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  • Tag Archives: Strategic Transformation

    The Nuclear Way: Submarine Leadership Challenges

    How would you adjust to transferring from a self contained organization with a command and control leadership style to one with a distributed leadership style? How would you adapt? How would you prepare? And how would you be received?

    This is exactly what happened to me when I reported to be the Chief Engineer onboard the USS Santa Fe, a fast-attack, nuclear submarine based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

    At this point in my career, I had been in the Navy for over 8 years, passed numerous training schools, exams and interviews on submarining and nuclear power, but had not stepped foot on a submarine in over 3 years. In between submarine assignments, the Navy sends officers to a wide variety of shore assignments where we are able to recharge and experience other areas of the military before heading back to an operational submarine. In my previous submarine assignment, I was a division officer in charge of 15 sailors. Now, I was going back as a department head and would be the third highest-ranking officer onboard. It was going to be a tremendous responsibility and by far the most challenging, rewarding, and educational job I have had. While the Navy had done a lot to ensure I was ready for this assignment, a lot had changed since the last time I was onboard a submarine and one of the biggest differences was leadership style.

    A submarine’s organizational structure is similar to many other organizations. The diagram below outlines our organizational structure and common business equivalents.

    In addition to running a division or department, officers are responsible for standing watch. This consists of various watch stations across the boat where each officer or sailor is responsible for specific operations for 8 hours a day while the ship is underway. For me, standing watch meant being the Officer of the Decks (OOD). As OOD I was the Captain’s direct representative –responsible to drive and fight the ship while on mission with the support of nearly 30 watch standers across the submarine. While learning to implement submarine tactics as OOD is challenging, learning to consistently lead a team of 30 sailors and keep them engaged and proficient was far more difficult. This is where the shift in leadership style from command and control to distributive pays off.

    During my 3 years away from submarining the leadership philosophy had changed significantly. In late 2012 through early 2013 the submarine force dealt with a series of significant mishaps, a few of which resulted in collisions, millions of dollars in repairs and multiple years in lost operational time. Extensive investigations revealed cultural problems, among other issues, as leading

    contributors for these mishaps. Many of these leadership styles were command-and-control oriented where complete trust was placed in the senior officers with little room for backup or recommendations from lower level sailors. This led to poor team dynamics and organization throughout the submarine. As a result of these investigations, the submarine force shifted its leadership training to teach officers a more distributive leadership style.

    The education level of sailors entering the Navy was also a contributing factor. Many of the sailors I worked with had college degrees and most had at least some college experience. This, in addition to the nearly 18 months of training that all nuclear operators receive prior to assignment, meant that sailors needed and desired to be engaged and contribute to the overall mission of the submarine. Most were motivated by feeling that they contributed to the team and affected positive change rather than by money or awards. Ensuring that leaders harnessed this energy and prevented stagnation within the team was a large driver for the Navy’s shift in leadership style.

    Under the previous command-and-control leadership style, officers are taught to take charge – “You are in charge, people look to you for the expertise and direction.” In the old style, for example, an officer may have received a course change recommendation from a junior sailor and, rather than following the recommendation exactly, the officer would demonstrate proper decision-making ability by coming up with a better course. This was thought to show proper command-and-control to ensure everyone respected the officer’s decision. However, it had the unintended consequence of undermining recommendations from the crew, which led to many crewmembers shutting down—knowing their recommendations would not be utilized.

    The same went for managing a department of over 70 sailors. In my job as Chief Engineer, I was responsible for the creation of the training schedules, maintenance plans and operational plans implemented by the engineering department. In my previous tour, the Chief Engineer personally developed all these plans and the junior officers and sailors carried out his direction. While it was less work for the mid-level managers, it also reduced our buy-in with decisions and led to decreased creative thinking for solving issues. In addition, it undermined the ability and morale of other sailors and officers onboard who felt that they had a lot to contribute and could have provided many good ideas about how to run the ship.

    When I walked onboard to relieve as Chief Engineer in my new role, I noticed a stark change in the leadership styles onboard and saw an increased level of responsibility at lower levels. While it was ultimately my responsibility to run the Engineering department or drive the ship while standing watch, I received many more recommendations from junior sailors who were not afraid to give their opinion. No longer was the OOD alone trying to make decisions with minimal input from the team. Frequently, I did not have the best answer, but generally knew someone on my team who did. I started to brief my watch team about what I was planning, what information I needed and possible decisions I would have to make. Sometimes, these briefs would be long and stream-of-consciousness like, but it kept everyone on the same page and all of the watch standers knew what I was thinking and the decisions of the team. Over time, informed recommendations were starting to pour in to me from all members of the team. Watch team members were sharing recommendations backed up by a thought process, known information and a timeline for action. These decision-making loops would range in length from a few seconds in highly stressful missions to hours, or even days, as we sought to best position the submarine for long-term missions. The active participation of the watch team led to increased commitment and engagement from sailors at every level.

