Most everyone feels that we live in an upside-down, unpredictable world that’s spinning rapidly out of control. In the face of intense threats to our health, environment and economies, there is divisiveness, inequality, and injustice. Public trust—both in the leaders of our guiding institutions and in our social, geopolitical and economic ecosystems—is seriously faltering. Emotions range from anger and passion to cynicism and resignation.
To say leading in this reality is challenging would be an understatement. And yet, it may be the most consequential opportunity you ever get to make a positive difference on a large scale.
In all of this, one thing is clear. We are at a leadership reset point. People are counting on leaders, in business and beyond, to be effective at the next level—to pull us together and guide us to a new future.
Successfully shaping a shared future relies on your ability to apply an integrated set of three leadership tools. First, the proficiency to see and shift the paradigms that inhibit our collective commitment. Second, an ability to adopt network thinking and view whole ecosystems. And third, a competence to engage in consilient conversations to align values. These tools will help you get large groups of people aligned and moving into action much faster.
Tool #1: Paradigm Jumping
Complexity and rapid-change requires paradigm-jumping. The overarching ways of thinking that have served us in the past are no longer sufficient to meet our new reality. They are too small, too slow and too schismatic. As techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci reported in March, “We had time to prepare for this pandemic … but we squandered it because of widespread asystemic thinking: the inability to think about complex systems and their dynamics … We failed to understand that complex systems defy simplistic reductionism.”
The hyper-divided social state we find ourselves in today originates from the embedded paradigm of individualism, an underlying structure of thinking in which we see ourselves as separate from one another and from Nature. This devolves into you-or-me and us-versus-them.
People are crying out for something more. Fortunately, because of our great challenges, more people are seeing the world as an interconnected living ecosystem and recognizing we must find ways to come together. The current pandemic and racial divide shine a light on the need for a highly integrated, networked way of living and a new paradigm of systemic interdependence.
Once we see our underlying thinking, we can shift it, as demonstrated by leading CEOs who have recognized the need for greater interdependence. In business, the shift from separatism to interdependence is exemplified in the stakeholder leadership movement. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce and pioneer of cloud-based software, has said, “Businesses cannot be extricated or disintermediated from the communities they serve. Businesses who do that will do that at their own peril.” Interdependence is also about thriving as a business. LAMP, the open-source stack that Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO, once called a competitive “cancer,” is now the largest single customer on Azure, the flagship platform of a resurgent Microsoft.
Tool #2: Network Thinking
When diverse people from different groups with distinctive agendas come together to collaborate around complex issues, they not only need a new framework of thinking. They need a structure to guide them—together—to think and converse about interconnections across multiple domains, networks, and communities at different scales. Network thinking offers a holistic framework to unlock the collective intelligence and action of an entire ecosystem. For example, business pundits have pondered how Apple defeated Nokia in the digital phone business. The answer is Apple didn’t. The Apple ecosystem did: it jumped across the chasms between markets to integrate three different industries—software, entertainment, communications—in one platform. Fast movers like Apple and Salesforce have network models and use pervasive data gathering and technology platforms to foster connections across domains and communities. To discover new sources of shared value in our disrupted world, you can simply apply this thinking to include the entire ecosystem of which your organization might choose to be a part. To bound uncertainty, you map the network, identify its major nodes, and zoom in and out to observe the dynamics that drive the ecosystem at different scales.
Tool #3: Consilient Conversations
This networked way of observing the world not only shapes how we think, it also shapes how we communicate and, ultimately, how we act. Consilient conversations invite people within a network to express their different points-of-view and reveal where communication is missing or misaligned.
A consilient conversation is one in which stakeholders assemble data and multiple perspectives from both independent and unrelated sources, as well as interdependent and related sources, and then converge on aligned choices. It is a means for overcoming biases, harnessing collective intelligence and, importantly, shifting conversation into action. As Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson once said, “A consilient conversation is the fastest way across the communal mind.”
Imagine what the response to the pandemic might have been if governmental leaders had connected with global and local health care officials and worked in harmony with economists, business leaders, and community leaders in an integrated decision-making process. More effective, rapid, and aligned communication and results would surely have occurred.
Two notable examples of the result of consilient conversations: In 2018, under former CEO Paul Polman’s tutelage, Unilever’s 28 Sustainable Living Brands grew 69% faster than the rest of the business and delivered 75% of the company’s growth. Meanwhile, the company has reduced waste 96%, CO2 emissions 65%, and water extraction 47% per metric of production since 2008.
Salesforce has achieved great returns for shareholders and stakeholders. It is a net-zero company because Salesforce views the planet as a stakeholder. It adopted 170 public schools, pays men and women equally for equal work, and has given away $300 million as part of its stakeholder return. And the company married all of that with having returned 4,000% to its shareholders since 2004.
This “new” world in which we are operating demands we reexamine our old ways. It has given us the perfect storm conditions to reset our leadership tools. Now is the time to learn and implement these new tools—paradigm-jumping to interdependence, network thinking, consilient conversations—to help deal with our most complex challenges and advance our greatest priorities. As leaders in business and beyond, we can follow in the footsteps of Polman, Benioff and others. We can act as humanity’s guides in addressing the systemic, interdependent challenges our species and organizations face and lead us all to resolve them for the benefit of the many—while we still have some time.
Vince DiBianca is founder and CEO of DiBianca Associates, an executive advisory firm that specializes in helping leaders take on today’s unforeseen challenges, solve intractable problems, and traverse unfamiliar territory. A pioneer in leadership transformation, Vince’s work applies to leadership in a highly complex and integrated world.
Mark de L. Thompson is CEO of Dialog Group, a hybrid business strategy and digital firm. As a former senior executive at leading hardware, software, and telecommunications companies, Mark has an exceptionally well-rounded view of marketing, ecosystem orchestration and the nature of the way technology is shaping our world.