The next in our series of interviews asking a number of noted thought leaders for their views on essential questions around Organizational Change. On this occasion, I was fortunate to spend time discussing some aspects of this with Kenneth Mikkelsen.
Kenneth says of himself:
I am dedicated to improving the quality of leadership in the 21st century by influencing how people think, learn, behave and impact society.
As a thinker, speaker, writer, adviser and educator, I address the most important questions in life. What drives you? Why do you care? When do you show up? How do you learn? Where are you heading? Who are you? What do you want to be remembered for? By exploring these questions with leaders, I help them live informed, meaningful lives and make wise choices that strengthen our society and leave a positive legacy for future generations.
My work has featured in publications like Harvard Business Review, Financial Times, The Economist, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Forbes, Management Today, The Sunday Times, The Globe and Mail, Developing Leaders, Global Focus, China Economic Review, Personnel Today, Business Digest, Emerald Insight, Training and Development, Strategic Direction, The National, La Depeche, Management Issues, and all major Scandinavian media outlets.
I am a co-author of The Neo-Generalist, which explores the value of multidisciplinarity, of living in more than one world.
Mike: Can you explain what you’re doing, and how you feel it might relate to the proposition that all organizations in the current period are faced with the need to make deep and essential changes?
Ken: When Richard Martin and I wrote The Neo-Generalist, we decided to include our own personal stories in the book. We did it to illustrate that there isn’t a singular way of being a neo-generalist, you can arrive at it from multiple directions. When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I live in more than one world. It opens up for deeper and more interesting conversations. What I mean is that I work in multiple domains. I have pursued this path consciously because it enriches my life. Each area inspires, informs and cross-pollinates the others. I spend much time thinking and exploring ideas. My inspiration comes from various fields such as psychology, history, science, sociology, art, and philosophy. Working with adult development I need combinatorial creativity — a mix of impulses and ideas — to reach people. It might be the lyrics of a David Bowie song, a poem by ASJ Tessimond, an exhibition at the Tate Modern or the graphical work of Saul Bass that helps me gets the message across. This broad-spectrum approach combined with a sense of wonder is what enables me to live in more than one world. I think, write, speak, advise leaders and design executive learning journeys. If you sum all of that up, then you could say that I help people live informed, meaningful lives and make wise choices that strengthen our society and leave a positive legacy for future generations.
Ken: Most recently, I have worked on designing and delivering a change agents program together with Emerging World for a national oil company in the Middle East. They wanted to explore the future and prepare the nation for what comes next. Underneath their concerns were a series of important questions.
What will a future less dependent on fossil fuels look like? How will emerging technologies impact the oil and gas industry? What does it take to change our mindsets? What skills will be needed in the years to come? It has been a challenging project that I’ve learned a lot from.
Our starting point was to focus on the underlying pedagogy. We came up with a unique learning philosophy that served as a foundation for the whole program. It was an untraditional approach from what the company was used to.
They had just terminated a contract with a major business school. The school’s fixed models and standard approach to executive development was simply considered inadequate to address the challenges they faced. The executives from the oil company were quite brave in engaging with us because we introduced a new language. One of the design principles we emphasized was that words matter. In an On Being podcast, the great poet David Whyte mentions that he was once approached by a gentleman at the end of a speech he had given. The man told him that: “The language we have in the corporate world is far too small for the territory of relationship and collaboration we’ve entered.”
I agree with his viewpoint. The lingua franca in business today is too unimaginative and restricted to deal with the modern complexity and the major shocks and shifts in society that we currently face. For that reason, we framed the change program in simple words by calling the three modules: See the Change, Be the Change and Make the Change. It created a common ground for people and enabled the leaders to relate to the elusive concept of change. It helped bridge different perceptions and shift the conversations. I find this kind of work both meaningful and enjoyable.
In my work as a leadership adviser, learning designer and facilitator I have a reflective practitioner approach. It means that I do the strategic thinking and then go out and apply it with people to see whether it works or not. If it doesn’t then we’ll adjust in the moment. To thrive in this kind of work, you need a certain mental flexibility and you can’t fall madly in love with your own ideas or ego. It’s the opposite of the conveyer belt modus operandi that characterizes many providers in the leadership development industry.
Mike: This is really interesting.
Ken: You know, Mike, it’s not rocket science. I consider it to be common sense, in many ways.
Mike: To me, it’s always been a fascinating term, common sense, because it often seems to be remarkably rare and uncommon.