    When entering my job as Chief Engineer, I was accustomed to a command-and-control leadership style where the person in charge came up with training plans, attempted to deconflict maintenance items and developed process improvement with little to no input from others. While some of the actions done in this manner were effective, I would frequently get push back from team members who had other, often better ideas. Top down driven plans received more opposition and many team members quickly voiced their frustration with their lack of input into the overall direction of the department. In order to incorporate and synthesize different ideas across the department, I quickly adapted and changed to a distributed leadership style. In meetings, I started by posing a question such as “how can we get better at this maintenance process”. Many had different and better ideas than I would have come up with on my own and we attempted to utilize these ideas—leading to a sense of ownership and responsibility to fix problems from the bottom up. The key here was to quickly show everyone on the team that the organization was utilizing recommendations based on their quality rather than the position of the individual who recommended it.

    Overall, the shift within the submarine force from directive to distributed leadership has led to greater engagement from crew members who feel their ideas could be implemented organization-wide. This led to better team dynamics and has allowed a very complex, high paced and highly technical environment to move more smoothly. Having a shift of this magnitude within the Navy is a daunting task, since it can takes years to institute a change in leadership training and practice. Unlike the corporate world, new middle and upper level managers are not brought in from the outside. The Navy must work with the leaders they have in the pipeline to institute this change. Sometimes, changes receive strong pushback from those who have spent their careers in a command-and-control environment. Utilizing strong champions for a policy change at different levels of the organization is key to initiating the policy and maintaining the new, distributed leadership style.

    Using the distributed leadership mentality within a small team or large organizations can greatly increase the morale, contribution and engagement from all members—ultimately leading to better results from the entire team. The key takeaways that I gained from my change in leadership style in my job as Chief Engineer are:

    1. Don’t give your opinion or decision about a certain issue or problem initially. This may cause some to simply fall in line behind your decision due to your seniority within the organization, or automatically oppose the idea because of the same reason. Instead, pose the question or problem and let the team have an open discussion without your initial influence.
    2. Help frame the reference of the problem and define different directions the team could take based on the conversations. It is ok to have “stream of consciousness” discussions with the team—letting them know what information you have, what information you need and different possible directions the team could take while allowing leeway for alternative solutions.
    3. If someone expresses passion about solving a problem, it is generally better to let them implement it with supervision. While it is tempting to try and put your mark on it or tweak it based on your ideas, it helps to let them solve it. Even if it may not be as effective as one of your ideas, it will show the team you are willing to listen and implement their ideas fully. This will increase engagement and contribution from all team members, now that they know they will be heard.
    4. Give small corrections early, if necessary. Do not wait until the very end to sit down with a team member and provide any corrections that may be required. Nothing will frustrate them more than putting a lot of effort into solving a problem than having to go back and rework something that could have been solved earlier in the process and prevented a lot of rework.

    If implemented correctly within your organization, this can free up a lot of your time as a manager and increase the productivity of the team.


    4 Radically Practical Strategies to Elicit Commitment & Accountability in Today’s Climate of Change and Disruption

    It is challenging to get people’s attention in this age of information overload. If the title of this article got your attention, it probably means you are experiencing the turbulent environment of overwhelm and change that many companies of all sizes are experiencing today. Do you ever feel like you are experiencing Class III, IV or V waves and you are paddling fast and hard to get through them on what you hope to be your sturdy river raft?

    In the midst of the whitewater, it feels like the only way to survive is to release your raw adrenaline to produce superman’s (or woman’s) strength. But what is needed to survive (or better yet, to thrive) in the whitewater climate we are experiencing in business today is calm command of your mental, physical and emotional intelligence. Adrenaline might be sufficient when the rapids are few and far between and distanced by long smooth stretches where it is safe to be on cruise control. But in today’s business climate, whitewater is the norm and the calm waters are rare.

    Today’s “whitewater” includes technology that allows us to be on 24/7, technology that can do some of the work better than people, globalization which means business opportunities and threats can come from anywhere, new generational influences entering the workforce, and on and on. It is also the disruption that constantly changes our business models, our strategies and our world as we know it. Some of the more popular examples of business “disruption” include Netflix disrupting the video rental world, Amazon disrupting the retail world, and streaming technology disrupting the music world.

    For companies to thrive in our current business climate, operating from and with true commitment and accountability is the road to success. Sounds easy, but as you already know, even with the best of intentions, it is not easy to achieve. If it were, we would be making our commitments 95% of the time. Are you achieving that standard? Personally? Professionally? As an organization or team?

    Most of us have very good intentions when we take on commitments or when we assign people work. We don’t intend to take on more than we could possibly do or give people more than we know they can handle (with a little stretch). But there are customers to please, deadlines to meet, new products to develop, etc., etc., etc. What is a leader to do in this untenable situation?!

    Everyone knows that true commitment and accountability does not come from back to back meetings, piled on tasks and shallow commitments. But good intentions and the same old approach lead to the same old results. True commitment and accountability comes from implementing strategies that take into account that we are not just heads walking around on stick figure bodies. We cannot just analyze our way to success. True commitment and accountability comes from the realization that we are human beings with heads, hearts and bodies and that to thrive in business today, we need strategies that encompass all of these. So we are inviting leaders to engage your heads, hearts and bodies by first putting your oxygen masks on, breathing deeply and doing what it takes to operate from commitment and accountability yourselves. Then invite your employees to join you in creating this culture. We propose that you start with these four radically practical strategies:

    Strategy 1: Focus on What Matters
    In this day and age, we are pulled in so many directions that it seems that everything matters. However, “the everything matters” strategy will not lead to a culture of commitment and accountability. What will lead you there is determining what really does matter…to you and then to your employees.

