Don’t Be A Digital Beard

I have a lot of sympathy for reforming leaders working to grow the digital practices of legacy organisations which have no genuine desire for change.

It’s a heck of a fight to buy and good on them for taking the challenge on. There is something glorious in fighting the good fight. Yet, sometimes glory beguiles.

I admire the position they take because accountability driven leadership is critical to change and we need them to be visible. How else will they give hope and set the example?

I've filled this role on occasion. It’s satisfying on a personal level because it’s about belief and the quest to change things for the better.

But I sympathize with them because they can get drawn into becoming what @jeremyheimans and @htimms termed ‘digital beards’ in their HBR article (HT to @mattbish for the initial reference).

This can become a no-win situation for reforming leaders. The no-win emerges where the appointing ‘old power’ magnates have no intention to change the organisation’s underlying business model.

This is a simple subversion move. Bring the reformer in and provide enough funding for a new coat of paint and some fresh flowers, but not enough for anything else.

The reformer is likely to deliver something of value that doesn't threaten the established way of working and will provide a handy mouthpiece to pay lip service to ‘new power’ expectations.

Beyond that however nothing is intended to really change, whereupon the reformer becomes a prisoner, a fall guy or a sore loser.

I sympathize with them because the fall from idealism to cynicism can be a sudden one and have a significant impact on a person’s sense of identity and purpose.

So don’t be that person. Don’t be the digital beard. You have a choice after all. Take your energy, vision and leadership and find people who want and value it.

This is about the collision of new power’s latent idealism and old power’s incipient erosion. There is something heroic about being the person that brought the old into the new, who gave the gift of renewal, who helped avoid the cliff.

Who doesn't want to be that person? The problem is such a person isn't always welcome because their mission implies that the incumbents are failing, have failed or will fail.

Bear in mind that not everyone has taken to heart the lean start-up values of welcoming failure. Many people detest failure because the implications failure has for their concept of self.

And many of these people have spent decades optimizing legacy power structures. If they've spent years getting to the top of the pile, why should they now get off it?

It’s turkeys voting for Christmas. Personal renewal through taking part in a generational shift just isn't that attractive to some people.

So don’t be the digital beard. If you get a sense that you’re being seduced into this role, smile graciously and look for where your tribe really is.

Because the world needs more believers, and believers need people who are willing to stand up and take responsibility for what needs to be done. That’s where you want to be because it’s closer to who you really are.

The irony here is that the old power magnates need reforming leaders in order to conclude the twilight and legacy stages of their careers.

Because the ability to grow communities around causes and harness the energy of movements is a fundamental requirement for business success in the modern world.

Without it, organisations will gradually hollow out, lose clarity around purpose and suffer erosion at their operational periphery

The basic issue here is that as people grow in their expectations around participation, they also grow the ability to spot bullshit. And few people have an appetite for bullshit.

This is the main point of difference for the values-based leader: they just don’t deal in bullshit. Hence they attract genuine followership.

You’re a leader when people volunteer to your cause and they know you make an effort to understand their dreams.

If you are a values-based reforming leader, then the lesson to take from this is to let go of the need to be the Great Redeemer.

If you look with open eyes to the reason for your success to date, you will see that it is the belief you create in others: which means it’s not about you.

And if after you examine the culture of your organisation, you may discover that you’re actually on the outside looking in at the critical decision makers: which means they’ll only change if they want to.

My message here is to absolutely keep doing what you’re doing. Just do it with and for people who genuinely want to embrace you and what you stand for.

Remember that you always have control of your choices. Don’t convince yourself otherwise.

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