Dave UlrichGuest Author

What Do Thought Leaders Think?

By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization

How do thought leaders think about management, innovation, corporations, turbulent times, discontinuity, effective executives, and managing for the future? (Note: All these terms are from titles of Peter Drucker’s magnificent books). In this essay, italicized text indicates book titles or quotes from Peter Drucker.

I recently had the privilege of attending and participating in the 10th Annual Peter Drucker Forum. Conceived and delivered by Richard Straub (and his outstanding team), this remarkable event brought together sixty thought leaders in management from academia, industry, journalism, and consulting. Collectively, these leaders have published thousands of books about talent, organization, and leadership. In short eight- to twelve-minute bursts, they shared their insights on a how to reinvent, reimagine, and recreate the overall study of management that Peter Drucker founded.

Let me distill four insights from these thought leaders.

Change, in whatever form, is not new, but critical.

Whatever the latest incantation or term (agility, turbulence, reinvention, activism, transformation, learning, discovery, design thinking, disruption), recognizing and adapting to change creates success. Drucker (and others) talked about discontinuity (1969), turbulent times (1980), next economics (1981), a time of great change (1995), so change is not a new challenge. Even the term VUCA (1987) is not a new concept. 

To respond to inevitable change, we need to look forward to opportunity more than lament the discomfort of the present; learn from both failure and success and see failure as an opportunity to learn; and recognize and let go of unconscious biases that hinder change. We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.

In today’s world, digital technology allows unheard of transparency, access, and sharing of information that drives change (15 to 20 percent of jobs will be done away with, and 65 percent of jobs will change with technology). This information ubiquity empowers (even requires) people to take accountability to be liberated in their own career, and it pivots organizational reinvention from hierarchies to platforms where everyone has access to information to make decisions.

Ideas matter.

In the sixty presentations (and hundreds of sidebar conversations), ideas matter. Each presenter brought unique insights and enormous passion for their ideas; some of the ideas were theoretical (role of business and government) and some pragmatic (experiences of leading CEOs); some research based (findings on innovation practices) and some conceptual (emerging organizational form); some narrower (ask good questions) and some broader (role of business in society); some skeptical (excesses of capitalism) and some optimistic (reinventing liberated organizations); and some looking back (lamenting hierarchy) and some looking forward (forthcoming digital transformations). Thought leaders are not short on thinking!

As I pondered this incredible smorgasbord of ideas, I was struck how leaders in all types of organizations and at all levels must learn to navigate the inevitable paradoxes of our times. Paradox in business means that there are fewer “from/to” work transitions and more “and/also” pivots. Some of the emerging leadership paradoxes of our day include:

• Working alone and working together. Deep personal expertise fosters innovation, and collaboration enables application. Leaders fight the war for talent, but they create victory through organizations.

• Creating purpose and making profit. People work (as if they are volunteers) for meaning and purpose, but without winning in the marketplace (making profit), there is no work. Leaders become both meaning makers and market creators. Businesses exist to produce results on the outside, in the market and in the economy.

• Managing hard data with analytics and soft data with stories. Decisions improve with analytics, but insights into the future often follow outlier stories. Leaders need to manage the head (analytics) and the heart (stories).

• Freedom through empowerment and accountability through the right culture. Leaders liberate their people to fulfill their potential, and they ensure accountability to customer value creation by having the right culture.

As leaders navigate between these (and other) paradox guardrails, they enable tension without contention, disagree without being disagreeable, and create a future without disrespecting the past. Leadership is defined by results not attributes.

IMPACT (in cap’s to highlight it) matters even more.

With innumerable ideas being shared, an inevitable challenge is to turn these ideas into IMPACT. The impact of these ideas may be on multiple stakeholders.

• An employee becomes an agent for himself or herself when he or she takes personal accountability for professional and personal choices.

• An individual leader better articulates purpose, empowers others, monitors time, and models values.

• An organization creates the right culture and installs the right governance mechanisms to inspire and connect employees, customers, and investors into a shared network or ecosystem.

• A government defines a political philosophy and generates regulatory statutes that move a country and citizenship forward.

• A movement redefines organizations as settings where people believe, become, and belong so that customers and investors win.

Creating this IMPACT comes from broad visions and simple actions. And, as noted in the Forum, progress is being made. Many of the leading organizations of our day (Alibaba, Amazon, Google, Haier, Huawei, Vinci, Unilever) are reinventing organizational principles that inspire people and create the right culture.

The future holds good news and warning signals.

Thought leaders frame ideas; diligent managers deliver results. Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.

From this conference, I am encouraged with the good news of fresh and insightful thinking that challenges orthodoxies, encourages innovation in organizational logic and individual agency, and creates a more boundary-less future.

Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes.

The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different.

At the same time, I am concerned about rhetoric not matching reality when thought leaders individually call for collaboration. In many ways, being a thought leader singing a solo is easier than a choir director bringing together many voices into one agenda. Thought leaders might better model thought leadership (plural, collaborative) by building on others’ ideas and working together through the difficult process of disagreements to find novel solutions.

In addition, I worry about an inside-out focus of many of the talks. Value is not defined by the giver or activity but the receiver or outcomes of the activity. The ultimate value of upgrading individual talent and establishing the right organization cultures comes from customers, investors, and communities. There was more attention given to what is done rather than the outcomes of what is done. There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create [and keep] a customer. The customer is a foundation of a business and keeps it in existence. The customer alone gives employment.

Even with these nagging caveats, now is a remarkable time for managerial and organizational innovation. As thought leaders transfer their thoughts into others’ actions, we enable individuals and organizations to fulfill their purpose and enrich the world we live in. I have great hope in this future. The best way to predict the future is to create it.

Republished with permission and originally published at Dave Ulrich’s LinkedIn

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