    If employees engage their hearts in their work (not just their heads) then they will be able to make strong commitments and be willing to hold themselves and others accountable. Leaders who have tied their work to their purpose, what they truly care about, tend to be inspirational leaders. If you are coming from that authentic place, it will be easier for you to help others come from that place as well. Have you ever said to yourself that you are going to do something (e.g., start working out, eating better, leaving work at a decent hour, write that article or book, etc.) and you really thought you were committed, but day in and day out you didn’t do it. Unfortunately actions speak louder than words and as it turned out, you were not truly committed. Whatever you commit to must be tied to something you truly care about or you will keep prioritizing other things. We’re sure you have noticed the difference between an employee with whom their work is tied to what they care about (e.g., learning and growth, achievement and responsibility, changing the world in a valuable way, etc.) versus the employee who is not engaged and is watching the clock and there for their paycheck. External performance is ultimately a reflection of internal commitment.

    Strategy 2: Focus on Energy
    This strategy seems simple enough, but in reality most of us don’t follow it. Instead we often work until we are ready to drop, fitting in one more meeting or to-do into our already full day. We don’t have time for exercise or healthy meals, but amazingly we do have time for the impromptu meetings that occur or the extra request that landed on our already full plate. We work with many leaders that are double or triple- booked in meetings, and have more on their plates than one could do even if they didn’t sleep. Which by the way is getting less and less of our time, even with the realization of how important it is to our health and our wellbeing.

    Some of us use substances to keep us going – caffeine, sugar, or other substances that we think will keep us going full speed ahead. In reality, they cause us to crash and burn or at minimum lose stamina after an initial uptick in energy. And our commitments suffer because we just don’t have the energy to deal with “that” person or the creative juices to do “that” thing or the focus to truly engage the brainpower we need. Or we just run out of steam and can’t complete all of the commitments on our plate. This strategy consists of developing a “Fitness Protection Program” that will ensure your energy does not get depleted and will result in resilience, stamina and the ability to energize others. It does take some discipline to focus on our mental, physical and emotional energy, but once you do, you will find your ability to make strong commitments and meet them shows up stronger than ever.

    Strategy 3: Focus on Adaptability
    In our global, competitive, and disruptive world we can no longer count on old predictable ways of doing things or tried and true solutions. We need to get very comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. We need to take (well calculated) risks and we need to think out-of–the-box more than ever. In other words, we need to be fast, focused and flexible – which means teams and team members can adapt quickly to what is coming their way.

    New information is coming at us all of the time, and we often have to change how we are going to meet a particular commitment to our internal or external customer. In order to operate in an uncertain or ambiguous environment, we have to discern between what we really know and what we don’t know. In uncertainty, it is easy to get distracted and unfocused. Instead, we need to put our attention on what really matters and not get constantly sidetracked by the seemingly urgent but not important.

    And we have to be able to trust and use our intuitive intelligence, which takes ongoing practice. The practical application of intuitive intelligence allows us to discover new ideas, imaginative solutions and sometimes never before considered options to guide us toward success. Our intuition empowers us to be agile and effective in every situation we encounter. Focusing on adaptability is about taking on the practices that will allow you and your organization to thrive in uncertainty and change and will enable you to greatly enhance your culture of commitment and accountability.

    Strategy 4: Focus on Conversations

    “Organizations are linguistic structures built out of words and maintained by conversations. Even problems that aren’t strictly “communicational” – failures of mechanical systems for example – can be explained in terms of things said and not said, questions asked and not asked, conversations never begun or left uncompleted, alternate explanations not discussed.”

    This is a quote by Walter Truett Anderson, a political scientist, social psychologist and author. This final strategy that Anderson points to so well in the quote above is a focus on conversations. This is where so many of our breakdowns around commitment and accountability occur in organizations. When we have effective conversations, we are present and utilizing our head, hearts and bodies. Having effective commitment conversations include making effective requests, providing only valid responses, aligning on expectations or conditions of satisfaction, and acknowledging the completion of a commitment or providing an early warning. Again, all of this seems so straightforward, however, we see numerous ineffective requests made and invalid responses given in organizations today (e.g., requests made in emails with no valid response given). We see very few early warnings provided but instead people are hoping their missed commitments won’t be noticed. And, we often observe the other components of a commitment conversation missing as well. Seemingly little things can lead to large breakdowns.

    And when a breakdown in commitment does happen, accountability conversations are required and are even more rare in organizations. There are two types of accountability conversations needed: Responsible Complaints that are held one-on one, and Breakdown Conversations that are simple and to the point and held in team or staff meetings. Both of these conversations, when held effectively and consistently by leaders and team members, are culture changing.

    When you bring all four of these strategies together as a leader, you will be well on your way to creating a culture of commitment and accountability utilizing a holistic approach – engaging yours and your team members heads, hearts and bodies. These strategies will serve as your “paddles” to guide you through the whitewater of change and disruption. If you are interested in thriving as an organization versus just surviving and interested in finding out more about how to effectively implement these strategies: focusing on what matters, focusing on energy, focusing on adaptability and focusing on key conversations, we at Ensemble would love to partner with you to implement these strategies in your leadership team and throughout your organization.


