Dangerous Curves Ahead


I came across an article in Business Week online last week that I found amazingly refreshing. It was written by Shoshana Zubroff who was a professor at the Harvard Business School and taught in the MBA program there for 15 years. In the article she states:

“I have come to believe that much of what my colleagues and I taught has caused real suffering, suppressed wealth creation, destabilized the world economy, and accelerated the demise of the 20th century capitalism…”

Pretty bold statement. I was struck by the admission that institutional learning, often believed to be teaching leaders how to be ahead of the game, was behind it. She goes on to say:

“The old rules that most B-schools have preached were invented a century ago for supplying mass consumers with affordable goods and services. They are poorly suited to the values of today’s new consumers, who want help to live their lives as they choose, with personal control, voice, and a practical sense of connection.”

Zubroff then continues on to talk about the new rules that business leaders need to live by in this new economy and she has some great ideas about some of the changes leaders must make to adapt to the shifting marketplace.

Here’s the point that I think gets missed in the article though. It’s not about today’s leaders looking for a new set of rules to live by. It’s about leaders who can themselves find the right solutions no matter what challenges are created by the economy, the customers or the competitors. There are a myriad of good places that we as leaders can seek guidance, advice and instruction and we should. But if we expect a new trail of leadership breadcrumbs to be laid out by a business school, or anyone for that matter, then we are missing the central element of what it means to lead.

Best practices are, by definition, how somebody else did it yesterday. While they are useful as an instructional tool, we have to be focused on what will work tomorrow and past successes can sometimes lead us astray. That stock market disclaimer about past results not being an indicator of future performance applies here as well.

What we really need to help our economy, our businesses, and even our communities recover are leaders who can adapt, shift, change and thrive, no matter the challenges. That means that they have to be able to re-examine how they think, how they make decisions, who they listen to and how much they rely on the best practices of others. The leaders of tomorrow have a core set of ironclad values but an open mind about how to achieve success while remaining true to them.

Leaders that thrive in the new economy, will spend time reinventing the way they evaluate possible solutions and learn to remove the constraints of experience without losing the knowledge they’ve gained from it. Best practices, experience, rules we learned in school: we need to use them like we do a rear view mirror. Glance back on a regular basis and check for anything we might have missed or something that might be sneaking up on us. But driving forward while staring back is going to cause us to wreck unless the road is perfectly straight. Unless I’m mistaken, we’re in the middle of some pretty tight turns.

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