"My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that." So said the Red Queen to Alice in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. It makes for an amusing passage in an imagined story about a topsy-turvy world. But in the actually tumultuous environment in which we all operate in today, it's a bad undesirable strategy, pure and simple.
Two things are undeniably true. The first is that regardless of which part of the planet you occupy or what sector you work in, the world today is turbulent. A recent survey of 1,500 senior leaders found 84% describing their current operating world as "increasingly disruptive." A year ago in a separate study by PwC, a full 82% of CEOs called the landscape uncertain at best, and more accurately, unpredictable. Such assessments are just the most recent layers of a heaping trend. But here's the second thing that's true: The Red Queen effect is very real and very easy to fall prey to. In other words, it's all too easy to respond to a dramatically changing landscape by just trying to run faster only to, at best, stay in place, but more likely to find after all your efforts that you are slipping further behind.
What then do you do? One thing is obvious - you have to change the way you do whatever it is you do. Yet, it's not just necessary to change how you do things. You have to shift the framework driving how you think. Here are three shifts that today's most effective leaders are making in their thinking that are helping them to move away from Wonderland and towards wondrous results.
Shift 1: From Only About the 'Now' to the 'Long View Right Now'
Good organizations have a purpose and a mission. Great ones have a clear sense of what that means to them every single day, in every single decision and act. Yes, having a purpose is vital. But making it shared and ubiquitous is something else entirely. One of my favorite examples of this is Patagonia. The outdoor outfitter has a strange yet highly effective habit of killing product lines, often extremely profitable ones. It's a habit that seems completely counterintuitive to being profitable in the here and now. But each and every day, the company is conscious of its greater shared purpose: to enable people to get out into the great outdoors. So anytime they discover that their products, even if effective in getting people outside, are doing harm to the environment, they set a goal to quickly change or if necessary purge the offending product. They know that even if keeping the offending product line means short-term gain, doing so undermines their ability to stick around long-term and to reap the larger value they're truly after.
Shift 2: From Knowing 'How' to Knowing 'Why'
The frenetic pace of change and the prevailing air of unpredictability in today's landscape increasingly causes all of us to focus on efficiency: how can we get done, fix, or speed up what we do to meet the needs of the moment? The air around us is thick with an overemphasis on how we get things done. It's precisely the environment in which we are at the greatest risk of forgetting why. You could have the best plan in the world, even the best people to execute it, but if you forget why, you risk losing it all. Consider the American Revolution.
When the Continental Army dragged itself into Valley Forge in the winter of 1777, they really weren't either - an army, or continental. They were a rag tag bunch of independent militias, begrudgingly sent by 13 separate jurisdictions to fight. But the actual reason wasn't as clear. In February of that winter, Baron von Steuben arrived at the Continental encampment and within a few short months transformed 5,000 scattered souls into a true fighting force, one that would go on to beat overwhelming odds and win Americans their freedom.
When most ponder how von Steuben was able to do what countless other capable leaders had tried to do and failed, they typically credit his decades-long experience fighting for various armies in Europe. While agreeing that basic training and drilling and a plan were indeed important, von Steuben credited something else as the most pivotal - something he described in a letter to a military friend back in Europe. "You," he wrote to his peer, "you say to your soldiers, 'Do this,' and 'do that,' and they do it. Nothing less, nothing more. But I," von Steuben said, "I am obliged to say, 'This is the reason why.'" Simple. Powerful. And inevitably, fundamental.
Shift 3: From Playing Hero to Playing Team
One thing, one critical, foundational thing is true in this Red Queen world today: being Queen is not enough to keep pace with the ever-shifting demands of leadership in today's world. Indeed you need an entire kingdom alongside you to step up to the shared challenge of leadership.
Too often we equate the leader with leadership, when in fact leadership is a capacity all of us possess and which, to be effective, all of us must embrace. When Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella set forth a new North Star purpose for the company to "empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more," it was the kind of purpose too great for one person. But unlike many companies and leaders, Nadella called out that very point. He then added a second goal to the first: to move Microsoft from a culture of 'know-it-alls' to one of 'learn-it-alls.' Though it appears a simple move, in making it Nadella made clear a simple truth and his commitment to honoring it: To lead well, we need one another. He was saying more still - Even what we know collectively today, isn't enough to progress to tomorrow and beyond. We have to keep going. We - together - must keep pushing and keep growing what we know, how we see the world, and how we lead. Successful leadership is a team sport.
The kind of shifts described above aren't incredibly complex. In truth, they are quite straightforward. The real challenge comes in making the shift to keep them forefront in our thinking and actions - to spend less time simply trying to keep pace, and more time remembering what we're after in the end and why.