    New Humanism


    Purpose Driven Strategy has become a prime topic of management in the last decade due in no small part to the popular books like Start with Why by Simon Sinek; Firms of Endearment by Raj Sisodia; Leading with Purpose by Mark Koehler; Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies, by Nikos Mourkogiannis; and the Progress Principle by Teresa M. Amabile & Steven J. Kramer. Executive seminars are held about it, business models are built on it, and consulting companies have established whole practice lines dedicated to it.

    This concept of Purpose Driven Strategy is a fundamental change to the approach expressed by Milton Friedman when he said:

    “There is one and only one social responsibility of business-to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.”

    In a sense, it is a new type of Humanism where organizations don’t just work for their shareholders but for the betterment of all the stakeholders and the community at large.

    Purpose driven strategies are more adaptive and more successful. Purpose acts as an attractor and aligns across the organization by permeating the value system, creating the rules and enabling good judgement. Survey after survey shows that today’s top talent wants to know that they are contributing to the world at large. A UNC survey found that a whopping 75% of subject participants scored high on levels of happiness, but low on levels of meaning.¹ A survey on workplace fulfillment, which reached more than 12,000 employees across a broad range of companies and industries, found that 50% lack meaning and significance at work.² Yet, 40% of U.S. workers say they routinely put in more than 50 hours on the job each week, often without overtime pay.³

    A New Humanism

    The challenge for leaders is how to actually instill purpose into the organization and make it meaningful. Many companies have sought to establish their purpose (or pay consultants to do it) only to spend weeks wordsmithing a watered down statement to hang in their office only to see it easily forgotten. Few see it really start to align and motivate their people. This is because purpose cannot be captured in statements that are easily memorized. If purpose is true and impactful, it shows up in the actions of the leadership and the staff in real and very practical ways.

    Recently, I have been meeting with a number of leaders in companies around the southwest United States to understand their purpose driven strategies and how they drive it into organizations. Each of these organizations has an incredible record of growth and low turnover. They include:

    • Pinnacle Technologies – A medical tissue bank that gives people longer, more productive lives
    • Infusionsoft – A technology firm that empowers entrepreneurs and enables small businesses
    • Able Engineering – An engineering firm that is out to create a healthy, self-esteem building home for their employees and their families
    • A for-profit educational institution that has job creation and improving the standard of living in their community at the center of its strategy

    Based on these visits and some personal experience I have gathered working for organizations with successful (and failed) purpose driven strategies, here are some simple guidelines:

    Make Your Purpose Clear & Simple: Only 38% of employees said “the company’s mission” is a top reason they love their company.4  Yet, each of the organizations that I met with has a very clear purpose. Some organizations take a bit of a shotgun approach, but multiple causes create confusion and fail to align people’s motivations. It is better to have a single clear idea to rally around and discuss it ad nauseam. Once that Purpose is established and understood, all subsequent plans should start with how they support it.

    Be Sincere: For successful organizations, their purpose is not just words on a wall. Real passion for the cause builds, supports, and motivates. Opportunism debilitates. I can tell you I have sat in many meetings with companies who were looking for something good to do so they could tick it off and send out a press release, but the cynicism showed through and the employees rarely felt that organization was doing more than posturing.

    Align Purpose & Mission: Often leaders will confuse purpose with mission. While a mission is what the company does, purpose is why it exists. The distinction can be subtle, but it is an important one that should not be taken lightly. At the same time, aligning purpose and mission is essential. The purpose should be found in the daily activities of the business and the employees. They should be able to track their tasks to the ultimate result. A 10% improvement in employees’ connection with the mission or purpose of their organization would result in a 12.7% reduction in safety incidents, an 8.1% decrease in turnover, and a 4.4% increase in profitability.5 Organizations in which employees are primarily motivated by shared values and a commitment to a mission and purpose are 9x more likely to have high customer satisfaction.6



    Measure Performance: Creating corporate-wide metrics infuses the purpose throughout the organization. A study by Tiny Pulse found that the number one factor contributing to employee engagement was transparency, but only 25% of workers believe management is very transparent — despite that nearly twice as many managers consider themselves transparent.7 Compare that to a recent Gallup finding that only 29% of American workers described themselves as engaged employees, which cost companies about $550 billion a year in production costs.8 Rewarding behaviors that drive the purpose shows the organization’s dedication. Many companies make this maybe 5% or 10% of their overall metrics, but if it is aligned properly with the Mission, it should show up in 80-100% of what they do. However an organization measures performance, it should be made very clear how the company, division, and individual performance are aligned with the purpose.

    Invest Organizational Time & Resources: While incorporating your daily activities toward your purpose is essential, so is setting aside specific time and resources. This, again, shows an organization’s dedication. This should be on company time and should enable everyone to participate at some level. Time outside of work is OK on a volunteer basis, but scheduling all efforts after hours, on breaks or on weekends sends the signal that the purpose is ancillary to the organization.

    Hire Believers: Bringing in new people who support the purpose is essential. Employees who derive meaning and significance from their work are more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations, reported 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and are 1.4 times more engaged.9 Assessing the true nature of the employee’s motivation should be part of the hiring process. Have they dedicated time and energy to this purpose in the past? Do they list this purpose as a reason they want to join the organization? Each of the companies I talked to stated that they focus on this and that their biggest mistakes were when they made an exception or were uncertain of the person’s motivation.

