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.

Damaging Consequences From a Lack of Leadership

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

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.

Live on Monday: Does the US need one billion people?

What would happen if you tripled the US population? Join Matthew Yglesias and Charles Duhigg at 1pm ET on Monday, September 28.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Learn innovation with 3-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn

Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.

Big Think LIVE

Having been exposed to mavericks in the French culinary world at a young age, three-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn made it her mission to cook in a way that is not only delicious and elegant, but also expressive, memorable, and true to her experience.

Keep reading Show less

Ultracold gas exhibits bizarre quantum behavior

New experiments find weird quantum activity in supercold gas.

Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • Experiments on an ultracold gas show strange quantum behavior.
  • The observations point to applications in quantum computing.
  • The find may also advance chaos theory and explain the butterfly effect.
  • Keep reading Show less

    3 cognitive biases perpetuating racism at work — and how to overcome them

    Researchers say that moral self-licensing occurs "because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard."

    Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash
    Personal Growth

    Books about race and anti-racism have dominated bestseller lists in the past few months, bringing to prominence authors including Ibram Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Robin DiAngelo.

    Keep reading Show less
    Scroll down to load more…