • Don’t just train alone; train together (cross-functionally) in a way that builds relationships and engagement across the enterprise (breaking down silos)

They consistently deliver better results to the organization — it is as straightforward as that — for the sake of better business outcomes. The current leadership complexity gap clearly suggests that innovation leadership and transformation is a learned capability — a muscle group that has to be developed/trained for the gap to be closed.
The only way for our businesses to be more conscious is for our leaders to be more awake/self-aware. We need more men and women working from higher levels of consciousness — especially those who are responsible for implementing innovation strategies and those pursuing a new master plan of any kind.
The goal is to help leaders of organizations see more, plus collaborate better, plus feel stronger, becoming more agile in the face of uncertainty and fear. “Getting in the reps” of deliberate practice is what helps leaders more quickly and more effectively get to the complex problem-solving.
We need to pursue mastery of the fundamentals of conscious business. This practical approach helps leaders respond more resourcefully under stress, and it upgrades their operating systems with the intent of shifting to a culture with higher standards of performance, relationships and purpose.
Then again, we could be wrong. What if William Hung can sing really well…and we are the ones who are all tone deaf?


Why Chief Innovation Officers (NOT JUST Chief HR/Diversity Officers) should be treating the “BIAS VIRUS” in your company…
SUMMARY: The very same (explicit and implicit) counterproductive cognitive biases that fuel decades of micro and macro aggressions toward women/minorities in the workplace are also fully embedded in the anchors of corporate cognitive bias and mental models that are undermining your innovation strategy, collaboration, knowledge sharing, engagement, complex problem-solving, any/all change initiatives (e.g., fixed vs. growth mindsets, knower vs. learner mindsets, victim vs. creator mindsets). Unconscious bias (UB) is a virus that’s killing your strategy and disadvantaging your best people at the same time.

For example, a long-held belief/bias that men are better leaders than women is as counterproductive today as a long-held belief/bias that a business strategy focused on hardware and software is better than shifting to that new “cloud” thing. The old success formula is great until it isn’t. Then holding onto it is just stupid. But your brain doesn’t care, and it’s in charge — not you. The same mental models and corporate social norms that lock those ancient systemwide biases (e.g., men over women, powerful men and women over all others) in place also keep your individual and institutional biases (e.g., reactivity over creativity, reliability over eventuality, evaluative over generative, patriarchy over mutual learning) commanding and controlling your future right into the past. Chances are your innovation strategy is so corrupted by these biases that you’re unknowingly designing your company into the 1970s. Until your executive team recognizes and addresses UB and the realities of associated gender/race inequality paradigms in your organization like the mission-critical, customer-facing, fully integrated, strategic business priority that it is (rather than treat it like a board/CEO pet project, “pseudo priority”), your company won’t make much progress toward the future. If your company is stuck in the past, chances are you are one of the powerful executives contributing to the spread of the bias virus and bystander culture.
IF unconscious bias were a medical condition (and leaders/teams were the patients), THEN…most chief human resource officers, chief diversity officers, chief learning officers, learning and development directors, gender diversity and inclusion directors, the Ph.Ds. who fill those departments, and all of the CEOs and boards that sponsor/approve most of today’s UB prescriptions/UB treatment plans would be jailed/sued for malpractice…or at least fired for their silence and Paterno-like inglorious bystandering.
Unconscious bias IS the No. 1 business challenge from which all other business challenges arise. UB is silently killing your winning business strategy from the inside out. UB is stifling your business results and eating both your culture and your strategy for breakfast. UB doesn’t care. UB is sucking the energy, passion, engagement, trust, and commitment out of even your most talented populations while turning away the global talent and customers alike that you are trying desperately to attract. UB doesn’t care. UB doesn’t recognize what your company values, its purpose or business goals are. UB doesn’t care what kind of leader you think you are. UB doesn’t care what kind of leader (you think) your children think you are. UB is ruining your leadership impact. UB is making you (and your team of leaders) look outdated and oblivious. UB is killing you and the people you’re supposed to be leading. How tragic that you (should) know this already. How tragic and yet still so very little will be done about it during your tenure.