    Take Care of Your Own: Each of the companies I visited were highly focused on the success of their employees. They realize that there is no sense to the organization’s Purpose if their people aren’t valued at least as much. Infusionsoft went so far as to have employees list their dreams and hire a person dedicated to helping them realize them (even when it meant the result would take them away from the company). When people were sick or injured or had family issues, the companies I visited made a point of stepping forward even when it seemed impractical. Both Able and Pinnacle described situations where employees had been injured outside the workplace and the company supported their recovery, contributed to their families, and guaranteed the employee a position when they returned. They understand that if the basic needs of the employees are not met, they cannot focus on the higher Purpose of the organization.

    Caveat – Purpose is a good thing when used correctly. At the same time, it can be scary if used wrongly. I have seen it used as an excuse to delve into the personal lives of employees, draw moral judgments, and to pursue oppressive policies. when the brain is stressed, it feels like it is under attack, and it shuts down.10, 11 When employees are micromanaged, their effectiveness decreases, and the employee puts the company at risk for making snap-judgement decisions that results in mistakes and poor performance. Clearly this creates a negative impact on the organization. At the center of the new humanism is its people first ethic. It cannot not justify a tyrannical approach. As with most things, the key is balance.


    Purpose is a powerful tool. Like Howard Schultz said, “When you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible.” It can align all agents and help drive emergence creating an organizational value much greater than the sum of its parts. It values all stakeholders and the external environment it serves. This is a new, humanistic approach that not only appeals to the top talent, but also supports the profit motive of businesses. Purpose is not simply reflected in statement on the wall but in sincere belief and practical action. Like all powerful tools, it should be wielded with caution and with an eye on maintaining balance.

    ¹ Fredrickson, B. L., Grewen, K. M., Coffey, K. A., Algoe, S. B., Firestine, A. M., Arevalo, J. M., … & Cole, S. W. (2013). A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(33), 13684-13689. Retrieved from

    ² Schwartz, T. and Porath, C. (2014). Why You Hate Work. New York Times. Retrieved August 17, 2017 from

    ³ Saad, L. (2014). The “40-Hour” Workweek Is Actually Longer — by Seven Hours. Gallup. Retrieved August 17, 2017 from

    4 VirginPulse (2015). LABOR OF LOVE: What Employees Love About Work & Ways To Keep The Spark Alive. VirginPulse. Retrieved August 16, 2017 from

    5 Dvorak, N. (2017). Three Ways Mission-Driven Workplaces Perform Better. Gallup.  Retrieved August 17, 2017 from

    6 LRN (2016). The HOW Report. Retrieved August 16, 2017 from

    7 Son, S. (2017). 20 Employee Engagement Survey Questions You Need To Ask. Retrieved August 17, 2017 from

    8 Sorenson, S. and Garman, K. (2013). How to Tackle U.S. Employees’ Stagnating Engagement. Gallup. Retrieved August 17, 2017 from

    9 Schwartz, T. and Porath, C. (2014). Why You Hate Work. New York Times. Retrieved August 17, 2017 from

    10 Bates, C. (2012). Blanking out: How stress can shut down the command centre in the brain. The Daily Mail. Retrieved August 16, 2017 from

    11 Alban, D. (2017). 12 Effects of Chronic Stress on Your Brain. Retrieved August 16, 2017 from

    Other articles by David Lee

    Generals vs. Conductors – the Evolution of Leadership
    High Performance Teams and the Art of Ensembling
    10 Ways Leaders Can Sabotage Their Own Transformation Programs
    Change Management and the Pizza Principle

    Generals vs. Conductors – the Evolution of Leadership

    consuctor as transformational leader

    The other day I was binge watching Mozart in the Jungle. I love this show not just because of the story, characters and the set pieces but because of what it teaches me about leadership. Mozart in the Jungle presents the fictional transformation of the New York Symphony from an old school, tradition-based organization that has become all but obsolete to a new wave, popular organization – at least I hope, because it is nowhere near its destination. The show is also a study in the evolution of the leaders in the story from the previous conductor dealing with a new reality to the new conductor trying to reach his potential as well as the potential of the organization he is leading. As we discuss what it takes to be a leader in today’s exponentially changing environment, we must also look at the evolution of leadership.

    A brief history of organizational development and the evolution of leadership theory shows how our expectations of leaders has moved from the concept of Destined or Great Man (using man here intentionally) who is born or taught to achieve great things to identification leaders who have the natural traits and exhibit the right behaviors to drive organizations to those that are developed.

    When we reach the apex of this evolution, we stand with a leadership approach that is more related to the conductor of symphony – listening, providing feedback, being aware of the big picture but enabling the talents of others to be highlighted – than that of general who commands and issues orders to be followed, defines roles and coerces performance from the soldiers.



    Studies have shown that the traditional command and control does have an impact and can be effective in simple or semi-complicated environments. It mobilizes well and it does increase productivity, yet, these are short-term results. Over time and in more complex environments the impact is minimal to negative. In command and control environments, people become complacent or even fearful, no longer take risks, suppress creativity, and are less likely to do the right thing for customers.¹ In the long-term, command and control leadership hinders employee productivity by increasing task timelines and budget, and limiting communication.2, 3, 4, 5  It removes decision making authority from those who need it, and decrease employee opportunities to develop.6, 7  This approach leads to a decrease in accountability. Ultimately, leaders account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores.8

    Two recent conversations I had highlighted the difference between the traditional management thinking and adaptive leadership

    The conversations were with top leaders in their organizations. The leaders were both women, they were roughly the same age, and they were both living in the southwestern United States, both highly educated and experienced in business. I mention this to demonstrate that there were no immediate demographic differences that affected their thinking. One was the head of the largest regional division of a global company while the other was the head of technology for a mid-sized regional organization. The revenue level for both companies was also similar, around $200 million with perhaps a 15% spread between them. The key difference between the leaders, in this context, was their approach to leadership and how they harnessed the energy of their subordinates.

