THE historian Walter Russell Mead recently noted that after the 1990s revolution that collapsed the Soviet Union, Russians had a saying that seems particularly apt today: “It’s easier to turn an aquarium into fish soup than to turn fish soup into an aquarium.” Indeed, from Europe to the Middle East, and maybe soon even to Russia and Asia, a lot of aquariums are being turned into fish soup all at once. But turning them back into stable societies and communities will be one of the great challenges of our time.We are present again at one of those great unravelings — just like after World War I, World War II and the cold war. But this time there was no war. All of these states have been pulled down from within — without warning. Why?The main driver, I believe, is the merger of globalization and the Information Technology revolution. Both of them achieved a critical mass in the first decade of the 21st century that has resulted in the democratization — all at once — of so many things that neither weak states nor weak companies can stand up against. We’ve seen the democratization of information, where everyone is now a publisher; the democratization of war-fighting, where individuals became superempowered (enough so, in the case of Al Qaeda, to take on a superpower); the democratization of innovation, wherein start-ups using free open-source software and “the cloud” can challenge global companies.And, finally, we’ve seen what Mark Mykleby, a retired Marine colonel and former adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls “the democratization of expectations” — the expectation that all individuals should be able to participate in shaping their own career, citizenship and future, and not be constricted.I’ve been struck by how similar the remarks by Russians about Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who just basically reappointed himself president, are to those I heard from Egyptians about Hosni Mubarak, who kept reappointing himself president. The Egyptian writer Alaa al-Aswany said to me that Egyptians resented the idea that Mubarak would just hand power to his son Gamal as if the Egyptian people “were chickens,” who could be passed by a leader to his son. Last Sunday, a New York Times article from Moscow quoted the popular, imprisoned Russian blogger Aleksei Navalny as saying: “We are not cattle or slaves. We have voices and votes and the power to uphold them.”“The days of leading countries or companies via a one-way conversation are over,” says Dov Seidman, the C.E.O. of LRN and the author of the book “How.” “The old system of ‘command and control’ — using carrots and sticks — to exert power over people is fast being replaced by ‘connect and collaborate’ — to generate power through people.” Leaders and managers cannot just impose their will, adds Seidman. “Now you have to have a two-way conversation that connects deeply with your citizens or customers or employees.”Netflix had a one-way conversation about raising prices with its customers, who instantly self-organized; some 800,000 bolted, and the stock plunged. Bank of America had a one-way conversation about charging a $5 fee on debit cards, and its customers forced the global bank to reverse itself and apologize. Putin thought he had power over his people and could impose whatever he wanted and is now being forced into a conversation to justify staying in power. Coca-Cola repackaged its flagship soft drink in white cans for the holidays. But an outcry of “blasphemy” from consumers forced Coke to switch back from white cans to red cans in a week. Last year, Gap ditched its new logo after a week of online backlash by customers.A lot of C.E.O.’s will tell you that this shift has taken them by surprise, and they are finding it hard to adjust to the new power relationships with customers and employees.“As power shifts to individuals,” argues Seidman, “leadership itself must shift with it — from coercive or motivational leadership that uses sticks or carrots to extract performance and allegiance out of people to inspirational leadership that inspires commitment and innovation and hope in people.”The role of the leader now is to get the best of what is coming up from below and then meld it with a vision from above. Are you listening, Mr. Putin?This kind of leadership is especially critical today, adds Seidman, “when people are creating a lot of ‘freedom from’ things — freedom from oppression or whatever system is in their way — but have not yet scaled the values and built the institutional frameworks that enable ‘freedom to’ — freedom to build a career, a business or a meaningful life.”One can see this vividly in Egypt, where the bottom-up democracy movement was strong enough to oust Mubarak but now faces the long, arduous process of building new institutions and writing a new social contract from a democracy coalition that encompass Muslim Brothers, Christian liberals, Muslim liberals, the army and ultraconservative Muslim Salafis.Getting all those fish back and swimming together in one aquarium will be no small task — one that will take a very courageous and special leader. Help wanted.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Published: December 17, 2011
I rarely mix politics with business in our blog but I think this editorial opinion from Thomas Friedman of the New York Times articulates a critical trend that impacts both. I am not making a political statement but a business one.
HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL OUR FRIENDS AROUND THE WORLD. REGARDLESS OF YOUR BACKGROUND, THIS MUST BE A TIME OF REFLECTION AND PEACE. I EXPERIENCED A LIFE EVENT THIS YEAR THAT I HOPE WILL ALWAYS PUT THINGS IN THE PROPER PERSPECTIVE FOR ME GOING FORWARD.