Has Leadership Become Another Stranded Asset?

by Steven Lang MBA (alumnus of One Planet MBA), co-founder & director of InSpring Global

(Re-published. Originally published on 21st December 2017 on LinkedIn)


There can be little doubt that if there’s one thing we really need, in these times of great change, disruption and challenge, it’s good leadership.

Good leaders help us make sense of the world. They inspire, embolden and empower us, collectively and individually, to forge a pathway through complexity and uncertainty to achieve some sense of prosperity and well-being. They expand our horizons of possibility. They instil confidence and hope. They create the conditions for us to realise our potential.

No wonder then that good leadership is seen as a significant intangible asset.

But what if the type of leadership we need for the future is fundamentally different from what got us to this point? Does the leadership asset then get impaired? Doesn’t it become obsolete, stranded?

Even a cursory glance at the 2030 SDGs begs the question – where will the type of leadership we now so urgently need actually come from? How many of those we currently look up to as leaders really have the knowledge, qualities, character, skill and judgement required to steer us through the turbulent times we now find ourselves in?

With trust in big business and our major institutions at an all-time low is this perhaps a sign that, in the eyes of the public, we’ve already written off the assets wholesale and are looking for something quite different to replace it?

It needs calling out.

How many of our bosses may not fit the new mould? What are the implications of this? How many of them have really only succeeded in rising to the top of what is now quite clearly a broken ladder?

Why should we assume they are the right people to design and build a new, more stable ladder? One that benefits the whole of society rather than just a select few who have become experts at playing a game whose rules stack the odds against society at large, the environment and future generations.

Is it not a form of extreme madness to entrust our future prosperity to those who have so patently and irresponsibly demonstrated that the old face of leadership just doesn’t work? What if your boss resembles this old face of leadership? Can they adapt, or are they really just a stranded asset?

As you read this, you will likely have ‘stranded asset’ bosses in mind. Most of us will. You can spot them a mile off. They just don’t seem to ‘get’ what’s really happening in the world, clinging as they do to perpetuating their own power and success, shaped by a warped world view that just doesn’t chime with what we know to be true. They might talk a good game of ‘Purpose’ but the words are rarely followed through with any conviction or meaningful action.

You’ll also likely be able to clearly identify those leaders that do get it (and there are many that do), those waiting in the wings that inspire us with a world view that resonates, those that are looking to adapt, learn and change, and those ‘mavericks’ who just need more freedom to do their thing.

3 concepts that frame the new face of leadership

What is the new face of leadership? And how does it differ from the old face?

3 powerful interrelated concepts that have gathered momentum over recent times enable us to draw a sharp distinction. Each of these concepts, in its own way, reflects our growing acknowledgement that something is seriously wrong with the way we have been governing the progress of our institutions, our economies and our species.

Conveniently, when put together, they depict a face. This of course is little more than a happy coincidence for those of us who favour simple visual cues over weighty tomes of theory. Granted, my contribution is unlikely to win any Nobel prizes, but as a playful prompt for discussion about whether your leaders are fit for purpose, it’s not a bad place to start.

The three concepts to which I refer are:

  • The 3-nested dependencies model of sustainability – Giddings et al 2002 (left eye, as you look at the face),
  • Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics – 2017 (right eye, as you look at the face), and
  • Otto Scharmer’s Theory U – 2013 (mouth).

The old face is represented by a view of the world that disconnects the economic system from the social and environmental systems on which this depends, a simple supply and demand graph that has been at the heart of economics for decades thanks to Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics, amongst others, and Otto Scharmer’s Theory U – Absencing (2013). The face is woefully short-sighted, self-serving, and unfit for the world we now live in.

The new face is represented by a more holistic understanding of systems, an appreciation that everything is connected, that respects the 2nd law of thermodynamics, that adopts a new model for economics that fully reflects social and environmental dimensions of impact, and that applies the principles of Scharmer’s Theory U – Presencing.

Bear with me…

The old face of leadership. What got us here, won’t get us there.

For decades, leaders in many of the world’s most powerful institutions have been making decisions based on a view of the world that drives economic progress, profit, GDP, shareholder value, whatever financial manifestation of progress is de rigueur, at the expense of social and environmental externalities.

As these externalities now ferociously bite back, through climate change, ocean acidification, social unrest, wealth inequality etc we realise just how irresponsible and unsophisticated this way of thinking is.

Yet many continue to make decisions this way, failing to truly understand the interconnected dependencies of economic prosperity, social cohesion and environmental resilience.

This has been fuelled by a myopic and destructive theory of economics that has all but ignored any serious consideration of social and environmental externalities, resource depletion, and the preservation of the foundations on which all economies are built.