    The conversation with the regional leader was about an analyst who showed initiative toward the company’s digital marketing strategy. The regional office had previously created and executed the digital plan but, due to resource constraints, the function was now centralized in the global HDQ. Over the first six months of the new arrangement, the results were good globally but had fallen off in the region. Showing great concern, the analyst decided to look into the trends herself. She took home the data and worked on it during her spare time. Once she believed she had found the cause of the problem, she reported it to her supervisor who informed the leader. The reaction of the leader was not about the findings but about the analyst. She wanted to know why the analyst was bothering to do this work? Clearly, it was not in her job description and there were people paid a lot of money to do this analysis at the headquarters. She ended by stating that the analyst should focus on her role. The organization had plenty of work for her to do without this distraction. The leader was proud of the fact that she had enforced this discipline.

    The discussion with the technology leader was about a special program she had instituted. She tasked all the managers in her group to develop relationships across the organization. She wanted them all to get to know the people in marketing, operations, sales, etc. and understand each of their businesses as best they could. This program was about more than creating goodwill though. It was a search mission. They were tasked to discover opportunities and issues then think of ways to help through technological improvements. She did not send them out with a survey or a script but simply to establish a network, create trust, and develop solutions wherever they found opportunities. The overriding idea was that by finding the opportunities and proactively resolving them, they would eliminate larger problems over time. At the same time, she believed she was creating a stimulating environment for the team members and building their competencies.

    I cannot say I understand enough about these two organizations to know which of these people is more effective as a leader. What is important is that there are clearly two distinct approaches at play here. One is about setting constraints and limits while the other is about removing obstacles and encouraging creativity. One is about exerting control and the other is about creating emergent behavior. Based on these two discussions, I know which of these leaders I would put my money on to run a complex organization and train future leaders.

    I have consolidated a quick comparison guide looking at some of the key differences between leaders who hold a traditional mindset and those who utilize transformational approaches. This is not original but a compilation based on several sources on this topic, not the least of which is the book, Organize for Complexity by Niels Pflaeging and his use of the x-theory/y-theory construct. Others include the VUCA command comparison and several general descriptions available in multiple books on the subject.


    One should not think of these as two buckets of classification, but as points on a continuum. None of us are fully one or the other but somewhere in the middle and evolving. Even as I study this topic and try to be an adaptive leader, I often find myself reverting to the traditional mindset. When things get challenging, I can’t help but think “Can’t people just do what I tell them?” or “Why do I have to deal with so many questions?” or “Why can’t people just do their jobs?” When I hire people, I find myself considering whether the person is a good “soldier” who will carry out orders. As an employee, I find that I sometimes just want to be told what to do. I wish I could just follow a leader and not have to think so much. It is a difficult transition to make.

    In my experience, there are people who are more naturally capable of transformational leadership. They tend to be highly inquisitive and continuously seek out new experiences. They will likely have keen interests in biology, physics, history and many other topics; they will draw lessons from these interests to use in business. They are often well traveled and culturally aware, and they are able to form real, deep relationships. Most of all, they have likely been through major changes in their life, both professionally and personally, and rose to meet these challenges. Some leaders throughout history have recognized this difference between transactional leadership (making sure the day-to-day transactions are completed) and transformational leadership (directing the course and allowing others to execute):

    “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” – Theodore Roosevelt


    “If you pick the right people and give them the opportunity to spread their wings—and put compensation as a carrier behind it—you almost don’t have to manage them.” – Jack Welch


    One key trait of a transformational leader is the realization that they cannot go it alone, that distributed intelligence is exponentially greater than centralized intelligence. The people at the top must be willing to suspend ego and be brave enough to seed the organization with leaders who also exhibit these traits then give them the room to maneuver.

    I note this because earlier I used the analogy of a conductor vs. a general, but in fact one of the leading organizations in applying transformational leadership is the US Military. This is chronicled well in the book Team of Teams where Stanley McChrystal and team discuss how they adapted to a new kind of war and learned from their failures, but it is also from personal experience. Most of what I have learned about leadership comes from my father, a Colonel in the US Air Force and a graduate of the Air Force Academy. He was a student of leadership and taught me that all great leaders think of their organization before themselves, show empathy, demonstrate integrity, trust their people, and are constantly learning. So, I will end with this lesson from the leader who spoke at his college graduation ceremony in 1963.

    “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other” – John F. Kennedy.

    Charles Zulanas, MSS Senior Consultant, contributed to this article.

    1 White, R. D. (2010, Spring). The micromanagement disease: Symptoms, diagnosis, and cure. Public Personnel Management, 39(1), 71-76. Retrieved from:

    2 White, R. D. (2010, Spring). The micromanagement disease: Symptoms, diagnosis, and cure. Public Personnel Management, 39(1), 71-76. Retrieved from:

    3 Alvesson, M., & Sveningsson, S. (2003). Good visions, bad micro-management and ugly ambiguity: contradictions of (non-) leadership in a knowledge-intensive organization. Organization Studies, 24(6), 961-988.

