Cartoon Leaders

“It’s like he is a cartoon leader. He’s two-dimensional in a three-dimensional world”

Trust in leadership is declining in many spheres of life. Many leaders look more out of their depth than ever. Clinging to carefully manufactured facades, familiar patterns of power and simple plans, they fail quickly in a complex world. Leaders need to adapt their practices to a changing world. To avoid being a cartoon leader, you need to adapt to the richness of the world as it is, not as you want it to be.

Multi-dimensional

“Wishing doesn’t make it true”

Complexity comes with a real cost. Often we will wish for simpler times and for a return to simpler old fashioned ways. We can learn from that wish but wishing won’t make that an effective strategy. Leaders don’t get to act in the world of their wishes. That only happens in cartoons. Leaders must act and lead action in the world as it is. The world in which leaders must act is irreversibly multi-dimensional:

  • Today and into the future
  • Power and influence
  • Hierarchies and networks
  • Local and global
  • Expertise and learning
  • Massively scaled and personal
  • Commercial considerations and human values

Sustainable in Every Dimension

“He was there, he heard it, he says he sees the problem, but I am still not sure that he gets it”

Leadership is about influencing others to act. That influence demands leaders engage with the complexity of the real world.

Ignore a dimension in your leadership actions and you are that cartoon leader who is less rich than the world that they are seeking to influence. Ignore a dimension and you can expect to be judged harshly by those who see the complexity or demand a solution that engages that dimension. Ignore a dimension and you lose influence.

Leaders can find it hard to step out beyond the cartoon simplicity. In many cases their organizations and stakeholders are demanding simple answers and easy change. Working against an expectation that you behave like a cartoon leader takes courage and time.

One of the reasons that leadership tenure is declining in many of our institutions is that leaders ignore complexity. They remain a cartoon that is not adapting to the changes that these additional dimensions demand. Cartoons don’t do complexity. Cartoons don’t last very long. Cartoons are short fast hits until their command on attention expires. Eventually the anvil drops. A leader engaged in the real world is far more enduring.

The challenge for leaders is stepping out of the cartoon and engaging with the world as it is.

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