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Flight of the Buffalo

The Challenge of Leadership:  Our Personal Journey

The Powerless President

 The president shifted nervously in his big chair. His youngish face, belying his early fifties age, was creased with worry. His company was greatly admired and mentioned frequently in business magazines. His stock sold at healthy P/E multiples. With his Ivy League training, he was a leading spokesperson for American business. Yet, now his eloquence had deserted him.

He got up, strode to the window, and peered out at the bucolic setting. "Not on my watch," he said to the huge oak outside his window. "This can't happen on my watch." After an eternity of silent shuffling of feet and clasping and unclasping of hands, he whirled and faced me, steel flashing in his eyes. I've got five years to retirement. What can I do to make these five years count?"

The challenge was daunting. The company, despite its favorable press, was failing badly. They had lost market share in every single phase of their business and were significantly late in several new product launches. Their cash cow was under attack by the Japanese. Despite their cash hoard and dominant market position, the company was in serious trouble. He saw with crystal clarity the potential danger if the business did not change radically now. The unthinkable could happen on his watch and he did not know what to do. Nothing in his previous experience or training had prepared him to deal with this situation.

This president's problem is all too familiar. Although he sat in the CEO's chair, he was powerless to accomplish the changes he knew had to be made. He saw clearly WHAT had to be done. The management mantra of the nineties was familiar: teamwork, better quality, improved service, faster time to market. He knew them well. He preached them to anyone who would listen. Yet, he was unable to produce any of these vital outcomes in his organization.

He had tried valiantly to effect changes. In the last six years he'd instituted programs designed to stimulate quality, customer service and teamwork. He'd trimmed the organization, reorganized functional groups into product/customer focused units, and reduced the number of management layers. Yet, he continued to lose market share, competitors continued to beat him to the market, and he'd lost 50 percent of his market value. He just couldn't move his people to do what he knew had to be done.

I know how that president feels. I've sat in the same chair, felt my gut crawl, and felt like throwing chairs through windows in frustration. I know it is easy to talk about being different. It is a lot harder to be different. I also know many other presidents feel very much the same frustration and sense of helplessness.

All leaders face a challenge of leadership. The old models and paradigms no longer work. How leaders develop, and live a new model of leadership, is and will be the critical success factor for most every business. It is for mine.

The Old Leadership Paradigm: The Head Buffalo and the Herd

For a long time, I believed the old leadership paradigm that told me that my job was to plan, organize, command, coordinate, and control. I saw my organization functioning like a herd of buffalo. They looked like the figure above. Buffalo are absolutely loyal followers of one leader. They do whatever the leader wants them to do, go wherever the leader wants them to go. In my company, I was the head buffalo.

Originally, I liked that arrangement in my organization. After all, my brilliance built the organization. I wanted people to do exactly what I told them, to be loyal and committed. I loved being the center of power, and I believed that that was the leader's job.

I realized eventually that my organization didn't work as well as I'd like, because buffalo are loyal to one leader; they stand around and wait for the leader to show them what to do. When the leader isn't around, they wait for him to show up. That's why the early settlers could decimate the buffalo herds so easily by killing the lead buffalo. He rest of the herd stood around, waiting for their leader to lead them, and were slaughtered.

I found a lot of "waiting around" in my buffalo-like organization. Worse, people did only what I told them to do, nothing more, and then they "waited around" for my next set of instructions.

I also found it was hard work being the lead buffalo. Giving all the orders, doing all the "important" work took 12-14 hours a day. Meanwhile my company was getting slaughtered out there in the market place because I couldn't respond quickly enough to changes. All this frustrating work as the leader of the buffalo herd was growing old--and making me old before my time.

The New Leadership Paradigm: A Flock of Geese

Then one day I got it. What I really wanted in the organization was a group of responsible, interdependent workers, similar to a flock of geese, like in the figure above. I could see the geese flying in their "V" formation, the leadership changing frequently, with different geese taking the lead. I saw every goose being responsible for getting itselfto wherever the gaggle was going, changing roles whenever necessary, alternating as a leader, a follower, or a scout. And when the task changed, the geese would be responsible for changing the structure of the group to accommodate, similar to the geese that fly in a "V" but land in waves. I could see each goose being a leader.

Then I saw clearly that the biggest obstacle to success was my picture of a loyal herd of buffalo waiting for me, the leader, to tell them what to do. I knew I had to change the pictures to become a different kind of leader, so everyone could become a leader.

Out with the Old, In with the New

Rather than the old head-buffalo leadership paradigm, I developed a new lead-goose leadership paradigm. Crafted in the crucible of real-time leadership experience, that paradigm is built around the following leadership principles:

bulletLeaders transfer ownership for work to those who execute the work.
bulletLeaders create the environment for ownership where each person wants to be responsible.
bulletLeaders coach the development of personal capabilities.
bulletLeaders learn fast themselves and encourage others also to learn quickly.