To change this trajectory, the funding and focus of disparate UB training programs, corporate universities, leadership development and innovation/transformation leadership programs all need to be elevated, consolidated and then integrated into new corporate lifestyle habits that have the power to overcome all the maladaptive biases we carry with us.
Even though our executives and boards are supposed to be made up of our highest value decision-makers, complex problem solvers and action takers (that’s the primary output of professionals in the 21st century), they aren’t adapting quickly enough today. In the context of readying the corporation for the future, these most valuable executives are supposed to be leading current and future teams of leaders through a transformative shift in their thinking patterns (investing in elevating the mental complexity and emotional intelligence of the organization) to take action against the counterproductive thinking patterns of the industrial age and the outdated behaviors that undermine the company’s current and future business strategy, ROI and competitive market positioning. They may think they are doing just that, but they are likely themselves even more trapped by the visible and invisible biases than the rest of us. Even the well-intended (enlightened) hierarchies holding the most powerful senior roles are unconsciously more imprisoned (zombified) and entrenched in perpetuating these unconscious biases largely because a) once they reach a position of power, they are less empathetic/less aware of the disadvantaged plight of those with less power; b) they are personally benefiting from the biases and power structures remaining in place. The more intelligent, accomplished and successful you are, the less likely you are to believe that your thinking + behavior could possibly be suffering from these unconscious blind spots. That makes you a more dangerous decision-maker (a “walker”).
Even when corporate boards and CEOs finally declare that mitigating gender/race/age bias is a priority, most of their employees don’t believe it — and they’re right not to. That’s because when this “pet project” of the board gets handed off to someone in HR or L&D to design and implement, it is still treated like an optional, bolted-on sidecar to the business strategy. It is underfunded. It is underestimated. The leadership mandate to make it reasonable, practical and scalable (efficient and cheap) creates a superficial treatment and doesn’t provide much cure. It’s odd that executives aren’t more sensitive to what’s effective vs. what’s reasonable and convenient. The “bias virus” (as I like to call it) doesn’t care what else is on your calendar…you’re going down, and there’s no flu shot or pill you can take to wish it away.
Today, many of the people responsible for treating corporate cognitive biases treat them as if they were only a minor, social, HR issue — a case of the sniffles or a sore throat that’ll go away with words of encouragement, patience, sensitivity and a box of tissues. They treat cognitive bias like a minor illness instead of treating it like the most Pervasive, Advanced, Chronic, Malignant, Acute, Neurodegenerative (PACMAN) and treatable leadership condition that drives individual and team behaviors while negatively affecting business activities impacted by those behaviors such as innovation, strategy, execution, customer centricity, retention, recruiting, collaboration, agility, engagement, risk-taking, knowledge sharing and culture change.
Treating deeply ingrained mental models, mindsets and biases (the “bias virus”) with the equivalent of little more than edutainment, awareness programs and two-hour webinars is like treating the Ebola virus with a bouillon cube shortcut because the equally ineffective chicken soup remedy takes too long for busy executives. That’s negligent and blameworthy to address individual, organizational and systemic corporate biases and the need to shift mindsets with programs that minimize or skip the deep, personal adult development work necessary for senior leaders to shift. It’s the only proactive development work that has the power to influence the system in a meaningful way. These bystanders, on the other hand, recommending anything less or suggesting that somewhere in the organization they are indeed working on a “much more strategic/comprehensive effort” (REALLY? LET’S SEE IT!) are complicit with their cowardly silence and sensitivity to corporate norms rather than being more sensitive to what actually works. Instead of effectively supporting the expansion of leadership capabilities, helping them ready the company for the network age that’s already passing them by, most learning and development executives (and their programs) are trapped in the same culture shackles of learned helplessness that they are supposed to be helping liberate.