    4 Austin, R., & Larkey, P. (1992). The unintended consequences of micromanagement: the case of procuring mission critical computer resources. Policy Sciences, 25(1), 3-28.

    5 Sapienza, A. M. (2005). From the inside: scientists’ own experience of good (and bad) management. R&D Management, 35(5), 473-482.

    6 Lengnick-Hall, M. L., Lengnick-Hall, C. A., & Rigsbee, C. M. (2013). Strategic human resource management and supply chain orientation. Human Resource Management Review, 23(4), 366-377.

    7 Haselhuhn, M. P., Wong, E. M., & Ormiston, M. E. (2017). With great power comes shared responsibility: Psychological power and the delegation of authority. Personality and Individual Differences, 108, 1-4. Retrieved from


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    How Can I Begin the Shift to Exponential Leadership Myself?

    Dr. Karen S. Walch, Partner at Clair-Buoyant™ Leadership, LLC and Co-creator of Quantum Negotiation Certification programs, explains how strong intention, reflection and discipline, Clarity, Congruence and Courage™ can serve as guardrails in the process of transforming fear into positive new outcomes.

    If leaders want to progress, they must face the natural fear that disruption generates, and purposefully excavate their old beliefs in order to accelerate effectively through the adaptation to, and acquisition of, new mindsets and skillsets. This requires re-training our brains to forge clarity in the midst of the ambiguity often heightened in times of disruption. It also means allowing oneself to align, or be in congruence with, exponential thinking in the face of prevailing linear logic. Finally, it means embracing the leadership courage it will take to proactively drive the kind of transformation to thrive in disruptive and exponential times.

    Click here to read more.

    The Whole World is Turned Upside Down

    Living in “exponential times”, your industry and organization exhists in a world where changes in technologies and aspects of your business model are disrupted almost daily. Dr. Karen Walch, Partner at Clair-Buoyant™ Leadership, LLC and Co-creator of Quantum Negotiation Certification programs, writes about how to survive as a company without all of the information about how the markets are changing. The previous education is not enough to yield sustainable results in today’s disruptive environment. Einstein makes the challenge clear: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness that created them.” Walch explains the ways that companies and our minds can adapt in the face of these exponential changes in society. Walch asserts that leadership is about transformation, deep change that means shifting to higher levels of personal and organizational effectiveness.

    Click here to read the full article

    Accelerating the Shift Toward Exponential Leaders

    Karen Walch, Ph.D., Partner at Clair-Buoyant™ Leadership, LLC and Co-creator of Quantum Negotiation Certification programs, explains how traditional leadership development programs put growth as a linear progression, primarily building cognitive capabilities, adding new skills, and awareness of new work values anchored in an ever-widening scope of practice. Karen asserts that leadership growth is not as linear as we might think, and linear development is no longer enough. The building block and orderly structure of leadership development and transformation is not as practical in application given the seeming paradoxes that CEOs encounter in business: driving growth AND managing costs; delivering short-term AND long-term performance; executing AND engaging others at the same time. Karen teaches executives how to adopt this way of thinking in the face of constant disruption to catalyze innovation from within and become more effective leaders and decision makers.

    Click here to read the full article.

    Strategic Planning in a Dancing Landscape

    David Lee, Executive Director of MSS Business Transformation Institute, compares how planning in a complex organization is often like battling the waves of the ocean. Lee quotes Dwight D. Eisenhower, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”

    After organizations have started their new business, assessed the many options available, the landscape of business seems to change faster than you can change. Now you have many products across multiple markets and numerous partners and when you make a decision your competitors are countering. Forces you have no control over and seem far away are having major impacts on your business while opportunities you may never have considered are coming your way. Meanwhile, there may also be disruptors you cannot see or predict creating new types of competition. Lee, one of the leading instructors in PROSCI™ Change Management in the United States, shows how leaders can adapt in a complex world.

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    The Whole World is Turned Upside Down


    We live today in a globally interconnected context that is changing by the moment, rife with rapid political, economic and environmental disruption and discord. We face perhaps more volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity than any generation before in recent human history. As we head into what is being described as “exponential times,” the remarkable rate of change fuels the chances of being caught by surprise in the marketplace or in leadership now more than ever. By “exponential”, we mean your industry and organization is living in a world where changes in technologies and aspects of your business model are disrupted almost daily. Disruption ultimately means that people are thinking, acting, relating and purchasing in entirely new manners that “interrupt” the heretofore predominant business models and transform the very systems in which we interact. This, in turn, impacts how we consume, how we produce, how we organize our supply chains, how we grow, and how we lead.

    The challenge with the exponential function of our times is that it’s incomprehensible. We get it cognitively – up to a point – and then our brains cannot process it. This constant disruption and speed of change together are destabilizing traditional pathways to personal and organizational leadership success, and challenging our ability to adapt at a rate that keeps pace with the change afoot. To not just survive, but thrive, in this environment, our thinking must be equal or superior to the complexity of the environment in which we interact. And to foster the capacity to create new success stories in the face of change, we must be resilient and adaptive in the face of this relentless pressure.

