“A good leader is like a gardener” and other key learnings from Leadership Update

February 15, 2017

Read time 5 min

Last Thursday Reaktor organized the first-ever Leadership Update event. The goal was to inspire leaders by rattling the status quo of current leadership truths and practises.

In the event, we heard thoughts from Risto Siilasmaa, Chairman of Nokia’s board of directors, Juha-Matti Liukkonen, Reaktor’s Director of Space and Robotics, and Stan McChrystal, an ex-US military four-star general and Commander of the US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, who transformed the way US special forces operate by distributing autonomy and creating a 7500-soldier-strong “Team of Teams”.

All three shared plenty of ideas, small and big, worth considering. In case you weren’t able to join us last week, here are my top three takeaways.

Complexity changes the game

Rapid advances in technology have transformed our world into an increasingly complex environment, and the progress seems to be accelerating by the minute.

This is bad news especially for large traditional organizations with relatively strict hierarchy.

A hierarchical company’s core processes, such as strategic planning, budgeting, and resource allocation rely heavily on predictability. In a complex and networked environment, direct cause and effect disappear. Predicting outcomes becomes impossible.

When traditional organizations collide with a complex environment, the outcome might not be flattering. This, according to Stan McChrystal, happened to the US Special Forces fighting against al-Qaeda in 2003. The community of highly trained troops was constantly outsmarted by an enemy that was inferior in resources.

Why? Because the enemy was highly decentralized and relied on a flat hierarchy, autonomy, speed, and a high level of adaptation. The Special Forces simply couldn’t move fast enough.

McChrystal came to realize that he had to abandon most of his ideas regarding managing efficient organizations, as well as what it meant to be a leader. Instead of increasing the amount of discipline, he started acting like – and I’m quoting – “a gardener”.

This meant distributing decision-making power down to operators and intelligence officers, the people who did the actual work. McChrystal introduced extreme transparency by implementing a daily ninety-minute intelligence sharing session with over 7500 people. He started taking down silos by rotating personnel within different teams.

In other words, he created a team of teams, a semi-autonomous entity that relied on horizontal co-operation, continuous change, adaptation, and learning, instead of Top Down management. The amount of executed operations grew by 1700 %.

Replace your five-year plan with cumulative learning

Like McChrystal, Juha-Matti Liukkonen points out the ever-growing contradiction between traditional methods, current goals, and the modern environment.

Adapting to a more complex environment doesn’t come without a price, though. The leader has to let go of control.

Adaptation starts with changing the corporate structure from high hierarchy to low hierarchy and distributing the decisionmaking power to autonomous teams. So then the control is gone, but uncertainty quickly becomes the main concern. How can an organization function properly when there’s no one in charge, calling the shots?

I won’t lie to you, I don’t think we can prevent uncertainty. But we’ve got it all wrong in the first place. Not having a chain of command can actually reduce riskiness.

The key to functioning properly is learning from actions. This is where an approach called build-measure-learn comes in handy. The approach pushes you to get rid of long-term planning and use experiments as a tool for validating hunches and expectations. The thought behind this is that the only way to validate whether something works or not is experimenting – because, as we’ve already noticed, complexity cannot be predicted.

Continuously learning from what you’ve actually done enables you to make decisions based on facts, instead of best guesses. From this perspective, it’s the traditional command-and-control that induces uncertainty, not autonomy.

Have empathy and be ready to challenge yourself

All of these new approaches are interesting and important, but change is not all about organizational structure and methodologies. Indeed, it also concerns leaders themselves and their daily ways or working.

Based on the three keynotes, here are a few practical guidelines for a good leader to keep in mind.

Enable, don’t manage. Instead of making tough decisions and carrying responsibility on behalf of the whole organisation, today’s leaders should shift their focus from details to vision, decisionmaking to structures that enable quality work. Plant seeds and nurture your employees – they’ll prove you made the right decision by letting them grow as professionals.

Don’t settle for obvious solutions. Make sure that you always have more than one sensible option available and if you don’t, dig deeper.

Empower your people. Information needs to flow horizontally and that requires a greater degree of autonomy and power outside the management team. Let people do their work as they see fit. As Siilasmaa put it, in order for people to succeed, they truly need to own their work.

Be data-driven and have empathy. Base your actions on data and ditch guesswork. However, never, ever forget empathy which, according to McChrystal, is the most important skill a leader has. You don’t have to always agree with your people but you have to respect and understand the way other people think and feel.

Contrary to popular belief, empathy and data-driven decisions are not opposites, and you need to have both. Feedback from customers and employees should be considered as a vital part of the much needed data, because they tell you what the problem is you’re solving.

Analyze your behavior and be brutally honest about it. As Siilasmaa suggested, analyzing your own behavior is crucial in times of change. After every major decision, write down how you and your team ended up doing the things you did: what led to that situation, what you gained, what could’ve gone better, what affected the decision making process.

Be brave. Giving away control is hard. Yet as a leader, you shouldn’t run away from scary things. You’ll probably face them anyway, and being prepared makes scary things less daunting. Be ready to set aside your ego, no matter how painful that might be.

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