Change, Learning and Leadership

By Guy Higgins,

I was reading an article recently, Principles for an Age of Acceleration. The basic premise of the article was that everything is changing so fast that we can’t keep up with it. That change is driven by the pace of advances in technology – all kinds of technology, not just information technology. Driven by, but not isolated to, technological change. Technological change is enabling or forcing changes in society, health, governance, and ethics (and, maybe, everything else). I was disturbed by the article. Will artificial intelligence create massive unemployment? Will we find ourselves in an ethical swamp as we use genetic manipulation to grow replacement organs in pigs (and yes, that’s something being pursued today)? What will society look like when humans are no longer a necessary part of the economy?

Of course there has been great angst with every technological revolution and the changes driven by that revolution – as Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) observed, “Change is good. You go first.” Plato complained that writing made people lazy because they didn’t have to remember things – they could just write it down (of course, we have to accept Aristotle’s word for that because Plato didn’t write things down). The printing press was a threat because it created a situation where books became cheap enough that common people and not only the elites could own them.

What does all of this have to do with learning and leadership? Let’s look.

Railroads, about two hundred years ago, forced their leaders to create organizations because the size and geographic reach of a railroad company was simply too great for any one man to control (read that as “lead”). These first organizations were, naturally enough, hierarchical. Hierarchies made sense, because communication was slow and difficult – in fact, railroads were the fastest means of communication before the telegraph – and the leaders needed to be able to communicate general direction to the people on the scene who had better local information. Most companies are still organized hierarchically, although there are bold pioneers (I just saw this observation, “Pioneers – they’re the ones with the arrows sticking in them.”) experimenting with other organizational concepts.

The problem organizations face today is the diametric opposite of that original railroad communication problem. Communication is so fast and its reach so great that our hierarchical organizations are too slow and cumbersome to deal with the speed of communication – they have become the bottleneck to progress.

As leaders, we need to learn how to take advantage of changes and restructure the ways in which we work to create “organizations” (whatever that will mean in the future) that enable the achievement of our goals – quickly and efficiently. As with the concepts in many other leadership posts we’ve published, this is going to be hard. It will mean leaders shifting from being directors to being enablers. It may mean relinquishing control of resources. It may mean shifting from a leader mode to a worker mode and back – many times.

I don’t know what the future will bring in terms of change, but, as leaders, we will either step in and participate in those changes, or we will be victimized by them.


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