2016 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: “The problem is, organizations are trying to reduce bias with the same kinds of programs they’ve been using since the 1960s. And the usual tools—diversity training, hiring tests, performance ratings, grievance systems—tend to make things worse, not better.” That’s what malpractice sounds like to me.
Even the more progressive silicon valley tech companies and venture capital companies mostly treat the UB problem by ignoring it altogether or treat it like it is a political/social/HR issue with regard to sensitivity training or some corporate social responsibility program…loosely connected to business. Again, it’s a business leadership issue; it’s a strategy execution issue. Most programs are largely limited by budget, power or sponsorship, evidenced by how the programs are implemented and how little progress has been made and exposed in this “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?” article.
There are endless amounts of research and data in every industry, including life and death ones, like in the article Bias in the ER — about how doctors suffer from the same cognitive distortions as the rest of us. Endless amounts of research on adult development approaches to bias by Kahneman, Tversky, Kegan, etc., all say similar things about our explicit and implicit bias/limitation of the brain that gets in the way of decision-making — some that were published back in the 1770s let alone the more recent stuff in the 1970s. In 2017, senior executive professionals in the field of learning and development are aware of the research, data, lawsuits and impact that UB has on decision-making and outcomes. In 2015, 20 percent of most large companies had unconscious bias (UB) and gender, diversity and inclusion programs (GD&I). By 2020, it is predicted that 50 percent of companies will have UB and GD&I programs. But what kind of programs will they be? The “bouillon cube” kind?

Experts know that mitigating the negative effects of bias requires a special kind of transformation program — vertical (adaptive) learning programs — that unlock “next-level” mental complexity and emotional intelligence for leaders who want to pursue that. It’s an operating system upgrade. But most time-constrained and mind-constrained corporations deliver bite-sized, horizontal learning. Horizontal learning is adding skills at the current level of the current operating system. Horizontal learning is fine for many developmental needs but useless with regard to more complex adult development needs. To address bias with horizontal learning programs (or not knowing the difference) is useless, negligent and blameworthy bystandering.
Complex adaptive challenges (like culture change, mindset shifts and mitigating unconscious bias) require complex adaptive leadership training to overcome bias/beliefs (long rewarded and held consciously and unconsciously), creating blinds spots at the current level that block them from seeing the possibility of additional/viable perspectives, leaving leaders trapped by their prior success and by what they know, incapable of expanding their own perspective let alone facilitating a high-performance environment that can. Vertical learning programs include: a) stretch experiences; b) more direct applicable focus on the business challenges/goals, giving everyone a stronger reason to practice; c) new paradigms, frameworks for thinking, responding, practicing; and d) are designed to create long-term, formal and informal, peer-based (social learning) communities of practice that deliver depth over speed while being speedy. That’s how adult development is accelerated. That’s how adults increase their mental complexity and emotional intelligence. Complex adaptive leadership muscles are muscles that all leaders have. But for most, they have not yet developed them sufficiently to lead in the 21st century/Fourth Industrial Revolution.
I cringe when leaders say, “Our senior executives are all very aware of this priority, but we’re still figuring out how to solve it. They are all just so busy that it is not reasonable to expect them to spend more than a couple hours on this — though that’s all they need; they are very smart.” ARE YOU SERIOUS? That’s a real quote (from a distinguished Ph.D.) heard in similar forms from more than one diversity leader and more than one innovation strategy leader at double-digit, multibillion-dollar organizations. That’s what fear and confirmation biases sound like — unknowingly contributing to protecting the preference for the status quo = homeostasis at work.
Here are some additional examples of where the (“it’s a priority”) incongruence and appropriately labeled “bystander” behavior shows up:

  1. Most senior executives don’t go through the training themselves. They don’t go through the stretch experiences and conversations that they want others to go through — and it shows.