Ken: Yes, that’s true. The late Sumantra Goshal from London Business School once described Peter Drucker, one of the most influential management thinkers, as practicing the scholarship of common sense. My thinking is informed by him but also people like Charles Handy, Margaret Wheatley and John W. Gardner. When we talk about change, I think our starting point should also be common sense. I mean, why is change important right now? Most people can see or at least feel that the tectonic plates are shifting right under our feet at the moment. We sense that the fabric that holds our society together is under pressure. Yet, most leaders and organizations are still occupied with exploiting what they already have and know. They rely on old maps in a new landscape. This dependency on the past and best practices make it difficult to improvise, change course and embark on a journey of exploration when conditions change. Right now there is a lot of talk about new technologies, and how they shape the future. I’m not a techno-optimists per se. I think it’s lazy thinking to say that it’s all about the technology. There are much bigger things at play.
As an associate of the Drucker Society, I’ve participated in the Drucker Forum for many years now. It is a yearly gathering of the leading management thinkers. We meet up in Vienna to discuss state of the world and how leaders and organizations can best respond to a changing environment. This year’s theme is about humanizing work, our society and our organizations. When we talk about humanizing work, I think there’s a major difference, not just rhetorically, between surviving and living. Living isn’t working at a job you hate for ridiculous hours, counting down the days to the weekend or to your next vacation. I consider that to be a survival mode were you’re running with your tongue out of your mouth trying to catch up. What we really need to focus on is what constitutes a good life and how we can live well in the emerging future. Obviously, technology drives social change, but I believe that it’s more about embracing a paradigm shift. We live in the midst of a culture shift and a crisis of capitalism that will set the direction for many generations to come.
Mike: That’s really interesting. One of the reasons I’m asking this question about the rate of change is because I actually think that the idea that change is happening more than it ever has is not wrong, but it’s only applicable to the human structures. Change has always been happening just as rapidly. To my mind, what’s happening at the moment is that the inability of the current intellectual organizational structures to cope with the nature of reality has become evident or is becoming evident.
Mike: It’s almost as if many organizations are in the position of King Canute, standing there, telling the ocean to go back, as if somehow their conceptual structures are capable of actually forcing reality, the ever-fluid changing reality around them, to conform to their expectations.
Ken: The industrial era mindset runs deep but the anomalies are stacking up. The familiar strategies and theories we rely on are increasingly becoming obsolete or insufficient to deal with everyday challenges. I think there are a general lack of imagination and curiosity among leaders today, and a fear of acting. Without courage, things will stay the same. We need courageous people to challenge the status quo. People who are not afraid of being vulnerable and occupying liminal spaces. I often remind leaders that we have all been in a liminal state in our lives. Our teenage years, for instance, is a liminal period where we’re doing our best to make sense of the world, moving from something familiar to something new. Dealing with the ambiguity and curveballs that life throws at us. For most people it was a confusing time, standing with a leg in a child’s world, trying to make sense of the adult world. Learning how to decipher the norms and the cultural codes. How should I act? What is expected of me? It relates to the difference I mentioned between living and surviving. In the near future, I expect that more and more people will find themselves in such liminal states and transitions as society and the labor market changes. It is a key point that Richard and I also make in our book. Neo-generalists are well prepared for this new paradigm. They are adaptive and good at reinventing themselves. Their curiosity, eclectic nature, butterfly perspective, and ability to live with ambiguity make them great absorbers and stewards of the future.
Mike: Right. That’s really interesting, because one of the things which is absolutely core to what we do with Liminal Coaching, is the understanding that when there’s a lot of accumulated stress happening, the primitive brain is reactive. I think a lot of people are living with constantly elevated levels of cortisol. That means that the majority of people are living pretty much in fear a lot of the time.
Ken: I sometimes refer to it as a VUCA world. I genuinely dislike the term, but it has become a trendy managerial acronym to describe today’s business environment and people, therefore, seem to get it.
Mike: I haven’t heard that term. What does it mean?
