Frogs In Boiling Water, And Other Leadership Challenges

A popular story in the change management community is of the frog in a pot of water. As the temperature slowly increases in one-degree increments, the Frog does not perceive the overall change. So, before he realizes what’s going on, he’s sitting in boiling water.

The story metaphor is a proper warning to leaders who don’t understand and manage the ebb and flow of growth in their organizations.

Engagement deepens alignment. The more an individual is involved, the more discretionary effort will be applied to those everyday actions.

Therefore, naturally, the two are related: commitment deepens alignment and alignment ensures that commitment does not deviate.

Duncan: you use the term “Whitewater” to describe a stage of organizational growth. What exactly is Whitewater? How do companies get in at that stage and how can they get out of it?

McKeown: Whitewater occurs when an organization reaches a stage of complexity where success cannot be achieved simply through innovation and improvisation, it is the point at which the implementation of systems and processes is required to allow the organization to expand.

The Whitewater stage almost always occurs after the early, ” fun ” stage, when a prolonged period of growth and success has been achieved through effort and improvisation and without many systems and processes. So leaving Whitewater primarily requires a change of mindset on the part of senior managers. Not only recognizing the need, but also actively accepting the need for systems and processes is not a natural thing for visionary founders/owners who until then prided themselves on doing precisely the opposite.

Duncan: You write about the “treadmill” as that stage of organizational development characterized by over-administration and over-systematization. How does this look, and how can leaders navigate out of it?

McKeown: the treadmill is the mirror opposite Whitewater. It is a later stage in which the organization becomes excessively dependent on systems and processes, and as a result begins to become arthritic and bureaucratic. Similarly, getting off the treadmill requires an attitude adjustment, this time, alleviating the dependence on systems and processes for success, and injecting vision, creativity and innovation into the organization.

Often, when the organization has reached the treadmill, the most visionary leaders have gone or been silenced and the business is being run more by what I call processor leaders. Striking the right balance between visionaries and processors is the key to achieving what I call Predictable Success: the ultimate stage of development, which lies between Whitewater and treadmill.

Duncan: when performance is delayed, many well-meaning leaders engage their people in some kind of “Team improvement”process. Unfortunately, the improvement (if any) is often short-lived. What do you see as the most common cause of this gap between aspiration and reality, and what is a good approach to closing the gap?

McKeown: lack of change at the top. Almost always when the C-suite dictates the need for “Team improvement” processes, the root problem lies with the C-suite itself.

If leaders don’t change their own leadership styles to reflect the changing needs of the organizations they lead over time, no amount of boot camps will change the underlying problem. We teach the need for leaders to develop what we call a synergistic leadership style, one that evolves over time as their organizations evolve.

Duncan: theories and models of leadership are popular topics among social scientists, academics, consultants and aspiring practitioners. What do you think effective “leadership” is, and what do you see as flaws in some of the more common definitions?

McKeown: leadership is any act that helps two or more people come closer to achieving a common goal. It’s that simple.

Personally I’m not so concerned about the impact of social scientists and academics. Frankly, the percentage of people affected by them is small. I am much more disheartened by the impact of media that focus on a small swath of leadership—the heroic leader-because it sells more column inches and page views.

Reading about heroic leaders – whether it’s Captain Sully, Derek Jeter or Richard Branson-is fun and inspiring. But we stuns on the belief that leadership is an act unlikely to made only for the elite few, when in reality every day, ordinary people commit what I call “acts not-so-random leadership” to help two or more people (whether its family, the football league of your children, your business, your division, department, project, group or team) to achieve their common goals.

Duncan: whether in a local community or in a school setting or in a more public arena like politics or corporate governance, “emerging leadership” (exercised by someone who may not have the title but who has the will) often breaks the jam of complacency or inertia. What are some of the behaviors and practices that make this possible?

McKeown: obviously the democratization of information through social networks has helped. As more people share what they can and are doing to help their group or tribe achieve their common goals, other people are encouraged to do the same. Although social media receives a well-deserved bad reputation for being often trivial and mundane, they are increasingly acting as an effective counterpart to traditional media that too often focus only on eye-catching stories of heroic leadership (see above) and/or report on the egregious failures of what we might call ‘traditional/formal’ leadership, such as the U.S. Congress.

Duncan: in your last book you demote the myth that leadership is about swordsman heroism and it’s really more about the myriad small things that make big things possible. Where should a “new” leader start leading?

McKeown: where he is right now. I would say lift your head, open your eyes, and help your group, tribe, or organization get closer to achieving their common goals. That’s leadership.

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