  2. Most executive sponsors demonstrate how they perpetuate organizational contradictions and how little they have prioritized the treatment of bias with their “cringeworthy” sponsorship speeches and oblivious comments like: “I don’t even think about gender bias; I don’t do that on my team” — only to embarrass themselves and undermine the integrity of the program and leadership overall.
  3. Most programs only touch a tiny population of “high-potential” employees — with a tiny portion of content. In a company of tens of thousands of employees, they might only expose a couple hundred employees (at best) to the program over a year’s time and then send them back into the inertia of the organization where it’s quickly understood what is valued and what isn’t.
  4. Most company leaders are afraid to publish your numbers for gender and diversity pay parity, promotion rate, etc., because they haven’t changed sufficiently. They don’t publish the metrics, don’t have target goals, and blame the attorneys for that bad business practice (plenty of companies, with more attorneys than you, do publish), and the transparency tsunami is going to expose your numbers soon enough. Some are updated regularly in public Google documents (e.g., women in software engineering).
  5. Most company leaders are visibly suffering from the leadership complexity gap, unable to respond better to change, lack of agility, curiosity, collaboration, engagement, etc., any better than they could decades ago.
  6. Most company leaders still proudly protect their own status by showing a tendency to focus on short-term efficiency over effectiveness; cost vs. transformation outcomes; speed over depth; etc., contributing to a lack of progress closing the leadership complexity gap.

Why is corporate bystandering still so prevalent? We all know it’s happening, right?
Corporations have not invested in training their mindset shifting muscles. They don’t have an expert orientation to their role as culture or change leaders. L&D has taught them to prefer and settle for edutainment bu$$sh#t awareness programs.
Power, it turns out, diminishes empathy and increases the “knower/fixed” mindset. And we all know that dominant power structures are biased and don’t give up their dominance willingly, even when it’s in their best interest and the best interest of the whole. Unless, of course, you are aware of your biases, then you can work on them.

  • CEO (chief executive officer)? Yes, ultimate accountability, but most hide behind their executive team and blame them or they blame the culture (everyone else but themselves)
  • CHRO (chief human resource officer)? Yes, they should have command of all things people related but are focused mostly on administrative, policy, procedure, budget and legal matters
  • CTO (chief talent officer)? Should be connecting future capabilities/resources and business needs (It’s rare to find one who has enough business experience and people experience to be consciously competent for this role.)
  • CLO (chief learning officer)? L&D? Should be the experts at prioritizing vertical and horizontal development needs but are trapped by the same learned helplessness as the general population — deferring to business short-term demands and power structures, living in fear from budget to budget, trying to justify their own job through self-preservation vs. effectiveness
  • GD&I (gender, diversity and inclusion) leader? Should be the powerful expert integrated into the business but typically reports to CHRO
  • BU (business unit) leader?

Chuck Robbins, CEO at CISCO, is very clear on the business benefits of addressing biases (conscious and unconscious) in a deliberate and strategic way. It is tangible in how the CISCO innovation team aligns with learning and development and gender, diversity and inclusion priorities as you can read what Robbins wrote in his blog post:
“With the increasing pace and complexity of today’s market, it’s critical that our leadership team understands our customers, delivers results, brings diverse perspectives and experiences, and builds world-class, highly motivated teams. This will differentiate us as a much faster, innovative organization that delivers the best results for our customers.”

If victory today depends on sustained innovation, then our lack of cognitive diversity and our default/counterproductive biases will continue to be the primary obstacle (rock in the road) to designing and implementing a new, winning strategy. Our counterproductive biases are the No. 1 business challenge from which all other business challenges are born. Bias is a 21st century business issue, not a diversity issue. Are we doomed? What if we’re working for zombie leaders who are trapped by their biases? What if we’re the zombie leader? Is there an antidote that we can use to keep from becoming “walkers” ourselves?
Like the “Rock in the Road” episode from Season 7 of the Walking Dead when Rick Grimes tells a story about a rock in the road that nobody removes, it keeps causing all kinds of problems until finally a young girl digs it out.
