Untying and Retying the Knot: Building a New Kind of Leadership

By Linda Chang & John Garvie

Teach-Us-Something-in-7-Minutes is one of the keystone introductory projects of CCA’s DMBA program. The project, TUS-7M, as it came to be called, sets up students in pairs to develop a subject of compelling interest to be presented at a public event in CCA’s Timken Auditorium. The constraints were that we address something in the domains of communication, design, business and/or sustainability, that we consider the difference between “telling” and “showing,” and after 7 minutes, we would be cut off, whether we were finished or not. Our presentation, The Girl Who Woke Up in a Knot, was a metaphorical story about knots. Knots represent not only complicated problems, but also interpersonal entanglements that come from our most important conversations – personally and professionally. We wrestle with knots as difficult problems to be solved and unsnarled, but they are also “the ties that bind,” connecting us to what is essential.

As we write, at the end of 2009, the crisis of the American economy remains an open question. Jobs are no longer being shed at the astounding rates of the last year-plus, but unemployment percentages remain at double-digit highs. Meanwhile, expert economists have claimed that the economy is growing again, yet the Federal Reserve has pledged to keep interest rates “exceptionally low” for a foreseeable “extended period.”

Most would agree that the cause of The Great Recession of 2009 has been an overarching institutional focus on short term gains, in place for decades, not just a cyclical few years. People stopped being people and became merely opportunities for companies to make a quick buck no matter the social cost. People who were supposed to have been America’s best-and-brightest, people who should have known better, were seduced by easy money and quick returns. Meanwhile, most others seemed to have lost sight of being citizens first, consumers second.

Regardless of whether the economy bounces back, the focus on short-term goals with simplistic growth paradigms needs to change. So, how can we make the shift? We need a new way of thinking and acting within business. Like many, we desire a strong business community that integrates new priorities.

We can start with a new kind of MBA. After one semester of learning, growing, stretching our minds and asking questions in our DMBA program, we would like to propose here a view of management for the future and what some of the outcomes may be when managers and businesses start truly cultivating a conscious form of capitalism.

Our Society’s “New New Economy” needs a New MBA

Plain and simple, the world doesn’t need another manager to follow the rules and do things the way that they’ve always been done. Traditional business education, with its rigidly sacrosanct 4 pillars of Management, Finance, Marketing, and Human Resources needs to go beyond these functional silos to find new frameworks for analysis and bridging the gap between thinking and doing. The Sustainability Movement has, at long last, gained some traction in this space. Finally, business is coming to terms with the imbalance between wealth creation and natural resource extraction – resources formerly presumed to be abundant and easily replenished.

This view of sustainability has, in turn, fueled a refocus on business as part of society. This may seem obvious, but powerful ideologies have long asserted that business interests can operate separate from larger societal concerns. Society was always something happening “out there,” while business was something happening “here.”

As we chart out a course to re-envision what business leadership has been, we decided to revisit Peter Senge’s seminal work The Fifth Discipline. Senge articulated a compelling vision for organizations to become “learning organizations” by understanding 5 key disciplines (personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking). Most important to Senge’s vision is “Systems Thinking” which he describes as a method of thinking to solve problems by looking comprehensively at the entire system rather than it’s component parts. He called “Systems Thinking” “The Fifth Discipline” because he saw it as the key discipline that integrated the other four together to create an organization that is continually being optimized by employee collective learning.

Let’s use Systems Thinking, then, to build a relationship between business and society. Systems Thinking requires looking beneath the surface to the underlying forces, the driving reasons for how the variables of that system are connected to the broader whole. It gives us a way to envision the impacts of our decisions before they create system-wide problems.

While Senge’s intent was to apply this framework to established organizational structures and management, we suggest using systems thinking as a tool for building new organizations with a foundational bond to society–embracing “the greater good” from the ground up. There is a saying by Confucius that says: “To see what is right, and not do it, is want of courage, or of principle.” By building socially aware and responsive systems thinking into the very fabric of a business’ organizational architecture, we are provided with a conceptual framework that elevates us into deep contextual thinking and a method by which doing right can be placed ahead of what’s quick and easy.

As many have experienced while creating a new product or service for customers, we often try to envision our users’ needs and shape ideas around our assumptions of people’s expectations, thereby allowing that assessment to dictate the final vision. Though unintended, a process of giving in frequently occurs which can cultivate mediocrity because we create what we know will be average, and therefore, acceptable.

To avoid this process of giving in would be to juggle multiple, perhaps even conflicting mental models–entertain the moments of creative tension (those feelings of discomfort) until a truly transcendent offering could be achieved. Socially aware, responsive systems thinking needs leadership that can push forward and forge this hard path. The result would be a shared vision that is collective, dynamic, meaningful, and most of all socially responsible–co-created through collaboration.

Dynamic, Creative Collaboration: A Conversation with Legs

Employing systems thinking and creating a dynamic that results in productive collaboration is not easy. It’s one thing to want to collaborate, it’s quite another to make it happen – without any conciliatory watering down of the issues.  We found that the usual prescriptions like developing trust and letting go of the ego-id-based assertiveness, though valid, were not enough for managing and leveraging the predictable creative tension that would result between strong-minded individuals. So how could we connect the dots between our beliefs, our skills, and our ability to walk the walk? TUS-7M gave us just such an experience to test drive systems thinking on a small scale and create our own miniature “learning organization”– to get us walking.

