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Paradigm-Busting Leadership

by Guest Writter
Chip R. Bell, Author, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service

Disruptors are getting a lot of attention these days.  They are the organizations that have recognized many organizations have reached the limits of incremental improvement as a means of competitive advantage.  The pursuit of innovation has replaced the singular quest for kaizen.  Continuous improvement has become a boring table stake about as exciting as preventive maintenance.

It reminds me of the great story about the CEO who asked her senior executives, “What would you have to do to increase your unit’s output by 10%?”  Her leaders boldly began outlining ways to cut costs, enhance efficiency, and improve employee engagement.  She stopped their well-worn solutions by asking a follow-up question:  “What would you have to do to increase your unit’s output by 100%.”  A hush fell on the group.  After a long pause one of her leaders quietly said, “You cannot get there from here.  We would have to rethink everything we do.”

Paradigms are the sense-making lens through which we view the world.  So, a paradigm shift is a fundamental change in the view of how things work in the world. Years ago futurist Joel Barker used the almost overnight demise of the watch dominance by the Swiss because they could not get their heads around the quartz revolution.  Even though the Swiss had invented the quartz watch, they let Japanese companies like Seiko become the world’s dominant watchmaker.  He called it being held hostage by the paradigm. The future winners, Barker proclaimed, will be the paradigm-breaking pioneers.  Today we call these pioneers disruptors.

Experiencing the Edge of a Paradigm

This article is about leading paradigm-breaking pioneers, those trail blazing people who ignore the “It’ll never fly, Orville” protestations and create breakthroughs.  But, before we examine the leadership features, it might be worthwhile to look at the edge of a paradigm.  You will recall Albert Einstein’s famous quote, “You cannot change the paradigm from within the paradigm.”  Barker would say you might not even be able to see a paradigm unless you are at the outer edge.

The folks at Coca-Cola and Pepsi did not spot the start of the $120B bottled water industry any more than 20th Century Fox and MGM realized the TV explosion in the ‘50s would require content the movie industry should have had a lock on.  Upstart NBC filled the void, not the big movie houses. In fact one 20th Century Fox executive claimed that TV was a passing fad; “No one would want to look at a plywood box every evening.”  Motels along interstates were not started in the 50’s by high-rise hotel companies like Hilton but rather by disrupters like Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson.

In the hit movie, Men in Black, Kay (played by Tommy Lee Jones) tells new recruit Jay (played by Will Smith), “Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat. And fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”  It was a classic example of a confrontation with a paradigm shift.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet who wrote such famous poems as “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  My favorite poem of his puts you right at the edge of a paradigm shift. While the poem clearly has religious overtones, how the poem shakes your view of reality is a clear illustration.

What if you slept

And what if

In your sleep you dreamed

And what if

In your dream you went to heaven

And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower

And what if

When you awoke

You had that flower in you hand.

Ah, what then?

Paradigm-busting enterprises do more than challenge a competitor; they revolutionize an industry.  More importantly, they create new norms that cross industry lines.  Uber challenged the taxicab industry.  But, it created new customer expectations for greater control and convenience that were then mimicked by others like the fast food industry (like Dominos) or the shipping industry (like upstart Shyp).  Early adopters of the sharing economy like SnapGoods and NeighborGoods in the consumer products paved the way for Lyft (car sharing) and AirBNB (renting rooms in a private home) and the upstart FlightCar that rents your car for you at the airport while you are away on your trip. Some might claim that Napster (1999) inspired Wikipedia (2001) that inspired Facebook (2004) that inspired YouTube (2005).

Leading Mavericks

There have been many studies of what leaders do in highly creative, breakthrough-driven enterprises.  The features of such leaders strongly remind one of the role of leadership in a professional services firm (like a medical practice or a law firm).  Since these organizations hire people who are bright, self-starting achievers who have no need for adult supervision, leader influence comes more through a focus on mission and client service than on following instructions. Selection is done by peers; appraisal by done by clients; neither is performed by “the boss.”

So, how would your leadership approach change if all of your employees were suddenly independently wealthy volunteers?  What if you were the supervisor of a Lady Gaga, Steve Jobs, Susan B. Anthony or Booker T. Washington?  And, if the energy of leaders is spent being an enabler, supporter, supplier, and advocate, where does the buck stop?  What form does accountability play and for whom?  This is not a plea for leader-less groups but rather for an exploration of a transformation in the role of the leader.

Leaders of paradigm-changing pioneers are known to focus on creating a supportive work environment.  “A good director,” said actor Kevin Bacon, “Creates an environment which gives the actor the encouragement to fly.”  Such leaders frequently show an obvious commitment to the team members.  “The magic doesn’t come from within the director’s mind, it comes from within the hearts of the actors,” said director James Cameron of Titanic and Avatar fame.  They often are known by the respect they show their associates.  Actor Robert de Niro said, “A great director respects what they’ve hired you for:  to do the part and respect what you are doing.”

But, what is in the role description of such courageous disruption-starting leaders?  What if you went to sleep and dreamed of being in a place of awesome ingenuity and non-stop brilliance?  What if in this place you met its leader.  And, what if that leader gave you the manual for paradigm-changing leadership.  And, what if you awoke from that dream and that manual was in your hand.  If you opened it to learn the wisdom inside, what would it tell you?  Let’s start a conversation about what your manual says!!

About the Author

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several national best-selling books including his most recent Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service.  He can be reached at www.chipbell.com

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