Thursday, November 3, 2016

Of Bookcases and Authentic Leadership 
A few months ago, in response to a post I wrote in Ikea furniture, there was a suggestion that, by mere virtue of age and decay, the Swedish icon's furniture can possess wabi-sabi characteristics. I pondered the possibility that I am too strict in my application of wabi-sabi in my exclusion of Ikea products but a more significant aspect of wabi-sabi came to mind and assured me that there are deeper examples of wabi-sabi grounded in the authenticity of the source material.

While the modern antithesis of wabi-sabi would be regarded as a sleek metal or plastic, the essential characteristics of Ikea products still align with the modern: symmetrical rather than organic; rectangular rather than curved; slick and polished rather than tactile.  Beyond that is the admission that the particle board that comprises Billy or Kallax does not have the authenticity or appeal of real wood. It is merely a processed (pulverized?) version of the real article.

Instead of being designed primarily for their intended use, Ikea furniture is an amalgam or a contrivance of a range of intentions and goals, cost effectiveness, convenience, mass marketability and style being the primary aspects that are integrated into the products.  These are as much a part of the market appeal as the furniture's actually function. The minimalism of the furniture belies these considerations and the masterful design, but the myriad intents guiding each product's development erode the authenticity. While the deterioration of the furniture over time might charm an observer, it might also indicate a corporate mandate for decline or cost effectiveness that is not intrinsic to a comparable piece of furniture that is a product of a more artisanal mindset. These products would not foster attachment or affection, merely a tolerance based on utility and a rationale for merely replacing the product when required.

Despite my entry into this post, I wish to get to authenticity as it applies to people and the way we interact with one another, especially in leadership capacities.  Authentic leadership is probably challenging because, as is the case with Billy or Kallax, a leader in an organization today has to act as a composite of functions, intentions and mission that can vary from one instance to the next.  It is a challenge to retain or merely project authenticity when there are so many roles and mandates that a leader is required to perform at a given time and those complexities increase with the size and scope of the organization and the challenges that it faces.  It is much easier to play the role of leader in a smaller, more intimate organization with a limited mandate than in a larger one where the org chart is requisite and the challenges faced complex and numerous. I am not certain if authentic leadership is complicated by the distance between a leader and his or her followers, but it certain requires the ability or willingness to assert that authenticity from the stage that one is on.

Despite the quest for authenticity from leaders, and the course or formulas that are intended to bring it out, there is some concern about showing that real face, especially if it exposes vulnerabilities and doubts that may result in the leader getting "eaten alive" by a team. The risk prompts many to "fake it until they make it," but ultimately it overlooks the distinction between a Billy bookcase and a leader. In the case of a bookcase, the frugality and function of an Ikea item invites a greater tolerance for a by-product of the essential ingredient rather than a more expensive, carefully crafted piece of furniture.  (The bookcase, after all, is a storage unit by a romanticized name and we'd rather put the money into the books rather than the shelving.)  We have more tolerance for these compromises in a bookcase than we might have with a dining room table or a hope chest.

A leader performs a far more elegant, complex and communal a task than a bookcase. With that, there is a need for a leader to connect with the original material - the heart, mind and soul that are the analog to the pine, oak or mahogany of a more enchanting piece of craftsmanship. The authenticity of a leader requires the originality of that particular self or character and its response to the individuals, situations or mission that they have had thrust upon them. Such an authenticity, detached from the limitations of formula and impersonal mandate, gives a leader the opportunity to exercise a flexibility and mindfulness that would enhance connections with his or her team and a greater understanding of the challenges that they face together and the resources that are available to address.

An approach to leadership that does not embrace or expose that authenticity risks undermining the synergy of the team or organization as the discreet components of the amalgam of missions and purposes hang together uneasily. If the is work oriented toward vague, arbitrary bottom lines or deadlines and, as is often the case, there is a sense of quarterly targets and other measureables eroding the unity and synergy of a team that is bonded by the authenticity of a leader willing to expose vulnerabilities, contradictions and second thoughts. Such authenticity can, despite the doubts, rally a team together and encourage that team to live and work more comfortably with those same realities of the self.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Do We Want To Head Where Money is Headed?

If we were going to work from the wabisabi premise that nothing is permanent, then it is worth contemplating the impermanence and change of money. Needless to say such a discussion would raise some concerns about the entire structure of the economy and how money's preeminence ought to change.  Despite the anxieties that might accompany an inquiry into the structure and orientation of our economy, there are changes that are occurring that have transformed money in different ways. Cash, for instance, is moving closer and closer to becoming an anachronism as not only coins are being retired from circulation, but the pursuit of a cashless society continues forward with only token hesitation.

To look more broadly at money's evolving place in our society, CEO's salaries and bonuses have become a measure of venality rather than skill and accomplishment. As money ceases to measure value and accomplishment with accuracy, there is a need to reassess its significance in society and, more specifically, in the hierarchy of an organization. There remains a commitment to pursuing profit and without that pursuit, there would be little for an organization to hang its hat on, or ensure its survival.  Even in the era of the burgeoning use of the triple-bottom line money remains the preeminent measure of accomplishment and progress in an organization.

Given the obvious threats to the environment and our consciousness about one percenters and their ilk, money and profit seems to have take on the air of an aging and perhaps senile throne-holder that needs to step aside and let a more vibrant organizational mandate or measure of success try the reins.

Too often, the pursuit of profit has invited mechanistic or linear approaches to business management and deadened organizations with structures that limited individual autonomy to express themselves through their work.  Conformity and order take precedence over the individual contribution through innovation and creativity that needs to be nurtured if talent is to be retained and allowed to blossom into an artisanal, disruptive force in an organization.

The greatest successes in business, those marked by invention, innovation or insight have long been mythologized as the achievement of an individual whether Edison, Ford, Jobs or Musk, but the reality is that those name can be complemented -- if not buttressed and abetted -- by anonymous individuals who were given the opportunity to risk, commit and fail on occasion to advance the progress of the organizations.  These achievements were not fostered by the adherence to the arbitrary version of success that the bottom line declares.

The certainty of organizational methods that were adopted decades ago and still persist despite the accumulating stories of risk, failure, innovation and ultimately success that capture our attention time and again as new businesses ascend on the strength of a corporate culture that is less risk averse and short-sighted.

Instead, emerging organizations are giving employees the autonomy to do their work in the creative manner that makes individuals more intimate with their work, the passion they bring to it and the people they share goals with rather than fencing them into a structure where they are only exposed to and ultimately numbed by the narrow and obvious confines of an organization or a mission that is defined exclusively by the monetary value that can be assigned to it.

If we looked to foster a workplace culture that allowed individuals and teams to ponder and explore such evanescent things as the creativity or the outlying thoughts that they may possess at any given moment, there would be an explosion of presence, commitment and accomplishment that is far less likely in organizations committed to the pursuit of goals measure by meandering and doddering old profit.