RICK: “Well, when I was a kid, my mother told me a story. There was a road to a kingdom, and there was a rock in the road. And people would just avoid it, but horses would break their legs on it and die, wagon wheels would come off. People would lose the goods they’d be coming to sell. That’s what happened to a little girl. The cask of beer her family brewed fell right off. It broke. Dirt soaked it all up, and it was gone. That was her family’s last chance. They were hungry. They didn’t have any money. She just… sat there and cried, but… …she wondered why it was still there… for it to hurt someone else. So she dug at that rock in the road with her hands till they bled, used everything she had to pull it out. It took hours. And then… …when she was gonna fill it up, she saw something in it. It was a bag of gold.”
The moral of the story is: Whoever has the perseverance, decency and determination to dig up the rock in the road, gets the gold reward.
It has a nice “better angels of our nature” storyline. But let’s not go there; that’s distracting. Let’s not attach this business antidote to a fictitious storyline or moral, intuitional, spiritual, anecdotal truism. Let’s not bring it up in the context of L&D, HR or gender, diversity and inclusion (none of which historically have had enough corporate authority or decision rights to drive meaningful change). That’ll just give us a reason to minimize the impact. Let’s not even attach the antidote to a legal argument. Let’s stay in the realm of objective reasoning and business logic. Let’s work within our reliability-oriented, overachiever, operational mindsets from the industrial age, where delivering business results is what matters. In business, we’re taught to “put up (the numbers) or shut up.” I’m cool with that. So let’s talk about this in the context of irrefutable evidence, observable math and real-world experiments that prove, without a doubt, exactly what to do for better business outcomes.
In our 21st century reality, we’ve been walking around our “rock in the road” for decades. Whether it is explicit or implicit (conscious or unconscious) biases, Drucker warns us that in times of change, the greatest danger to complex problem solving and effective decision-making is our tendency to act (unconsciously) with yesterday’s logic, beliefs and mental models (aka the leadership complexity gap).
But we’re all so smart and so successful that we can’t imagine that Drucker was talking about us — that other executive over there for sure…he is a classic example of being a prisoner of thought patterns, but not me…no way. The reality is that no one is immune. Our brains are always applying default biases and rules that are both productive and counterproductive whether we consciously know it or not. We’re biased about the biases that are counterproductive. We have HUGE blind spots and amazing powers of denial.
We all have biases. The problem isn’t that we have biases; the problem is that we deny that we have biases.
Here is what it sounds like when we resist learning how to mitigate our biases:
I don’t do any of that. This doesn’t apply to me. I’m not biased. If I am biased, it’s only a little, and I do not suffer from cognitive biases. I am not drawn to details that confirm my beliefs (confirmation bias and bandwagon effect). I don’t notice flaws in others more easily than I do in myself (bias blind spot).

I don’t fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities and prior history (fundamental attribution error, negativity bias). I don’t preference people I’m familiar with or fond of as better than others (in-group and out-group bias).

I don’t simplify probabilities and numbers to make them easier to think about (normalcy bias, gambler’s fallacy, neglecting probability bias). I don’t assume I know what other people are thinking. I don’t infer what others’ intentions are (illusion of transparency, projection bias). I don’t project my mindset and assumptions onto the past and future (self-consistency bias).

I don’t favor the immediate, relatable thing in front of me over the unknown future thing (hyperbolic discounting). I don’t avoid making irreversible decisions or making mistakes because I’m trying to preserve autonomy and group status (status quo bias). I don’t have a tendency to disproportionately advocate for or focus on things I’ve invested time and energy into (sunk cost bias).
You might think, “I get it, and I am humble enough to realize that, yes, I can make mistakes. Got it.” No, NO, NOOO. The point is that I/we do not/cannot appreciate the extent to which I/we have error-prone thinking patterns (biases), as evidenced by the near century of data (and neuroscience) illustrated in this beautiful graphic on the 200+ biases that our limited minds and egos can’t seem to comprehend.
