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Damaging Consequences From a Lack of Leadership
We need to double down on collective leadership in both the public and private sectors. It’s the only way to make things work in what many would call our broken society – a society in which people (whether they’re employees or voters) desperately yearn for competence at the top.
There have been two big stories hugging the headlines in recent weeks – the sad and untimely death of Steve Jobs, Apple’s soulful CEO; and the persistent occupation of Wall Street and other locales by armies of protesters.
On the surface, neither story appears to have much in common with each other.
But, from my perspective, they definitely intersect and overlap.
Indeed, they’re both about much-needed inspirational and navigational leadership – or the lack of it.
Those sitting in on Wall Street seem to be demanding greater economic justice from the public and private sectors. Yet, in my opinion, the real reason these legions are camped out 24 x 7 is because our leaders in business, banking and government have failed to grapple with large, complicated and seemingly intractable problems that have a bearing on each and every one of us.
Confronting the Challenge of Change
It’s this abdication of responsibility – this inability or unwillingness to confront the challenge of change – that makes the occupation of Wall Street such an authentic protest, one that rings true for nearly 50 percent of all Americans, according to the latest polls.
Steve Jobs, on the other hand, never shrank back from problems that were thought to be insurmountable, nor did he choke on change. In fact, he reveled in big, sweeping technological transformation, and that’s why his leadership brand keeps growing in stature and reputation – especially in the weeks following his death.
In my view, Jobs’ posthumous stature and respect is instructive for leaders of organizations and institutions that are trying to find a positive and constructive growth map in today’s unremittingly uncertain economy.
First, Jobs was self-assured – and even brave – when he offered audacious solutions to long-festering technology problems. He put his digital vision out there and refused to back down. Too many leaders today seem hesitant to tell employees, shareholders, or voters how to genuinely fix what we all know is in disrepair. And this lack of leadership is one of the reasons why everything feels frozen right now; true leaders must have the confidence to present – and act upon – the truth.
Transformation Over Tweaks
Second, there were no half measures for Jobs. He knew what was necessary, and he never nibbled around the edges. He simply didn’t believe in tweaks. The iPod, iPhone and iPad – each of these recent innovations represented systemic breakthroughs, not incremental improvements. And this type of wholesale and uncompromising change seems to be exactly what people are looking for in other walks of life today, whether it’s radical reform of health care, or throwing out the current tax code and starting over from scratch.
Third, even though he had a reputation for being temperamental or difficult at times, Jobs was always able to keep his colleagues deeply connected and committed to Apple’s higher purpose. Inside his company, he galvanized through the use of collective leadership and power. Yes, it’s true he was obsessed with details and demanded perfection; but he also stirred tremendous passion in the hearts and minds of those who worked for him by sharing every step of the technological journey.
Broad empowerment like this is so important in organizations now, because the generation that’s entering the workforce often feels a lack of purpose on the job. Broad empowerment is also what people are seeking in the political system, and that’s one of the reasons why the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have claimed such widespread legitimacy and participation.
Despite the resounding calls and demonstrated demand for leadership in America today, some of our best and brightest leaders just aren’t leading.
The All-Important Convergence
Based on my experience in the private sector, I believe that too many c-level executives have achieved success by focusing intently on operational results, rather than the all-important convergence of leadership, culture and strategy.
I think that c-level executives can – and must – expand their portfolios by zeroing-in on both of these aspects of their job. And, if they don’t, they are short-changing their employees, shareholders – and a whole gamut of influential stakeholders who are looking for substantive and value-enhancing leadership today.
To be fair, many of the c-level executives I know and work with are just too humble. So humble, in fact, that they fail to realize and appreciate their own potential impact on an organization and its people. But the key is to remember that collective leadership and power is the absolute antithesis of self-aggrandizement. It channels everyone’s best thinking and best efforts into a constructive and collaborative whole.
An Implicit Responsibility to Lead
That said, leadership must radiate from the very top levels of an organization and permeate and penetrate every nook and cranny of the enterprise. This is meaningful collective leadership, and the decisions that are made – or not made – touch, affect and impact everyone, regardless of where they sit.
This is another area that Steve Jobs got right. And his collective leadership style, which involved, engaged and motivated so many Apple executives and employees, helped increase his company’s shareholder equity by nearly 600 percent between 2007 and 2011, a period punctuated by one of the greatest financial meltdowns we’ve ever seen in this country.
Leading collective transformations like this, collectively integrating culture and strategy, is the implicit responsibility of CEOs and their c-level teams. When you perch at the pinnacle, you have a unique vantage point, and you can see the entire company or community clearly – and that includes all the problems, solutions, challenges and opportunities, as well as the players who can make a difference.
Taking another page from the book of Jobs, if you followed Apple over the years, you saw a technology visionary at work, but you also saw a very hands-on manager who refused to keep an arm’s length distance from his people, his products, or those who craved and purchased his innovations. If you’re not that up close and personally entwined in your business, you simply can’t transform your company, your industry, or a handful of industries (technology, animation, music, and telecommunications) like Jobs.
Coping With Unprecedented Complexity
Is this collective melding of leadership, culture and strategy difficult? Yes, without question. And, I offer c-level executives my profound empathy as they try to confront – and master – one of the most complex business environments imaginable today.
But here’s the truth: very few senior leaders can deal easily with this degree of unprecedented commercial intricacy. It takes unparalleled courage and experience. Still, every executive must deal with it. There’s no choice, no excuse, and no outs or off-loading.
So, deep understanding and super-refined emotional capacity have to be channeled in order to successfully integrate and link leadership, culture and strategy. This is the only way to cope with mind-numbing complexity. And it’s the only way to make things work in what many would call our broken society – a society in which people (whether they’re employees or voters) desperately yearn for competence at the top.
The bottom line, then, is that we need to double down on collective leadership in both the public and private sectors. If we can’t get our leaders to step up, guide us, and collaborate with us, we’re going to continue to bump along a rutted road. Personally, I’d like to travel down a smoother path to prosperity. And I don’t think I’m alone in that preference.
John Boyle is the Founder of Convergency Partners and an expert in the areas of C-level performance, business strategy, management structure, talent planning, strategic alignment and culture.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.