Ken: VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Years ago, I started asking leaders if they could share concrete examples of situations with me where they had experienced VUCA moments and how it made them feel. There are many commonalities in their responses. Increased volatility leaves people overwhelmed, stressed and anxious. It accelerates the decision-making and challenges the traditional command and control structures. Uncertainties make it difficult to deal with what is actually happening. People experience that there is a lot of information noise, which makes it hard to find and act on the right signals. This feeling reinforces the tendency to rely on what worked in the past. Increased complexity drives people into a constant acting mode and leaves them with a sense of not having time for deeper reflections and critical thinking. Lastly, ambiguity is reinforced because leaders find themselves too far from the source and context of events, which leads to misinterpretations and inappropriate responses. All these feelings express an experienced loss of control that leads to fear. As fear sets in most leaders focus on things within their control and it negatively impacts their ability to see patterns and focus on the bigger picture.
Mike: Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that. It’s what I refer to as living in a fear-based organization.
Ken: Many organizations nowadays talk about digital transformation. It has become another mantra. In my opinion, it’s a very shallow response to the new reality we find ourselves in. Most large organizations will have to embrace a much more demanding reinvention to stay relevant and accommodate the ongoing culture shift. When people express a deep desire to find purpose, meaning and a sense of belonging it reflects that most big organizations are unable to fulfill their part of the social contract.
I often have conversations with leaders who work for companies that are going through a transformation. Typically, they have hired a bunch of strategy consultants to work on the recruitment processes, reward systems, product lines, supply chains, lean processes, and performance management systems. Those are things that you can put into a spreadsheet. It’s a linear and engineerical approach deeply rooted in scientific management principles. After a while, the people working inside the companies realize, “Holy cow, it’s not just about the systems.” The rationale seems to be that they can control the systems. But if you are serious about changing and reinventing a company there are other and equally important things that you need to work on. As I see it, organizations must work on four interrelated shifts. A mind shift, a skill shift, a behavior shift, and a system shift.
Mike: And all of those things actually systemically interrelate with one another.
Ken: Totally. When we talk about a mind shift, I would almost say a shift in consciousness, to be honest. It’s a word that’s really appropriate.
Mike: You’re talking my language now. One of my main lines is, “Consciousness is the next competitive advantage.”
Ken: You’re right. A legacy from the industrial age is our focus on the economic man as the herald and leader. The logic seems to be that homo economicus is rational, knows how to accumulate wealth and has his or her eyes set on growth. If you focus on efficiency, command and control and either/or thinking then things will be fine. I think we need to question this dogma in organizations today. We should focus more on trust, networks, stakeholder value, societal impact and what it takes to leave a positive, lasting legacy. For Peter Drucker, the secret to living a stimulating and rewarding life was to be more than a one-dimensional man — enjoying a diverse set of interests, activities, acquaintances, and pursuits. I believe we need well-rounded leaders like that with a more developed sense of consciousness and moral responsibility to establish real, lasting societal change.
For me, writing The Neo-Generalist was a first step, but there is an even a bigger issue that needs to be addressed. Namely that of trying to cultivate the ground for more human organizations and constructing better narratives for the 21st century. Let me give you an example. Five hundred years ago, Europe underwent a Renaissance. It was a time of great cultural, political, social, scientific and intellectual change. The Renaissance was based on a new idea of the importance of the individual. Attention shifted from God to man. Man has since been at the center of the universe, limitless in our capacities for development and accomplishments. This narrative still drives much of the corporate growth agenda. We assume that earth’s resources are infinite and that nature is subject to human needs. The big question is whether we can afford this perception in the long run? The effects of global climate change will eventually force us to put nature in the center of things and focus on co-existence if we are to sustain life on earth. My friend, Fatiha Hajjat, calls this a radical renaissance. As I see it, we are at a moment in time where humanity is confused about its purpose, and how we can acquire a new sense of direction. It’s part of the systemic mind shift that leaders and organizations must address. If we talk about the skill shift, it relates to cultivating curiosity, critical thinking, sense-making, pattern recognition and cross-pollination of ideas. That’s where the thinking behind the neo-generalist comes in. We should encourage people to take responsibility for their own education and become self-directed, autonomous learners. I think we need to focus way more on life mastery. The concept of lifelong learning is important, but so is lifewide learning. It emphasizes that we learn from multiple contexts, from communities, from family and friends. Formal education is just one aspect of learning.
Mike: Yes, and a small one, actually. There’s fascinating research, which shows that when you daydream, which we now know is pretty much the same as REM sleep, your brain drops into a mode of operation where consciously it feels like you’re idling. It used to be called the idle state of the brain until about 2000 when a couple of neuroscientists in the University in St. Louis were measuring how much energy the brain was using in different states. They were getting people to do things like memorizing a piece of text, do some mental arithmetic. In between tasks that they were giving to these people, they were still lying in the machine not thinking about anything in particular, just daydreaming. They just happened to notice that the amount of energy the brain was using was going up. In some cases 20 times as much as when they were doing the mental arithmetic.