This book is about how I became a different kind of leader and many of the lessons I've learned on my journey. It's also about how I transformed every person in my company into a leader in his or her own situation.

It Isn't as Easy as It Looks: The Ved-up Herd

I'd like to tell you that I have achieved perfection: that my geese are off flying now, that every person is a fully functioning leader. Unfortunately, that's not true. While I've made great progress, there's still a long way to go. My own organization is successful. I help other leaders transform their buffalo into geese. With many false starts and stumbling through many bad decisions, I've traveled a rocky road to get where I am now. I am still learning my leadership lessons. So are my dependent buffalo. They are V-ed up as you can see in Figure 3, but they aren't flying yet.

Preview of Coming Attractions

What follows in the first chapter of Part One is a mid-course summary of the leadership journey. While every situation is different, I begin the book with this summary because I've learned the fundamental principle that every leadership journey is a personal, emotional one, like mine. Changing your leadership paradigm happens first in your gut.

Chapter 2 spells out the insight I realized early and return to often: "In most situations I am the problem." My mentalities, my pictures, my expectations, form the biggest obstacle to my company's success.

You'll notice that this book is written from a different perspective and this second chapter spells out that difference. I used to see others as problems. They were the reason my business didn't perform as well as it should. They were the reason my plans never worked as well as I thought they would. My effectiveness as a manager and leader improved dramatically when I learned to see myself as the problem. I learned that when I see performance that is unsatisfactory the first question to ask is "What is it that I did or didn't do that caused this to happen?" Understanding that I am the problem allowed me to learn how to become the solution. This became the fundamental perspective for my leadership journey and the foundation for everything in the book.

The third chapter lays out the problems I had faced in coping with world very different from that for which my academic and prior experience prepared me. I was prepared to be the "leader," to lead the charge up the hill, as Teddy Roosevelt had done so many years ago, to rally the troops with stirring words, as Knute Rockne did with his halftime speeches to "win one for the Gipper"; and to lay out the brilliant strategies that would be extolled in the pages of Fortune and BusinessWeek. Those paradigms no longer worked when I showed up to be the leader. I was ill equipped to handle the realities of leadership in the last decade of the twentieth century. My difficulties in leading with an obsolete paradigm empowered me to see that I was the problem.

Part Two spells out the fundamental leadership principles I learned during my years of wrestling with the task of becoming a more effective leader in the age of intellectual capitalism. These principles became the framework for my journey into understanding and practicing a new paradigm of leadership.

The chapters that follow in Part Two will share the fundamental leadership principles:

bulletTransfer ownership.
bulletCreate the environment for ownership where each person wants to be responsible.
bulletCoach the development of personal capabilities.
bulletLearn faster and encourage others to do the same.

How I learned these principles comprises the second part of the book. Use these principles to take charge of your leadership journey, rather than just letting it happen to you. You can be the skipper of your ship, rather than a storm-tossed victim. You can be the driver of this vehicle called life, rather than just a passenger.

The systematic method I developed for transforming buffalo into geese is the Leading the Journey (LTJ) leadership system. The following model shows the LTJ system. That system forms the framework for Parts Three, Four, Five, Six, and Seven, much as it formed the basis for my own leadership journey.

The journey is fun, and difficult. It is exciting, and tedious. It has moments of euphoria, and moments of deep despair. Perhaps my story will provide guideposts to make your journey a little easier. In this way everyone in your organization can become a leader.

You'll notice that there are persistent themes that appear over and over again throughout the book. These persistent themes sounded the clarion calls foe me on my journey.. They are the "red threads" that weave my story together. Again and again I came back to the following insights:

  1. In most instances, "I am the problem." My desire to be the head buffalo, my wanting to rescue people, my previous success, all get in the way of successfully handling the current situation. Nothing constructive happened until I recognized me as the obstacle and changed my behavior.
  2. The customer is the boss, not the internal organizational boss. For too long I insisted that the person in the corner office had to be served first, with data, with deference, with swift response to requests. We didn't make the progress I knew we had to make until we started serving the customer first.
  3. Think strategically. I used to begin with what we could be and then manage forward. We struggled to make inches of progress and usually finished out of the money. It wasn't until I began with what we must be for customers and managed backward from that, that we won gold medals.
  4. Practice the intellectual capitalism leadership style. Create the conditions where the intellectual capital holders assume responsibility for delighting their customers. Everyone must be a leader before there's effective leadership in the new organization.
  5. Leading is learning. I languished until I realized that learning faster was the key to my survival. Maximizing everyone's learning is the key to my organization's success. My organization didn't soar until everyone became an avid learner.

Watch for these themes. They will reappear throughout the book. Let them become your guideposts as well.

If you're ready to begin the journey, so am I. It will be exciting.

Welcome to the journey of the flying buffalo.

QUESTION:  What do I know that just isn't so?

LEADERSHIP SOLUTION:  Begin the journey now!


[PDF Format Biography]


Copyright 2001-2009, Dr. James A. Belasco, Ph.D.

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