July 2005 Insight Newsletter

8000 Year-Old Shoes

Two modern scientists struggled for months to recreate a pair of intricately-made 5000 year-old shoes worn by a hunter found long-frozen in ice. They’re an amazing composition of several different animal hides, bark and grasses that must have taken years or perhaps generations to perfect at the time. Other researchers found 8000 year-old shoes, discovered in caves in the Carolina’s, to be as complex in design as much of the footwear worn today.

Changing How We Work
Why didn’t our inventive ancestors also produce tall buildings, airplanes, televisions and computers? Of course, each human discovery builds in small ways on the last. There were very few humans on Earth then. They had no handy ways of communicating skills from one group to another or passing knowledge down from one generation to the next other than word of mouth or a few pictures on stone or bark. Like us they concentrated on solving their direct day-to-day problems and didn’t have time for more. Today, because only a few people need to work out how to make better shoes, the rest of us can advance to other new challenges. Then we can share our successes so every field advances.

The most amazing thing about knowledge is that amassing more of it can lead to simplification. You and I can now access millions of pages of information by clicking on a search engine and use it to sort out what we need quickly. We can manage that even more readily than buying new shoes.

Think of the underlying technologies that are revolutionizing the ways we work, study and create new knowledge. Both Google and email are distinctive in being incredibly
simple to use. Addresses only a few letters long reach anywhere in the world. We can even get approximate translations of work written in diverse languages from translation web-sites. Computers were much less useful before inventors created methods simple enough for all of us to use them.

Think how long it took to invent first writing, written arithmetic, the printing press, then wide-spread education, the automobile, factories, consumerism, computers and now search engines and email. The accelerating pace in development of new knowledge and skills is amazing. Yet we are still coping as human beings. Each successful invention simplifies in some way what existed before. An essential part of our continuing progress is simplifying what we find into useable, human-scale methods that others can then use to progress a few steps further.

Simplifying Works in Leadership, Too
The same processes are at work in the area of improving our understanding and use of leadership skills. The Romans perfected massive organizations not only for conquest, but for building roads and water ducts that led the way to creating cities with running water and sewers. Cities in turn made it possible for people to share and amass knowledge in a ways never-before imagined.

Roman leadership was mostly command and control – strict, often brutal discipline – but their society thrived for so long mainly due to an elaborate system of checks and balances. Few emperors lasted more than a couple of years before being “replaced.” Today’s parliamentary government models can be seen as a simplification of the Roman model. Yes, a simplification that focuses on the idea of checks and balances, although it may be difficult to believe anything about today’s governments is simple. It seems likely we haven’t yet simplified leadership enough.

What we know now is that organizations that give rank and file workers the most autonomy and encouragement produce the best ideas, the fastest advances and best results provided everyone works toward common goals in a flexible, logical structure. It is the check and balance concept applied to structure, yet with autonomous thinkers within it. (For expert research demonstrating this you might check Jeffrey Pfeffer’s summary – here.)

The Key To Modern Leadership Is Balance
This is why I emphasize “sustaining balance” as the key centre-piece for better leadership. Finding and sustaining the right balance in which people can work effectively together toward large goals is the challenge leaders face today more than ever before. Each person works on a small piece of the whole. Each must understand the technical depth of what they’re working on, but also the larger aims in equal intensity.

Leaders themselves have to be the models. No leader can know everything that’s going on in an organization, but they must appreciate the diversity and what it may produce, encourage growth in all related aspects and look for ways for people to share the knowledge and build on it consistently to sustain progress. To do less is to drop out of the race because other organizations that manage this balancing act will quickly surpass slower ones.

That’s why a goal of reducing the components needed to understand leadership effectively to the fewest possible is helpful. I was lucky to get exposure through various jobs and careers to challenges that showed how this could be achieved, how just five elements can make leaders far more effective at every level. In today’s organizations that’s what’s required – for every individual to take a leadership orientation to what they do, just as most individuals now use email and search engines. Then they’ll contribute their best to the whole, under effective leaders at every level. Every new improvement to a shoe, a system, a team result, a product offering is valuable and must be shared and advanced if we are to ultimately solve the problems we face world-wide.

The job of leaders has become simpler. We no longer have to try to make decisions for everyone. We just do five things: encourage, coordinate balance, coach habits and help clarify effective direction to deal with honest reality… and amazing results become not only possible, but inevitable if we do this well. Finding and sustaining the best balance among these is an on-going challenge, but well worth it.

“You must draw on language, logic and simple common sense to determine essential issues and establish a concrete course of action.” – Abraham Lincoln