Ken: Wow. Yeah.
Mike: That led to further investigation which showed that, in that daydream state, more parts of the brain are talking to one another more vociferously than in focused concentration. Since then, more research has been done that shows that actually what seems to be happening here is that in that mode, your brain is working out hugely complex stuff that you could never process through ordinary linear thinking. This way of using our consciousness maybe something, which we need to remember. When you say Renaissance, I think that’s exactly the right word, because we need to re-know our innate ability to actually deal with complexity, which has a lot to do with actually taking time out to daydream. I have so much trouble with a lot of my clients actually saying to them, “What you need to do is to take five minutes out every hour and learn to daydream.” Their response is often, “But it won’t look like I’m doing anything.”
Ken: It’s interesting. Science backs it up, but we’re still reluctant to embrace it. When we’re talking about a mind shift, we need to recognize that it is not some woo, hippie stuff. It’s actually the important stuff. Sometimes when I talk to clients, I refer to a short story called On Exactitude in Science that was written by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. In the story the rulers of an empire send out a group of cartographers to map it. They draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the whole territory, eventually leading to the downfall of the empire. The moral in the story is that we as humans confuse maps with territories and perception with reality. We should be cautious about our over-reliance on a map, rather than the changing territory in front of us. If you relate it to organizations, we often focus so much on internal systems and processes that we forget to pay attention to societal changes and the evolving needs of customers. We forget to scan the horizon and adapt in time. It comes from an industrial mindset and an over-reliance on best practices. Copying others is easier than being truly original and inventive. What we really need to embrace are next practices. But it isn’t an either/or choice. I think the pendulum has swung too far in the exploitation direction. We have developed a bias towards success and rely too much on what worked well in the past. We conform and optimize. Procurement gets the upper hand. In the process, we forget the importance of exploration, which is needed to balance things. Exploration is a different discipline. It draws on curiosity, sense-making, experimentation and tolerance of failure.
Ken: I’m less interested in organizational structures. My main focus is on human beings. I would get bored if I only had to advice companies on how to build the right structures. I know enough about it and I consider it to be important, but we need a better balance between the structural process approach and the human side of things.
Mike: The question I had about organizational structure was really prompted by a number of people that I know who are experimenting with things like flat organizations and Teal, which I think, is a very worthy ambition. But I do think the core of how any organization structure works is all about people. I’ve asked the question because everyone is so interested in organizational structure right now, so it’s a jumping off point to be able to say, “Actually, your organizational structure is probably best designed from the human perspective.”
Ken: Yes, but there’s not a fixed model that works for everyone. In relation to transformation, for instance, we should focus on what it takes to stay relevant in the eyes of stakeholders and society at large. If you don’t change, you won’t stay relevant. If you are not interested in adjusting your thinking, learning strategies, behavior, and identity as an organization and an individual, then it’s a sure way to become irrelevant. I don’t see change as something that’s just done once and completed like a task. Organizations go through different life cycles and what keeps them alive over time is their ability to learn, adapt and reinvent themselves continuously.
Mike: Yes, well, change models that I was introduced to when I did my MBA, for example, are basically unfreeze, change, and freeze. The whole image of change is, “We’ve got to go through this dreadful, destructive disruption which is going to upset nearly everybody in the organization. It’s going to cost us a small fortune, and at the end of it, we’ll probably end up with something which actually looks rather similar to what we have before in reality.” I think that’s most people’s experience of change programs, that they’ll be things, which describe themselves as culture change programs, which usually do anything but change the culture.
Ken: Yes, I agree Mike. Organizations don’t change, people do.
Mike: Yeah, right.
Ken: You cannot force change on other people. People change themselves only if it makes sense. Great change agents know this. They focus on shifting the conversations in organizations. It is ultimately conversations that provide a context for action and set the stage for what gets done. As human beings, we live in a perpetual state of being, a constant becoming. If you think change is a one-time affair you’re in trouble. Learning is the best strategy in times of change. It is through constant learning that we stay current. Relevance is determined by our ability to connect outer events with our inner world and vice-versa. On a personal level, a clear understanding of your values, purpose, and vision enables you to cope to with the changing nature of the world, live with polarities and reconcile dilemmas without losing our grounding or the support of others.
