The process is surprisingly personal. Some leaders may find it difficult to take the path that grounds strategic insight by making a personal connection. Yet this personal grounding process is critical to sustaining legitimacy and practicing authentic leadership, especially when turning points requiring judgment are coming faster and more often.
In my case, the process came together in a classroom. In the spring of 2013, I had an opportunity to teach a course on Leading Transformation at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Because the experience created such an important turning point in focusing my interest in exploring the dynamics of transformation, I wish that I could point to a key moment or an encounter with a burning bush when there was a dramatic conversion. But instead it was the process of teaching and then writing that created the most significant impact.
- I asked the students whether they knew what I was talking about when I referred to Andrew Grove’s “Strategic Inflection Points”. One of the students told us “that’s what my boss calls the ‘Come to Jesus moment’ ”. And I smiled and thought to myself only at Georgetown.
- Or there was the time when I asked the students whether they remembered what I had talked about the previous week when I had described five arguments for democratizing transformation. I watched with astonishment as one of the students read back to me the five points in succession. It’s frightening. They were taking notes and listening to what I said is if it was doctrine.
- And there was, at least for me, the dramatic moment when I began telling my own stories about my experience with energy policy making. There has been such a dramatic change in the US strategic position as the country is now poised now to become an energy exporter. This moment seems so different from the grim days of Energy independence in the ‘70s that I thought there was a need to anchor the change. These were stories that dated back to government and to teaching in a classroom at the Yale School of Management decades earlier, and yet they were part of the insights that had brought me to that graduate school classroom at Georgetown. A visitor would have found it difficult to miss the fact that these stories were communicating far more effectively than anything that I had said earlier in the evening about policy or theory.
What was as important as the interaction with the students, was my commitment this time to write about what I had learned. A monograph that I had written for the IBM Center for the Business of Government, “The leaders guide to transformation: Creating a Playbook for leading Transformational Change” was what had led me to Georgetown in the first place. The class was an opportunity to explore what I had learned about leadership and the dynamics of transformation
The experience of teaching the course and writing the book was important in shaping a turning point in my thinking.
- First, the book took me back to a much broader perspective. When I was recruited by the postmaster general to lead the development of the digital strategy for the Postal Service at the dawn of the Internet revolution, I found, as many leaders do, that there is a severe challenge in living in both the world of strategic insight and high performance at the same time. Even when it’s possible to sustain the focus on strategic initiatives rather than the next quarter’s earnings, it’s often because of an investment in depth rather than breadth and performance is achieved at the expense of perspective.
- Second, the course and the book kept my focus on the dynamics of transformation. I was given a unique vantage point in the ‘90s. Two decades later, the experience had yielded as many insights about the dynamics of changing large complex organizations in the new marketplace as it had identified digital business opportunities. (There were many of those. But ultimately one of the things that was most interesting about them was the struggle that they created within the traditional organization that often was highly effective in killing them off.) The story is rich. But the distractions are many. What may be most important in the end may be the insight into the dynamics of leading change
- Third, the interaction with the students made it necessary to draw upon experiences in multiple public policy and public-private areas of interest. When I was recruited to be the first Vice President for technology applications at the Postal Service and went on to be Vice President for strategic planning, I found myself hearing the echoes of the challenges that I had seen former leaders face in fields that ranged from energy policy to healthcare to telecom, politics and government. The creation of the Internet was not my first experience with at epic transformations or the traumas that they create for leaders. The course at Georgetown and the book that followed reconnected me with broader interests.
Perhaps most of all the experience of teaching reminded me that there is a ground truth that comes from the process. Ground truth is often cited today as critical in balancing the perspectives of leaders. For those who have not yet encountered the phrase, ground truth is what General Colin Powell describes as the kind of insight that he was able to get throughout his career by walking around and talking to people about real problems. Leaving the eighth floor and the view over the mall to talk to State Department employees in hallways, waiting for elevators and on their way home was critical to him in keeping him grounded.
The process of teaching, of trying to explain the ideas in simple clear terms, was a filter that drove much of the theory into the end notes. Talking to students with diverse backgrounds, and in Georgetown’s case, with diverse public policy interests, reset my focus to the wide-angle lens. The experience caused me to personalize the story in a way that I never would have anticipated would be useful, even important in making in accessible for future leaders who will have to make such connections to sustain their authenticity.