Our start was amicable enough. We were both optimistic in our eagerness to start the exciting new adventure that was the dMBA. We tromped through the usual getting-to-know you exchanges, looking for things we had in common that might lead somewhere we might like to go. Our professional lives are rife with interactions like this–whether you’re networking, interviewing, or courting a client, you’re navigating a jungle fecund with judgments and impressions, spoken and unspoken, potentially loaded with the power to blow your mind and/or blow your sense of self and composure. Expectations and commitment levels must be understood and managed.

Like many projects, for TUS-7M, we had to negotiate different visions, expectations and interpretations of a very wide and open terrain and, ultimately, find a way to make it happen in front of an audience that would laugh, applaud, cheer, jeer, or worst of all, react with total, awkward silence. In coming to a decision about what we would present to the DMBA community–a community still little known to us–we had to persuade, bargain and battle with one another over what we each considered acceptable, fun, humorous, or interesting. Without getting into the nitty gritty details, how did we do? We won’t lie: there were our fair share of moments when one of us wanted to toss the other out the window, with the other being more than willing to take it on and jump ship. The power battles, even over the tiniest things, were ever lying in wait to rear their proverbial ugliness.

But then, one of us would throw out a buoy or a life saver– some gesture of faith that would say that the conversation was not over.

Creative tension is not easy to manage. We had to navigate and maintain what Roger Martin has described as The Opposable Mind idea–to integrate a sense of our own uncompromising standards on the one hand, and yet remain open to the new and unfamiliar, on the other.

Parallel to our efforts were our LiveE class assignments. We were tasked with creating a set of “Agreements” and “Criteria.” These were the value statements that became our guideposts for judging–on our own terms–how we were interacting and what we were producing. They helped us to stop pledging allegiance to our presumed audience and pledge to one another first. Then there were readings and discussions on how to engage in a “learning conversation,” which gave us an additional supportive framework to learn from one another while we were doing–so that the theory could be embodied.

And as we progressed, at some point, neither one of us was the master, anymore. The project itself seemed to speak for us…even to us, and guided us in a direction that neither one of us was consciously intending. We passed through some kind of veil or curtain, like walking through a waterfall to see the hidden space behind it. It was a shift in our consciousness. We went from doing to being, from devising and planning, into the space of creating. We came out of our own individual spaces and entered a third that was shared, empowering us to respond to each other synergistically.

This was the magic of synthesis through collaboration. And it IS magic – we don’t talk about or acknowledge it enough in the workplace. Our usual approach to “soft skills” or “people skills”—is to handle them as if they are something that people are either able or not able to do. We talk about them as aptitudes, but they aren’t. The engagement of “soft skills” is about a process, about taking a journey–a journey, once entered, becomes a meaningful adventure.

Only after the final performance did we realize that we had embarked on a great adventure that has been about our own transformation into a new consciousness. The “what” and “how” of our TUS-7M creation has become a total experience metaphor for our own aspirations, for the DMBA program, and for the hopes we hold for our society.

The ‘new new economy’ is going to need leaders with true grit and commitment – leaders who will re-imagine and reinvent business with respect to society. It’s a wide open terrain… the transformation we wish to create in the world “out there” is also a transformation we must simultaneously undergo in ourselves. And as we do, we hope to become the leaders we would have wanted to follow.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

7 responses

  1. How to create a “new new economy” that is able to maintain this creative tension without succumbing to the trappings of ego, greed and blind ambition? Providing vision for ambition is the domain of education. Education, for the most part, has failed to create leaders with a sense of shared purpose. Can systems thinking be taught/fostered in the workplace, following decades of reductionist education in the classroom? Hats off to the dMBA and programs like it for trying. TUS-7M appears to have succeeded in cultivating the kind of space within which to rekindle this vision.

  2. This is a thoughtful piece that nicely reflects the optimism and energy that our newly-minted MBAs should be have. I love the idea of a collaborative environment and find in rare circumstances, in a room full of engaged and intelligent colleagues, that it is possible… sadly, it doesn't happen often enough. Thoughtful and open leadership can take an organization a long way, but unfortunately too many corporate cultures do not inspire (or sometimes even permit) creativity, nor do they empower individuals to act.

  3. Interesting, this vicious cycle, where in MBA programs train executives to dissect the market to discover what the criteria by which a product sells, in order to develop other products that meet those criteria, essentially providing more of the same. And that, of course, this forensic rather than creative approach to product development doesn't move us forward as a society. I really like the idea of replacing an allegiance to the audience or “what we know is already selling” with an allegiance to a creative team.

  4. Interesting, this vicious cycle, where in MBA programs train executives to dissect the market to discover the criteria by which a product sells, in order to develop other products that meet those criteria, essentially providing more of the same. And that, of course, this forensic rather than creative approach to product development doesn't move us forward as a society. I really like the idea of replacing an allegiance to the audience or “what we know is already selling” with an allegiance to a creative team.

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