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Leaders Beware: There be Dragons!

In ancient times, when map makers drew spots on the map where no one had been and no one knew anything about, they simply wrote: “There be dragons here.” The 21st Century feels much like that uncharted, perilous territory. But for us, as public servants, it is not a map or a place we are going to. We’re already there and we’re already jousting at the dragons.

Leaders now have to navigate in a world without maps, a world that bears little resemblance to the 20th Century we knew. And the tools we brought with us may not do the job here where “there be dragons.” This world has more at stake, more complexity than we have ever known: peril, information overload, uncertainty, economic crises, fragility, interdependency, and need, so much need. What all this feels like was once described humorously by George Carlin as “Vous j’a de” (that feeling that creeps over you when you know you’ve NEVER experienced anything like this before).

So here we are working harder, throwing more resources at the issues, yet our social problems are getting bigger–more exaggerated. Aye, there be the dragon!! Funny thing about dragons, though: sometimes when we think we are fighting them, we are unintentionally feeding them. It’s a dilemma: the needs keep growing no matter how hard we work and how much resource we throw at them.

There are numerous examples of unintentionally feeding the dragon and in future columns we’re going to take a hard look at some of them. We’ll discuss how to fix this dilemma, using some new, 21st century perspectives in leadership and organizational capacity. We’ll also explore some good examples of organizations who have already figured this out. It’ll be views from the balcony and from the trenches. The new year is a great time to start, so let’s begin here with new eyes, an open mind, a sense of curiosity, and some profound questions.

To add even more complexity, both the funding sources as well as the public at large are now demanding more accountability and the metrics to prove our value. More scrutiny than ever before is forcing public servants and public entities to prove their worth. This is true for all public organizations whether you are an elected or appointed official, non-partisan federal, state, county or city staff, or one of the many non-profit organizations set up to meet various needs and opportunities. The good news is, most public entities recognize this expectation.

The bad news: many are trying to respond to these demands from an old mindset–creating new strategic plans or implementing scorecards or dashboards. But that’s cart-before-horse. Before creating a strategic plan, we have to understand the concepts of scale, purpose, strategy, strategic management, and strategic thinking; the differences between symptoms and cause; and the difference between measuring outputs and outcomes. To quote an old book title: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” To successfully plan the future, first we have to get out of the dance and go to the balcony for a more strategic and systemic view, and then be brutally honest: if social problems are getting bigger, are we expending the right efforts? What are we really doing here and are we, to quote Lincoln “passing off as progress what is really just change?”

Further, it’s not just determining a “mission and vision” then creating a plan, either. These documents often gather dust on a shelf after spending enormous amounts of time and money to create them. And they often don’t reflect where our actual efforts, energy, and focus are being spent. In other words, it doesn’t matter what we say, it’s what we’re doing that matters. Many of these documents aim too low; like the nonprofit symphony’s mission to “fill the seats” when, with no more effort, they could also focus on saving classical music from extinction. Or there’s the mental health clinic located on unused rural acreage whose mission is to provide housing and care for consumers of mental health services. With no more effort, they could also offer the residents the option to be participating citizens and valuable resources, encouraging their contribution through gardening or farming projects.

Sometimes these documents aim too high, employing lofty words to describe a mission where no effort is actually spent: consider the drug and alcohol clinic whose mission statement promised to help individuals become addiction free and happy and productive citizens. A noble statement, but in this case, they were actually measured and funded on how well they could keep people out of jail, so that’s where all of their effort went regardless of the noble words.

So, before creating a strategic plan, we have to be sure we are thinking strategically (bigger picture and further out) and systemically (taking into account interdependencies among all of the parts). Can individual organizations solve all of society’s ills? No, but leaders can start by looking at their own organization’s capacity through a different lens. Simply put, we have to start with questions rather than answers. These must be the right questions, of course; we get the answers only to the questions we ask.

So here’s the first big one: Are we serving or solving?

Asking that question, then answering it with brutal, open-minded candor; that’s our call to leadership in the new year. A Navy Admiral once said “ships are safest when they are in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” The same is true of leadership. Anyone can be a leader during easy times. REAL leadership shows up with courage, boldness and a profound sense of curiosity rather than certainty. REAL leaders may not have all of the answers, but they certainly ask the right questions. To paraphrase an old quote: “Difficult times do not necessarily build leaders, but they do reveal them.”


Next month’s column: The Seduction of Correctly Solving the Wrong Problems.


Laree Kiely, Ph.D., President, The Kiely Group. Dr. Kiely served on the faculty at USC for over 15 years. In addition to currently leading the Kiely Group, she serves as faculty for leadership programs at Duke CE, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird, and Ivey (Toronto). The Kiely Group specializes in Leadership and Organizational Impact. Please send your comments, questions, and stories to us at: [email protected]


Photo courtesy of http://www.search-best-cartoon.com/cartoon-dragons.html.

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