Mike: To be comfortable with the fact that everything is always unfolding.
Ken: Yes. A vision of leadership in the 21st century is to grow an adaptive life perception. To engage fully in a mind shift, a skill shift, a behavior shift, and a system shift, an adaptive life perception is needed. Basically, it’s the ability to anticipate, sense and analyze changing situations, and then respond with a timely and accurate action. Not just once, but continuously throughout your life. One thing is to talk about it and another thing is to do it. People often ask me, “How do I do that? Tell me, how can I grow an adaptive life perception?” The best answer I’ve arrived at so far is that there are four essential things you need to work on: clarity, mastery, relevance, and agility.
Clarity is an investigation of the self. Awareness is the greatest agent for change and it relates to asking yourself some difficult questions, “Where am I? Who am I? What is important to me?” It is a structured values clarification process. As part of the process, for example, it is very useful for people to draw a lifeline, highlighting significant events in their lives that shaped their worldview and belief system. We all have these experiences. They played an important part in our formation and development as human beings. I work closely with business psychologist Anners Abild on this matter. He has developed a brilliant methodology that helps people clarify their values in three different spheres of life. In their private life, their personal life, and in their professional life. It is an eye-opener for people who go through the process. The purpose is to provide leaders with a solid grounding that enables them to live with complexity and tolerate a high level of ambiguity. By developing this deeper self-awareness it becomes easier to reconcile the dilemmas we face in our lives.
To gain clarity you also need to understand where you are in life. Going through different life stages, there are different things that are important to us. When we are growing up, when we are studying, when we have children, when we lose family members, when we go through breakups, change jobs or relocate to a new country we face different challenges. When we approach old age, there might be other things like giving back to society or being a mentor that is important to us. Life is contextual and when you understand that it becomes easier to navigate in a meaningful way. Dealing with these existential questions is important. It’s a process that takes time. Coming back to your point about resistant clients, I sometimes meet leaders that say, “Oh, I’ve done this before. I know myself. I’ve tried these sort of things before.” In reality, most people haven’t done the hard work needed to develop a compass that can guide them.
Mastery relates to our learning strategies and how we can we can become autonomous, self-directed learners. Do you, for instance, know how to tap into digital networks and knowledge flows? Do you have a systematic approach to listening in on different frequencies, having conversations with clever people, reading books and taking time out to reflect? I strongly believe in the value of personal knowledge mastery. I wrote an article about it in Harvard Business Review with Harold Jarche that explains the concept. There are three simple elements in the framework: Seek, sense, and share. If you’re able to seek information, make sense of it, and share it with other people then you have a navigation system for lifelong and lifewide learning. It means that you take control of your own learning and know how to constantly reiterate and adjust your learning strategy according to your needs and interests. It is like learning how to ride a bicycle. Once you know how to do it, you have a friend for life.
The Relevance part relates to how we form meaningful, productive and deep relationships with others. In order to understand how you are relevant to others both on an individual and organizational level, you must explore a series of important questions. What is your purpose in life? What do you stand for? What do you want to be remembered for? What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? How can you be of service to others? Being relevant is also about influencing. Not manipulating, but influencing in a positive way with good intent and being open to letting others influence you. It’s not a one-way street. In order to influence, you have to have a very firm understanding of what is important to you in life. You need to have a deep understanding of your values and purpose. But also of your belief system and biases and how your network and information sources shape your perspective and ideas. A ground rule for humans and organizations alike is to be interested if you want to be interesting. You need to listen, be constructive and generous in your actions. These are fundamental building blocks for generating trust and acting in an integritous way.
In this process, people clarify the stories they tell in the three spheres of their lives. Privately, we all have an inner monologue. These are the stories that we tell ourselves and that guide our self-perception. On a personal level, we tell other stories when we’re with family members, friends or attend social events. Lastly, there are the professional stories that we use in a work-related context. These are the stories we use when we talk to colleagues or clients and how we introduce ourselves when we attend a conference. We all have a repository of stories that we use in those three spheres but we often use they unconsciously and without attaching a deeper meaning to them. They shape our beliefs, personalities and influence our well being and opportunities. By surfacing these stories you can work with them and start using them more constructively to reflect your values and what you stand for. When people go through transitions in their lives this becomes even more important. Some stories have an expiry date. At turning points in our lives, we need new stories to set a fresh course and influence where we want to go next. For instance, when I say, “I live in more than one world,” then it is a simple framing that serves as a gateway to explore mutual interests and challenge the way we instinctually label each other through our profession. As jobs become more hybrid, I think it becomes even more important to have a clear understanding of your narratives and how to use them in a constructive way. If you’re are a person with many interests, people generally struggle with labeling you. If you don’t have a clear understanding of yourself and know how to use stories it is difficult for others to relate to you, get the right message across or even sell your work. Consider, for instance, how you put your LinkedIn profile together. Be clear about the stories and labels you use, because it’s one of the first things people check nowadays. I think there’s an art to getting this right and our stories constantly evolve so this is also about embracing a state of perpetual beta.