That’s part of the problem. Most successful, smart senior executives “know” this on an intellectual level. We “know” too much, actually. We’re stuck in the knower mindset versus the learner mindset. Apparently, we don’t “know it” in a way that we’ve been able to consciously choose to do the things it takes to mitigate these biases when it matters most. Our biases from the industrial age have us trapped and make us unwilling to effectively change our corporate lifestyles/habits quickly enough to walk our talk when it comes to “leading differently.” Against Drucker’s warning, we have not prepared ourselves to lead more effectively in the networked age. In most cases, we are far behind where we should be. We need to drop everything and train on deliberate, focused lifestyle practices that help with readying ourselves to pursue a new master plan. Now is not the time to be defensive nor waste valuable time and energy enabling professionals who still choose to deny their own biases.
Let’s get to the antidote — the best way to mitigate the limitations of our own brains. While taking a University of Michigan massive open online course (MOOC) on Model Thinking and Understanding Complexity, I came across Scott E. Page, a famous social scientist, professor of economics, director of the Center for the Study of Complex Systems and author. He is best known for his research on path dependence, culture, collective wisdom, adaptation and computational models on how human beings work together. In his decade-old book, Page reveals the winning formula that every business professional can embrace as fact…the absolute fact…the undeniable mathematical rules…the gold prize under the rock in the road…the Diversity Prediction Theorem.
Companies that love the reliability of math, algorithms and big data, like Google, Netflix etc., have been putting the formula to work to improve predictions about the future, modeling consumer behavior and addressing previously unsolvable business challenges. The formula proves to be true, beyond any doubt. No assumptions have to be made. No conditions have to be considered. It’s just a mathematical fact. The math shows that the Crowd’s Error is the Average Error minus the Diversity. Said differently, our team’s accuracy is driven by individual’s accuracy plus the team’s diversity. Individuals make decisions/predictions based on models (e.g., mental models, math models); therefore, the more models/perspectives that we use, the more accurate our decisions/predictions will be. This is a very important concept, as it shows that optimal outcomes are attained with more diverse perspectives.
Question: How can a group attain more diverse options to choose from and therefore better potential responses to challenges and circumstances?
Answer: By having different perspectives from a diverse group of people. “A perspective is the way in which an individual views the possible solutions to the problem. The way to attain a variance of perspectives is to have a diverse group across multiple variables. These variables can include age, race, gender, education, location, religion, sexual orientation, class and occupation. When people are different across these lines, they have different perspectives on many solutions. The different perspectives create the variance that is important to the Diversity Prediction Theorem.” Put more simply: The greater the number of perspectives, the more options we have. The more options we have, the better our decision-making and strategies will be. (Yes, I’m aware that my confirmation bias has led me to find this Diversity Prediction Theorem…bias strikes again. See how that works?)
In the networked age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, VUCA is the norm. Global markets, interconnectedness, digital transformation, complexity and exponential change drive the need for expanded capabilities. Corporations in all industries are transforming themselves in pursuit of greater advantage from specific competencies and cultural attributes (i.e., collaboration, innovation, agility, building high-performance teams, attracting, hiring and retaining the best talent). Where leadership and culture transformation is concerned, the unit of work is dialogue. Problem solving and decision-making are the highest value products of professionals.
“When solving complex problems, cognitive diversity beats talent, and when making a prediction, diversity matters just as much as ability.”
Not “probably” matters — cognitive diversity ALWAYS matters. So when leadership transformation programs, immunity to change programs and/or gender, diversity and inclusion programs that are intended to address bias and shift mindsets are bolted on like an elective course versus integrated into business strategy, you continue to see the disconnect between biased behavior and what is in the best interests of the business. Investors, leaders and boards of directors who ignore this fact are enabling their organizations to continue to walk around the rock in the road. That seems negligent and unprofessional, like the childish ostrich effect (cognitive bias) in behavioral finance, which is the attempt made by investors to avoid risky financial situations by pretending they do not exist. The awakened market won’t let childish leaders/bystanders get away with that kind of “pretending” for long.
