Navigating a world of work that is quickly evolving is no simple task. Using an all-too-familiar story to illustrate the complexities of leading a team in a half-changed world, Seth Mattison and Joshua Medcalf present truths about leadership in the 21st century that we don’t nearly talk enough about.
For the past four decades, leadership in an organization has been about being at the top of the ‘org chart’. It has meant working all the way up until you become one of the people who get to decide when to send information down, and who else deserves to move up the org chart.
Or as an unnamed Canadian rapper would put it, “Started from the bottom, now I’m here”.
But in 2018, this way of thinking about leadership is no longer useful. We live in a whole new world, with a whole new system. Well, sort of.
Talking about the complexity of how the world of work is changing and what we need to do to adapt to it isn’t always easy. Coming up with a list of trends is one thing, but bringing it to life and describing what it means in the ‘real world’ is a whole other challenge.
Fortunately, Seth Mattison and Joshua Medcalf found a way to bring these trends to life. By telling the story of a fictional corporate executive who struggles to lead in a world where the old and new rules collide, Mattison and Medcalf offer a playbook for today’s leaders, who similarly need to find a way to navigate this confusing, conflicting, and half-changed world of work.
When they use the term ‘half-changed’, Mattison and Medcalf are describing the culture of organizations, which they define as “the formal or informal, agreed upon, attitudes and behaviors that are either rewarded or penalized inside an organization” (p. 105). It’s the culture of companies that defines what is normal and acceptable for its members, and makes up its unwritten rules. It’s what people say that are followed up by “it’s just the way we do things around here”. Ultimately, a company’s culture determines whether it succeeds or fails.
The main point of this book is this: the culture of companies around the world are shifting from one that is based on the hierarchical system, to one that is based on the network system. Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
The hierarchical system is one that you would be used to if you’ve worked in the corporate world over the past four decades. It’s a system that’s based on the ‘org chart’ to organize employees, and has unwritten rules that include “Always make your boss look good”, “Never question authority”, and “If someone’s winning, someone else is losing”.
Here’s the thing: this way of seeing the world doesn’t exactly work anymore.
Technology has reshaped and redistributed power in new ways. With the world becoming significantly more connected as a result of the Internet, there are whole new expectations and unwritten rules that organizations now have to follow.
With information accessible to virtually everybody at the touch of a button, both employees and customers are now demanding transparency, truth, and openness. Additionally, our hyperconnected world has made the barriers to participation and contribution lower than ever, and employees now expect to be able to contribute and participate regardless of their ‘rank’. Finally, our world of hyper immediacy has exposed the inefficiencies of the hierarchy, with speed and disruption now encouraged, rather than feared.
As a result, the old rigid levels of the Hierarchy are now foreign and often impractical. This new system of Networks is taking over.
Companies around the world are increasingly shifting their company culture from one that is based on the Hierarchy, to one that’s based on the Network. And this isn’t simply because it’s the hot new trend.
As the protagonist’s story in this book shows, companies who fail to adopt this new paradigm are losing the competition to those who have. Being stuck in the world of the Hierarchy when the competition embraces the Network means losing talent (especially younger talent), struggling with innovation, failing to adapt to the needs of the market.
Nonetheless, most companies are not equipped to operate without some level of the hierarchy in place. I mean, planes still need pilots. So while the world of the Network is emerging and slowly taking over, the structures of the Hierarchy are still needed – although they are often at odds with one another.
Hence, a half changed world.
Using the story of this book’s fictional protagonist as an example, Mattison and Medcalf offer some practical insights into how to usher in the world of the Network in a company that’s still stuck in the world of the Hierarchy. They suggest that leaders:
- Permit themselves to acknowledge that some of their old beliefs about leadership and work no longer serve them
- Explore the possibility that there are some things that they don’t fully understand about this new leadership environment
- Announce that they are willing to gain new understanding that could product powerful change
Ultimately, leaders in the world of the Network are open (seeing all norms and ideas as mere hypotheses), honest (not being afraid to embody authenticity), and vigilant in rooting out the status quo and seeking opposing views. Not an easy transformation for a leader that’s used to leading in the Hierarchy, the authors argue, but necessary if they want their team and company to survive in this new world.