Why we are failing as leaders

Back in the day, there was the factory. Its dullness, its repetitiveness, its consistency, enabled production for the masses. We’ve been running with this idea ever since. That is if we produce enough things all the same, enough people will buy them that it will make economic sense for us to continue that way. It was world changing. It created whole economies, produced lots of jobs and a management style that had to be command and control. But now we can’t get cheaper and cheaper labour and faster and faster machines.

Our marketing was predicated on similar lines – with the advantage of better technology coming along to enable us to deliver more and more messages to more and more people. That continued to fuel the factory and so it all worked. The only thing that didn’t really work was that other people were making consumer decisions for the consumers. The factory boss and his marketing men were deciding what we wanted and how we were going to get it. As resistance built, the message just got louder. Better ways of shouting at us appeared, like the television.

Then the Internet arrives. It’s viewed as another way of shouting at us. We get messages on every website we visit, we get emails every day that we did not solicit, and our buying choices are reflected back to us from the big data capture of every click we make. At least, that’s how the factory sees it.

But sadly for the factory, that’s not how we see it. Small businesses, which do not have factories, have never seen it this way. They have found ways of reaching markets that they never knew existed, cheaply and quickly, using the internet. Their simple marketing has nibbled away at the market share of the factory. We think that spam is an email phenomenon. It isn’t. We’ve been spammed for all of the last century just in different ways. Free television programmes spam us about every 12 minutes with unnecessary advertising. We are spammed every time we open a newspaper, or drive down the road. It’s all push, push, push. Email is just a new way of doing it.

Nothing really has changed since Henry Ford set up his first production line. We are still being told. That’s what leadership has been all about. And as the factory gets bigger, the need to protect and preserve become stronger. So it becomes more inward -looking, more defensive, more reactive. It grows an exoskeleton.  But, crucially, as consumers, we don’t all want the same. And we want to be heard.

People though, are tribal. People like to belong. Belonging means being with people like them. People with shared goals, ambitions and values. Small businesses get this. The way they think is the key differentiator between them and big businesses. It’s not a series of techniques; it’s not a plan. It’s a way of thinking. It’s more about feeling than analysing. It’s empathy. It understands that people like them think like they do; want the things they do so it’s then easy to put yourself in their shoes because it’s your shoes too. That’s why small businesses succeed. It’s when they understand their customers, their employees and their suppliers.

To change things needs a movement, feeling, and understanding, and a leader, not structure and control. It needs an idea and it needs to inspire people. Those people will find others – the leader does not have to do it all. Neither does the leader have to predicate what the movement is exactly, or where it is going. He or she just has to start it and see what happens so that it develops a momentum of its own. The leader may provide guidance, understanding and refinement of the vision and mission.

Pirates are a tribe - their own flag, uniform etc. to provide an identity and a call to action. The pirate crew has a captain, but overall it is relatively democratic. There is a division of the spoils decided on relatively equitable lines – the captain does get more but not so much more as in some big businesses. If the captain is bad at finding treasure, he is dismissed (somewhat abruptly) and somebody else is appointed in his place, agreed by the crew.

If you’re satisfied with the status quo, do nothing.  Starting a movement means challenging the status quo – upsetting somebody. Then it needs a culture. I don’t mean a corporate culture. I mean a way of thinking, doing and behaving that is different and which chimes with a few people – to start with. These differences make other people curious – they ask questions, those questions cause more connections. More connections mean more people in the movement. People are heard, they are valued, and if they’re not there they are missed. People don't want to be missed. They want to be included in, not included out. They are not strangers – they are us! Make a tribe, key connections, and minimal leadership. Much less then you need to do before, because everybody else is doing most of the work for you. Willingly, cheerfully, and inclusively.

Big biz can break down its traditional structures with empowerment, understanding and a willingness to listen more than speak. It will be difficult:  there will be many entrenched views and interests. The alternative could be a gradual marginalisation of big biz if it fails to respond to consumer needs.  It won’t be easy, but is management easy now?

So, break it down into tribes, with minimal head offices, devolved power and a little humility. Then at last it might happen – hearts and minds working for the common good.

I don’t propose that small biz (or tribes) is the answer necessarily – just that they think differently and are not that far away from how any size biz thinks. After all, any change will surely come through not what to think, but how. This is just a different vision of how that might inform change, and perhaps be a springboard to a new way of thinking for all size biz.

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