Here’s where we can choose to stay awake or give in to the temptation to go back to being unconscious. Conscious leaders make better innovation leaders — stay calm and be conscious.
Adult development and culture transformation are not mysterious black boxes. The solutions are simple but not necessarily easy. They’re not necessarily “hard” either. It depends on and is relative to your current individual and collective readiness levels. Do the deep work and train together to accelerate the transformation.
The majority of senior leaders want to expand their level of mental complexity and emotional intelligence so they can lead successfully in today’s business environment. They don’t want to be a prisoner of their biases, nor do they want their organizations to be limited by their collective biases. They want their organizations to break down the silos, be more open, collaborative, creative, curious, engaged, courageous and inclusive. Ironically, though, their own biases make them unaware of the impact that their mindsets and behaviors have on stifling the expanded capabilities of the organization they want to create. It’s a vicious circle. Leaders’ biases keep them trapped in the comfort zone of what they know (knower mindset). Leaders’ biases make them still want to be the ones who have all the power. Leaders’ biases make them think they can keep the power by having all the answers and telling everyone else what to do.
Leaders’ biases make them still want to believe that what worked in the past (the old success formula) will work today. Leaders’ biases make them still think they know which sticks and carrots (recognition and rewards) will motivate people to comply with company rules and be motivated to fulfill company goals. Leaders’ biases still make them think they can command and control their way through complexity and culture change.
Decade after decade, despite the irrefutable research on how adults can, in fact, update their mental models, the rock still sits in the middle of the road. It trips us up. We struggle trying to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. We struggle trying to shift from a victim orientation to a creator orientation. We struggle trying to wake up from being socially defined to self-authoring. Our organizations suffer unnecessarily until serious, permanent damage to the organization itself causes the long-awaited transformational awakening. Until then, most leaders will remain trapped by their (industrial age) biases like zombies/“walkers.” If they are trapped, then we all are trapped. If they are “walkers” (walking around the rock in the road), then we are destined for unnecessary suffering.
We will need to choose the deep work of individual and collective transformation in order to be leaders who see our own unconscious bias and try to understand it and mitigate it. The aware but “consciously incompetent” leader, pointing out everyone else’s biases, does us little good. Rewiring our default, industrial age habits for the age we’re entering into will lead us to our “bag of gold.” Today, a business leader’s job isn’t to just be better at responding to volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity; it is to nurture a more self-led, learning and adaptive environment while facilitating teams of diverse human beings to bring 110 percent of their passion, curiosity, creativity, intelligence, identity and courage to work. Leaders need to be working on elevating mindsets and putting wedges in place that make it impossible to regress to the default (old), counterproductive, less accurate ways of thinking. The ROI is there.
A powerful “connecting-the-dots” approach to business benefits will prove to be the only sustainable, proactive cure for these “walking dead.” And only a few of the best culture transformation programs — as well as gender, diversity and inclusion programs — have proven to be successful at facilitating the powerful mindset shifts (e.g., from knower to learner, from fixed to growth, from victim to creator) that lead to individual behavior changes, team behavior changes and organizational behavior changes that then lead to better business outcomes.
Who’s responsible for the road to the future at your company? Who’s responsible for digging out the rocks in the road? CEO, the buck (the rock) stops with you. Walking around the rock undermines your winning business strategy. Why would you tolerate that? Digging out the rocks will amplify your winning strategy and the desired results.
Let’s not keep walking around the rock in the road. Let’s commit to keep on digging.
This idea also is represented in the recent book “The Obstacle is the Way,” by Ryan Holiday. In the book, he shares a similar story about a “rock in the road” that blocks a common path of travel for the villagers. Each of the villagers who came upon the rock tried and failed to move the obstacle.