November 5, 2020

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures – #40 Stakeholder Engagement, Purpose, Ahead of the Curve, Unified Leadership – What It Takes to Lead Through an Era of Exponential Change

By Rob Andrews


This article features paraphrased content from Aneel Chima and Ron Gutman’s 10.30.20 article in the Harvard Business Review.

To say that 2020 is a year of disruption and change is a blinding flash of the obvious. Much as we might like to think of 2020 as an anomaly, it may not be. Conditions for accelerating change have been building for years. Advancements in information technology, automation, human interconnectivity, artificial intelligence, and the network effects among them, created a new reality where change is much more rapid, continual, and ubiquitous. Covid-19 and its derivatives laid bare a “new normal” of change, marked by three dimensions:

  • It’s perpetual — occurring all the time in an ongoing way.
  • It’s pervasive — unfolding in multiple areas of life at once.
  • It’s exponential — accelerating at an increasingly rapid rate.

This three-dimensional (3-D) change is defining our emerging future and, as a consequence, effective leadership will be defined by the ability to navigate this new reality. The problem is our models for leadership weren’t built for this kind of 3-D change. Noted futurist Ray Kurzweil emphasized, “The future is widely misunderstood. Our forefathers expected it to be pretty much like their present, which had been pretty much like their past.” But, projecting our pasts onto our futures exposes a fundamental error:

Linear thinking can never catch-up and adapt to the perpetual, pervasive, and exponential change occurring around us — it’s simply too fast and too complex.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Chima and Gutman advocate a new brand of leadership, better equipped to navigate this unprecedented change. For this purpose, they gathered, under the Stanford University umbrella, leaders who generate impact and change at a global scale. What emerged was a new vision of leadership, which they call Sapient Leadership.

A Sapient Leader is characterized by being wise, clever, and discerning in navigating change while also being humane in the face of change that can often feel alien. This kind of leadership emphasizes — counterintuitively — an anti-heroic leader. Sapient Leaders exhibit authenticity, humility, and vulnerability, inspiring the necessary trust and psychological safety that drives shared learning and intelligence, resulting in enhanced collective performance and leading to a better future for all. and Ron Gutman’s 10.30.20 article in the Harvard Business Review

How to Practice Sapient Leadership

The four pillars of Sapient Leadership emerged out of the discussions with luminaries as they were navigating 3-D change in real-time — each leader, in some capacity, articulated a version of these ideas. Leader humility, authenticity, and openness instills trust and psychological safety. In turn, trust and psychological safety empower individuals and teams to perform at their highest capabilities. In addition, continuously learning teams are essential for keeping pace with and effectively navigating 3-D change. Finally, shared purpose and common values enhance focus, cohesion, and resilience in the midst of 3-D change.

 Leader humility, authenticity, and openness instills trust and psychological safety.

In times of uncertainty, leaders often posture themselves, maximizing perception of power and control. In contrast, Halla Tómasdóttir modeled authenticity and humility when she reflected on her challenges as a candidate during the Icelandic presidential election. She, along with many of their luminaries, openly questioned the traditional paradigm of a leader as an individualistic hero. Instead, she highlighted the need to build trust through openness, saying, “what this crisis has shown us is that the leadership style of ‘I know it all’ is not a good leadership style for this moment or any other challenge we are going to continue to face.

In a world of 3-D change, leaders need to continuously evolve in order for their organization to evolve and grow. A leader must be willing to instead exhibit humility and flexibility and change according to what the organization and circumstances require. Tómasdóttir exemplified this notion in her personal philosophy: “leadership is not given to the few — it’s inside of all of us, and life is all about unleashing that leadership.”

Trust and psychological safety empower individuals and teams.

3-D change amplifies our innate and evolved human tendencies to skew towards threat perception, anxiety, and divisiveness when experiencing stress and encountering ambiguity. As such, psychological safety is even more important during these times of change. Individuals and the teams they comprise thrive in environments where trust and psychological safety are present. In a recent extensive study at Google, code-named Project Aristotle — for the maxim frequently attributed to him, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts” — researchers found the most important factor associated with the highest performing teams was psychological safety. When team members feel safe to be vulnerable in front of one another and to take risks, they perform at their best.

A consistent theme running throughout conversations was the essential nature of empowering teams and individuals to perform at their highest capabilities, especially now. “Change is not a solo sport,” said Bret Taylor, President and COO of Salesforce. “All great change has been done by great teams, great communities, and great networks.” When recalling times of rapid change throughout his career — from the creation of Google Maps, to inventing the “like” button, to scaling rapidly worldwide during the early days of Facebook — Bret emphasized the importance of leadership that motivates strong relationships, fluid communication, and a foundation of trust to driving exceptional team performance.

Continuously learning teams enable effective navigation of 3-D change.

In a world where change is perpetual, pervasive, and exponential, Sapient Leaders, their teams, and their organizations must continually learn, update mental-maps, deploy new tools, and course-correct based on the best ideas and practices. “If you want to make a change in something you have to get into it deep,” said Toby Cosgrove, describing his openness to learning transformative ideas from anywhere he could. When he was the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, he regularly immersed himself in contexts where he could learn a better way. “If I heard somebody was doing something someplace in the world, I would pick up my pencil and paper and I would go and watch them do it,” he said. “I traveled someplace, learned something, and tried to bring it back and incorporate it.” What he was doing as a leader was both modeling leadership as a process of continual learning so others would replicate in their way, as well as disseminating what he learned throughout the organization in order to improve on existing processes and innovate new ones.

In a world of 3-D change, no one person or organization can master all knowledge across all domains, no single person or organization can master enough skills in breadth, depth, or pace, to keep up. Instead, learning must be inspired by leadership, reinforced by culture, occur across a variety of domains, coordinated through the whole and shared openly and actionably to create the broader picture. Without data and input to synthesize into understanding and action, a team or organization will be perpetually impoverished. To keep pace with 3-D change, Sapient Leaders need to enhance the breadth, depth, and pace of learning in their organizations to meet the extent and velocity of change.

 Shared purpose and values enhance focus, cohesion, and resilience during 3-D change.

Professor Bill Damon, esteemed professor at Stanford University and one of the world’s leading purpose researchers, defines purpose as a stable intention to accomplish something that is both personally meaningful and serves the world larger than the self. Purpose, necessarily informed by our values and arising from a sense of personal meaning, unites our inner world with our actions in the world around us in a unique and powerful way in service of a vision larger than ourselves.

In times of 3-D change, which by its nature amplifies uncertainty and ambiguity, shared purpose and values increase organizational focus, enhance team cohesion, and amplify personal and collective resilience. They can also powerfully mobilize large numbers of people to solve complex problems together.

Consistent Themes

Chima’s and Gutman’s research is entirely consistent with our research around organizations that perform at the very top of their sectors. Recognizing what a new brand of leadership looks like is one thing. Transforming your organization is another. We hope this piece has been interesting, thought-provoking, and perhaps even useful. Our work is about building cultures of peak performance and we would love to be your thought partner. Give us a call.

Warmest Regards,