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book excerpt

The following excerpt from Straight Talk on Leadership: Solving Canada's Business Crisis, by R. Douglas Williamson, is reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wily & Sons Canada, Ltd. © 2013. All rights reserved.

Rebuilding the Franchise

Leading a group of people, a team, a department, a business unit or an organization is a privilege that comes with certain very serious obligations.

While there is no single "right" style or textbook approach, because circumstances and situations vary too greatly, there is a common obligation to lead from a set of core principles that keep people pointed in the same direction and focused on the same objectives. As a result, ensuring and maintaining alignment at all levels is key, and it is also one of the most difficult challenges facing any leader, especially in times of turmoil and transformation.

People easily become lost and confused when their focus is diverted from the path immediately in front of them, and they can often miss the signs telling them to turn left or right. One of the most important and fundamental choices of modern leaders is to decide whether they will lead by map or by compass.

Command-and-control-style management is about maps. It is about strict adherence to a chosen course, with no deviations allowed.

It assumes someone at the top already knows the best path. It is about discipline, control and compliance. The problem is it creates a dependency mentality because management is about having the answers.

Transformational leadership is about a compass. It is about a process of discovery, which assumes we will learn as we go and get stronger as we gain experiences, collect insights and make decisions along the way. It assumes there is more than one right path, and no one person is smart enough to know which one is best. It is about personal freedom and collective accountability. It serves to create an independence mentality because leadership is about asking the right questions.

This fundamental difference in philosophy and approach takes on epic importance in times of chaos, instability and change. An organization trained to religiously follow detailed maps, which have been provided to them by emotionally detached, narrowly focused and perhaps even small-minded managers, will simply not be equipped to survive in the wild. An organization wired to follow maps other people have drawn will not be able to improvise, change course or confidently embark on a journey of discovery when conditions change and they need to respond accordingly.

When we allow an organization and its people to become dependent upon instructions, policies, procedures and processes to guide their activities, they can only respond in the way they have been trained to, by adhering to choices made by someone else. Transformational leadership, on the other hand, requires not only self-confidence, determination and grit, but also that choices be made by people other than the leader. It is the granting of choice that allows people to assume personal accountability, carve a unique path, fulfill their true potential and pursue opportunities.

Thinking about Tomorrow

In a world of increasing complexity and chaos, set against an environment of rapidly changing social norms and the ever-faster availability of information, the advantage will go to the leader whose organization has the best strategic-thinking radar and the best customer-focused market sensitivity. These attributes can only be developed and enhanced when the leader understands the importance of assembling a team with a varied set of rich and diverse experiences.

The words of the song made famous by the popular 1970s band Fleetwood Mac, and used very creatively by Bill Clinton as a presidential campaign mantra, Don't Stop Thinking about Tomorrow, could very well become the theme song for any leader who wants to guide his or her organization into the future.

In simple terms, the rise of the wise and experienced generalist may be about to overtake our previous faith in the superior aptitudes of the deep, but narrow, über specialist. The pendulum is swinging because in a slower-moving, less confusing and more predictable world, things just didn't change too much, too often or too dramatically. The problem now is that world does not exist any more! As a result, the mindsets, attitudes, beliefs, processes and leadership competencies that might have very well been good enough even 10 years ago, are just not likely to be appropriate today, or in the near future.

If not, it begs the question – then what?

The answer is clear, and transformational leadership is the essential means to unlocking an organization's sustainable business performance and opportunity-seizing potential. It is a robust experience repertoire that enhances the ability to think fast forward and sharpens contextual awareness to a fine point. This requires a certain set of smarts that act as the intellectual and spiritual catalyst for transformation.

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