The fourth and last part is agility. Now we are entering your domain and the work you do around liminal coaching. It relates to being able to deconstruct and reconstruct our perception of reality and seeing a much bigger picture. In 1936, Esquire Magazine published an article called The Crack Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In it, he writes that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” This is important for leaders to achieve a new apprehension and effective use of contradictions in practice and thoughts.
When I talk about agility, I’m not talking about organizational agility. I’m talking about mental flexibility. One of our mutual friends, Dave Gray has done some great work in this field, building on Chris Argyris’ thoughts about the ladder of inference.
In short, it states that the experiences we have in life that we pay attention to shape our assumptions. From that, we draw conclusions and construct our belief systems. Working with leaders to bring awareness to their belief systems and biases isn’t easy. The hard part is to grow an affordance so you can do it on a continuous basis. If we acknowledge that we are in a paradigm shift where the landscape is changing right now, then you have to be good at deconstructing and reconstructing your worldview and challenge old dogmas. It is essential for staying relevant.
I think the only way you can do this is through action learning and practical application. You cannot teach it to people. We need to experience it first hand and be guided in the sense-making process. To give you an example, we took the leaders from the Middle Eastern oil company out to play football with children from the slum in Mumbai. Prior to this, they had been introduced to the Oscar Foundation that teaches children basic life skills and how they can mobilize their communities for positive social change through sports. Oscar is a purpose-driven organization founded by Ashok Rathod. When he started out in 2006 he couldn’t even afford to buy a football. Twelve years later, the organization has supported nearly 4.000 kids and their families across India. Ashok brought along two young leaders that he had trained to tell their stories and how Oscar had impacted their lives. Then we met the children and played with them. It was a way for the executives to internalize the learning and experience a mind shift. We wanted to challenge their perceptions of things and their sense of entitlement coming from a culture where Indians mainly work as servants and blue-collar workers. We wanted them to feel and understand what it truly means to be the change that Gandhi talked about and that change starts with ourselves. Ashok and the Oscar Foundation live this every day and for most of the executives, it was a profound learning experience. What I mean is that you can’t internalize and change behaviors through theory or by intellectualizing its importance.
In essence, the four elements — clarity, mastery, relevance, and agility — are equally important for us to grow an adaptive life perception. They are deeply interrelated and as you can tell it takes a very holistic approach to get it right.
Mike: That sounds like a great self-contained, complete vision. Maybe there’s another great book there?
Ken: I’m not sure whether a book is the right format for this body of work. I don’t want to simplify things too much, because the success of this approach relies on working with whatever emerges in the relationship and conversations. In order to truly move people, you need to be able to deal with a high level of complexity as a facilitator. I often experience that people working with leadership development inside large organizations intuitively get that it’s the right thing to do. Because it sounds simple they often think it is easy to do and run with the idea. Yes, it’s common sense, but the practical application is far from easy. You have to work on a deeper level and fully comprehend the interconnectedness and overlapping trajectories of the four elements. It’s not a standard quick fix.
Mike: I don’t think there is any quick fix, because I think that actually, if you don’t deal with what’s happening at the subconscious level, then it’s very, very difficult for anyone to make a significant change. That’s really what we focus on. As it is, actually once you’ve surfaced the things, which are happening with a leader who wants to make changes, but somehow can’t, then they can move forward.
Ken: It relates to something Erika Ilves said when we interviewed her for The Neo-Generalist. She mentioned that you have to be an entrepreneur, a scientist and an artist to thrive in this world. They fight three different battles: the unknown, the impossible, and the unimaginable.
Mike: Yeah, I remember that.