    But, as the Navy SEALS saying goes, under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion; you sink to the level of your training. The problem is, our education and traditional approaches to thinking and leading have not prepared us to handle the level of disruption we face. Applying yesterday’s logic to today’s disruptive environment — let alone tomorrow’s — will not yield sustainable results. Repetition without progress produces incapacity as a result.

    Einstein makes the challenge clear: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness that created them.” We need new ways of thinking, learning and leading, and we need them fast, as the exponential pace of change further exacerbates the gap.

    The Challenge Posed by Exponential Times

    The problem is, the exponential pace of change is incomprehensible to our human brains. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee claim, “The great shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. Linear goals will not be successful in a world that is changing exponentially.”¹ We “get” the constant acceleration of technology, advancement and change cognitively – up to a point – and then our brains cannot process the rest. This is in part due to the fact that, historically, our Western cultures (both nationally and organizationally) have reinforced linear, cause and effect processing versus exponential brain processing. Primarily linear neural networks worked for a certain time in history, but now we cannot process beyond a certain point for exponential change – our brains literally are not conditioned to see it. However, with the new discoveries in neuroscience today, the brain is much more elastic and adaptable than first believed, and we may be able to “train our brains” into exponential processing.

    We have, essentially two choices: Continue responding to external disruptive reality with old, comfortable logic, creating corresponding, often unconscious, inner discord, stress and eventual incapacity, or find a way to shift from linear to exponential thinking and leading.

    We believe that exponential change means we need to embrace Exponential Leadership: a way of thinking and leading that helps us navigate through the challenging questions of our time and avoid the trap of linear thinking to proactively reinvent ourselves in the rapidly accelerating marketplace. Exponential leadership means empowering mindsets and skillsets to transform fear into positive outcomes. It means re-training our brains with the help of what we call, “the three C’s”— Forging clarity in the midst of ambiguity, allowing congruence with exponential thinking in the face of prevailing linear logic, and embracing leadership courage to proactively drive transformation.²

    HOW MIGHT WE ADAPT? The Shift to Exponential Leadership

    Over the past 20 years, we have had the incredible honor of working with thousands of executives across multiple industries from over 50 countries, strengthening their global leadership capabilities. Increasingly, we have noticed a widening gap between those leaders seeking to adapt and model ways to face the complexity and exponential change of our times and those who are clinging to yesterday’s logic with equal intensity.

    The thing is, personal change precedes systemic change. Organizations or communities cannot organize at an exponential level if their leaders are operating from a mostly linear perspective. Until a critical mass of an organization’s leaders shifts into more exponential leadership, the larger collective will be hindered in navigating new terrain in an evolved and sustainable fashion. The good news is, new discoveries in cultural anthropology, neuroscience, genetics and evolutionary biology offer us the tools to accelerate the adaptation process.

    Facing this challenge of fostering collective adaptation, though, means that leadership is not only a personal practice, but a collaborative relationship and a shared process of transformation that fosters the collective capacity to create new realities.  Let’s break that down:

    • Leadership is something that can be expressed personally, uniquely through the prism of each individual’s personality, culture, capabilities, meaning and subjective experience.
    • Leadership is a practice, as in something you strengthen every day, through routinely applying the mindsets and skillsets, and learning and growing through both successes and failures. To the extent that you are intentional about your practice, your growth will follow.
    • It’s a collaborative relationship with diverse groups of people you seek to engage and inspire to achieve meaningful, shared outcomes together. Innovation, for example, requires an inclusive and vibrant engagement of diverse values and viewpoints within teams, partnerships, and across functional units in an organization.
    • Leaders create the culture around them, which is a shared process not only in the sense that you can’t be leading and engaging others unless someone is following. In today’s highly networked, global world, leadership can come from the collective energy of groups and expectations of new norms, which also shapes the culture around us. It was a collective process in Egypt, for example, which toppled Mubarak, not some single heroic leader. A shared experience and shared process of leading change drove towards a new reality. Leaders today who can tap into that power of the collective consciousness and urge to create something meaningful together will forge more possibilities than standing alone.
    • Leadership is about transformation, deep change that means shifting to higher levels of personal and organizational effectiveness. Transformation requires making our invisible values and beliefs visible through personal exploration, and helping others make the unconscious conscious to better navigate forward. It also involves making the “unseen” forces of all dimensions of our human experience, i.e. cognitive, emotional, spiritual, social, physical, more “seen” to better collaborate and innovate together.
    • It’s about creating new realities in the sense that leaders help us move from our current challenges to a desired future vision by navigating through the natural discomfort of change of values and behavior.

    So if leadership plays a key role in our collective ability to respond to exponential change, then what is the process that accelerates that transformation of leaders?

    1 Brynjolfsson, McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, Norton, 2014
    2 Clarity, Congruence and Courage™ are what we call leadership guideposts for transformation (Source: Inner Power International, Inc. ©2015-2016).

    This article is the first in a 3-part series from a white paper entitled HOW CAN WE DEVELOP LEADERS FOR EXPONENTIAL TIMES? authored by Karen Walch, PhD and Lee Ann del Carpio, and used with permission from CLAIR-BUOYANT™ LEADERSHIP, LLC AND INNER POWER INTERNATIONAL, INC.

    Read part 2 Accelerating the Shift Toward Exponential Leaders

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