This in turn has driven patterns of behaviour that have become entrenched and that perpetuate the madness – what Otto Scharmer calls ‘Absencing’ – characterised by destructive autopilot responses driven by judgement, narrow-mindedness, ignorance and fear, and a way of operating that reflect a closed mind, a closed heart and a closed will such that the status quo is never challenged.

If ever the status quo needed challenging, it’s now.

If your bosses resemble this old face of leadership, this is unlikely to happen any time soon.

The new face of leadership. Abundant hope and potential

Fortunately, there is a different way. A much better way. A way that, if adopted by a critical mass of leaders right now, would rapidly drive the sort of profound innovation needed to make the world a better place, to restore balance and inclusiveness in society, to restore the health of our planet and to deliver the 2030 Global Goals. In the process, delivering an entirely new template for economic progress that benefits us all and that creates the conditions for future generations to thrive.

Too good to be true? Not really. It just requires a little bravery, a lot of experimentation and a conviction that we’re better than the structures we’ve locked ourselves into. So, what shapes this new face of leadership? And why does it find it so hard to, well, show its face?

The new face fully respects the reality that we, as humans, are part of complex interconnected societal and environmental systems. We simply cannot progress, in any meaningful sustained way, unless we build into our decision making the impacts we have on those systems that sustain us. Giddings et al represented this as 3 nested dependency systems. At the risk of oversimplifying, there’s no economy without a functioning society and no functioning society without a healthy environment. To make decisions absent these considerations is at best careless, at worst criminal.

Economic theory – if it’s broken, fix it. As Kate Raworth so elegantly postulates in Doughnut Economics, human thriving depends on us making decisions that meet certain social foundation conditions whilst not overshooting critical ecological boundaries. Decisions that betray one of these conditions are harmful to our collective prosperity. And why would we do that? Sadly, we do it all the time. A problem of leadership?

Making decisions this way may seem more complex and nuanced than the spreadsheet obsessed processes we’ve become accustomed to but this is what our deeper sense of humanity is designed to navigate. We have the tools, we should use them.

Otto Scharmer describes these tools and behaviours in Theory U as ‘Presencing’ – a process that accesses our deeper sources of knowing about what the right thing to do may be in any given situation. A process that enables us through an open mind, an open heart and an open will to truly understand systems, to observe and see impacts from the perspective of other stakeholders, and to be mindful in how we respond, lead and innovate for the betterment of all.

Maybe I’ve been a convert for too long to each of these schools of thought but, whilst on one level they’re profound shifts, in reality they’re just common sense. This is both their beauty and their power.

Frankly, it amazes me that most of our ‘leaders’ don’t yet operate this way. It really isn’t that difficult. It requires a mind-set shift but the concepts themselves are not that tricky to grasp. You don’t need to be an environmental economist to get this stuff.

Naysayers may point to issues such as lack of robust data, lack of effective metrics, difficulty in valuation methods, ‘spreadsheet does not compute’, the risk of sticking your neck out when others still operate on old paradigms, loss of competitive advantage by collaborating more openly. Blah blah blah.

From where I stand, for a species that put someone on the moon, invented the internet and discovered Kepler-90, these seem like pretty lame excuses.

Breaking the cycle. Inspiring the next generation of leaders

The power of simplifying complex concepts down to images lies in their communicability to the next generation of leaders. Those we have a duty to equip with a more informed world view. Those we have a responsibility to inspire with the awesome potential of thinking in a way that simultaneously drives widespread prosperity, environmental restoration and economic health.

In the arduous, extensive and time-consuming research for this blog I tested these concepts with my 3 young sons. Their conclusions varied from “well, yes it’s pretty obvious really Dad, why is this not happening already?!” to “I totally get it, why would there be any other way?”. Not necessarily a representative sample but I’d wager it’s a decent proxy for what others in this generation will feel.

And this is what vexes me so.

Ultimately, this only seems difficult because we feel locked into paradigms, structures, organisations, processes and procedures that govern our lives in a way that just doesn’t work.

It’s time to break out. To express our best selves. To challenge outdated leadership. To identify stranded assets when we see them and call for their impairment, removal or upgrade.

More importantly it’s time we started equipping future leaders with the wisdom, basic insight and frames of reference they need to do a better job, frankly, than the current generation of leaders are doing in nurturing that which sustains us.

It’s our duty.

There’s no time to waste.

Abundant potential awaits to be unlocked.

The key lies in nurturing the new face of leadership in those on whom we will soon depend to drive societal progress, and in calling out the old face when it rears its ugly head.

Together we can make this happen.

When we do, we’ll all benefit from a true flourishing of the human spirit.

All views expressed are those of InSpring, and me.

Feedback always welcome.

Thanks for reading.


For more information, contact Steven Lang at steven@inspring.global

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