Ken: It’s different approaches, right? It’s not an easy task. We normally get uncomfortable if we have to fight just one of these battles. Relating it to an adaptive life perception, I think we need to revitalize the concept of bildung in a contemporary version fit for the 21st century. As we write in our book, the German word bildung can’t be translated easily into English. It refers to the shaping of a human individual’s personality, behavior, and moral attitude through their upbringing, environment, and education. Neither education nor formation suffices to cover the full meaning of the word. Bildung is a much broader concept, encompassing knowledge, judgement, a broad cultural and political orientation, an understanding of science and technology, and a cultivation of the fine arts. Bildung relates to living a fulfilled life. In order to do that you must be clear about what constitutes a good life for you, and what constitutes a good life for you might be different from what it is to me. Having the willingness to explore that and deriving a sense of direction as you go along is key. Bildung is about widening your opportunities, expanding what you know, being curious and having the courage to live on the edge.
Mike: What you’re talking about, though, and all the things that you mentioned, I would lay odds they are probably the first things, which get taken off somebody’s schedule if they see themselves as getting busy.
Ken: That’s the curse of modern day life and business. We still assume that leaders are people who think, and then there are people in organizations who just have to do whatever they’re told. In the times that we live in, that’s a really dangerous strategy. It’s an outdated paternalistic view unfit for a world that favors people who can ask great questions. I can recommend reading The Stupidity Paradox by André Spicer and Mats Alvesson. In the book, they highlight how organizations often hire smart people and then encourage them not to use their intelligence. Asking difficult questions or thinking in greater depth is seen as a dangerous waste. Those who learn how to switch off their brains are rewarded. It is quite depressing reading.
Mike: That seems to me to be a key problem because it stops the whole organization from being reactive, responsive, agile, flexible, and it also stops the very feedback that those leaders need to have, information from the front line.
Ken: Yes. That’s part of the problem. Many leaders live in a bubble. There’s too much conformity in their thinking and networks. In Denmark, for instance, a study of the power elite revealed that a small core of 423 people basically run the country. They are predominantly white males above 60 years of age. Many of them attended the same schools. They live in the same neighborhoods North of Copenhagen. They mingle in corporate boardrooms and socialize outside of work. Imagine if you placed them all next to each other. They would all be wearing gray/black suits, ties and white shirts. They would look like grey-haired dinosaurs. Do you think they want to challenge the status quo? How can they produce original ideas in such a vacuum? In my opinion, they are just defending the territory. Most of them have no ambition to change what got them to where they are. That’s part of the problem in both politics and business today. There are too few leaders with a real sense of maturity, where it’s not just about protecting what they have. Too many leaders are prisoners of rigidity and fear. We need more rebels and fewer bean counters to change that.
One of the most interesting leaders I’ve met is Anand Mahindra. He once said, “The reason why I am so focused on purpose, is because I grew up with sisters and I had a caring mom.” What he talked about was what we often relate to as female values, the opposite of aggression, of winning and of controlling. We rarely talk about the importance of giving, nurturing, caring and daring in the business world. Many people consider you to be a romantic hippie that knows nothing about economics, growth or efficiency if you bring it up. There’s still a widespread misconception that the softer aspects of human nature are unimportant when in fact it is exactly those things that secure relevance in the long term. Purpose-driven organizations that strive to make a positive societal impact make more money. They have higher growth and more engaged workers. The Mahindra Group in India is a good example of how you can rise by lifting others.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely.
Ken: Again, it’s coming back to a misunderstood perception of what makes a successful organization, namely that you have to be aggressive. You have to win and beat your competitors. If you are really good at what you’re doing, why pay attention to your competitors? Let them do whatever they want to do. In today’s environment, it might not even be the usual suspects that put you out of business anyway. Be comfortable in your own skin. My advice is to focus more on next practices and be aware that context matters. Organizational cultures are different and there is not one, all-encompassing management recipe for success. Don’t be overly focused on others, but be inspired. You should tap into what they’re doing, but trying to copy others is a sure way to fail in this world.
Mike: Eventually, I think it is, yeah. This is maybe a bit of a ridiculous question in some respects, but I’m going to ask it, anyway. What does an average day look like for you? Because it sounds like you have a zillion different things going on, so pretty busy, I guess.
Ken: I have been an independent for more than 15 years so I have some practice in what works best for me. I’m a big fan of Walter Russell, an American polymath who lived a productive and multidisciplinary life. He separated his days into blocks of time and shifted from one thing to the other when he got stuck. Like him, I have organized my life around different interests and projects that I work on. I do both short sprints and deep immersions, but I don’t seek to work every day, all day. I separate my days into time slots. I mostly do the heavy lifting, the thinking in the morning when my mind is fresh. I recently started doing meditation and yoga in the morning and I walk half an hour after lunch. In the afternoon, I normally focus on administrative work, calls, and emails. When I’m in delivery mode — working on a corporate program or giving a talk away from home — things naturally change.
The most challenging aspect of my professional life is the constant shifts of perspective. Writing is a solitary occupation. Coaching and mentoring is a one-to-one practice. Delivering leadership development programs involves broader collaboration and a deep understanding of group dynamics while speaking requires a one-to-many approach. Sometimes I might do all things in a day. It requires that I pay close attention to the context and how I disperse and preserve my energy.
I strive to live an integrated life. I consider the separation between life and work to be nonsensical. If you asked a farmer a hundred years ago whether he would leave the house and go to the stable to help a cow give birth in the middle of the night, then he wouldn’t hesitate a single second to get out of bed. I think that we have created an artificial division in our lives that is now getting harder to uphold in a digital world. My battle, the thing I’m struggling with, is how to live a healthy integrated life. To maintain a good balance between the mind, body, and spirit. When I travel for work I often combine it with exploring the places I visit. I reach out to meet local people and read about the history and culture of those places. I structure my work so I have quiet periods where I can focus on my creative life and writing. These contemplative buffer zones are necessary in order for me to learn, reenergize and spend time with important people in my life.
Mike: There is no typical day, and it tends to be fairly much of a shifting mosaic?
Ken: Yes, the analogy of a shifting mosaic is quite fitting.
Mike: You might be encouraged to know that I think that’s pretty much what just about everyone I’ve interviewed in this series has said.
Ken: It reminds me of an illustration in a book, Essentialism by Greg McKeown that hit me hard in the stomach. There was this drawing of a circle with multiple arrows from it, illustrating the energy that you disperse from the center. Next to it was another circle with just one arrow, and it was longer. It said, “The more you focus on one thing, the further you get.” It’s opposite of and contradicting to a lot of the things that I do. The idea of being able to focus on multiple things offers a richer life for me. As I see it, there is a huge value in cross-pollinating domains. It is, however, something that takes practice to get right.
Mike: I think that’s a very, very, interesting subject. Of course what they don’t tell you in that picture is the more you focus on one thing, the further you get, but they don’t tell you where you get to.
Mike: That is the problem. I actually think that being able to take in multiple different inputs from different perspectives is an essential thing to be able to do going forward. It’s what gives us a systemic view of anything that’s happening.
Ken: Yes, it makes us more adaptive and less vulnerable to changing circumstances. On the back of writing our book, I’ve realized how far we still have to go before organizations acknowledge that. For instance, we still look at the CV as a linear process. It doesn’t show you anything about how good you are at learning and applying yourself in different contexts. It often leaves out the less flashy aspects of our lives where we lead, learn and grow as human beings. You might be leading a group of scouts, volunteering for an NGO or singing in a local choir. Things that aren’t necessarily captured in a traditional CV. It rarely says anything about our principles or values either. I sense it’s the same thing with you, but I’m idealistic in my work. I’m not naïve, but I am idealistic, so there are certain companies that I don’t work with. You can’t tell that from my CV.
Mike: I actually believe that having ideals in your work is fundamental to making the work really good. I don’t believe for a moment that it’s naïve to do that. I think it’s rather cowardly to perceive idealism as naïve.
Ken: Yes. To give you an example, I don’t work with financial institutions. It was a decision I made in the wake of the financial crisis. I’m not interested in helping them make more money when the whole industry is systemically flawed. That’s not to say that there aren’t good people working in the industry. I just don’t see the point of fighting windmills.
Mike: We are getting a little short of time so can I just ask you what may sound like another dumb question, but it’s sometimes the dumb questions get great answers.
Mike: If you had to recommend one thing to focus on, to look at for an organization that wanted to move in the direction of being a more agile, more adaptive, more modern organization, what would it be? What would the first thing that you would say to them be?
Ken: I think it comes back to my point that in order to create organizations that are relevant in the future, you have to focus on four things. The right mindset, skills, behaviors and systems. There’s a tendency towards having a very narrow focus on the systems, the internal cogs in the wheel. I think it reflects an inability to deal with the larger issues in life. Conformity is widespread because so many senior executives who drive these initiatives are unwilling to change themselves.
Mike: Right. What a great, great summary. Thank you so much.