This post is going to be about my questions rather than my thoughts. Pick a grouping or a specific question and give me your comments on this subject, okay?

Like many of you, I’ve been following with interest the successful, peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Success there has created a template for uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco and Libya. There are reverberations in numerous countries, including Iran, Jordan and China. Various dictators are considering how to respond, afraid of losing their positions and maybe their lives.

So, what can we learn about leadership from these world events?

First, what happens next when a leaderless group takes on an autocrat? The news has been asking who the government, or the military in Egypt’s case, should negotiate with. But does a leader eventually have to emerge from the egalitarian masses? I haven’t read The Starfish and the Spider. Anyone who has, feel free to give your predictions and thoughts.

Second, we can all agree that some of these leaders need to go. But there are a lot of influential forces, some of whom have been vocal in seeking regime change, who would like to benefit from the tenor of revolution. What happens when some of the more benevolent leaders go down? Does social media-stirred revolution maintain an ethical leaning? Will it always lead to replacing “bad” with “good”? What happens when al Quaida figures out how to steer the masses toward their ends?

Third, in The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo questions the very foundation of the idea that has shaped American policy for decades: democracy equals peace. Will this move toward democracy bring more peace to the Middle East? I remember a documentary on the Colombian drug scene that depicted the anarchy resulting from an autocratic cartel member being taken down. Is it better to keep the evil you know?

Fourth, given that leaders don’t need a title to lead, what can we learn from the autocrats’ struggle to hold onto positions? What are the implications for leadership in the future with a populous so empowered by cell phones and the internet? Can any totalitarian regime keep enough fingers in the dam to hold onto power?

My read: we’re in the middle of a dislocation of epic proportions that will rewrite the Middle East, that will rewrite leadership textbooks and will rewrite military and public affairs strategy. What’s your read?

Times of crisis reveal what is and isn’t working. These are the times when obsolete and dysfunctional systems and practices collapse or fall by the wayside. They are the times when the seeds of innovation and invention, of creativity and entrepreneurship, burst into full flower, enabling recovery by remaking both the economy and society.

In The Great Reset, Richard Florida goes on to point out that the greatest periods of innovation in U.S. history were the 1870s and the 1930s. Those two depressions were marked by huge spikes in research for patents and technological progress. Florida says that depressions create a reset for society, acting like a forest fire to clear out the old growth and make room for the new.

Want to read more? Steve Moore, president of The Mission Exchange has written a fascinating case statement based on his reading, research and intuition about the future. It’s the basis for this post and for the upcoming North American Mission Leaders Conference in Arizona.

In a recent post, I referred to Hizb’allah, the terrorist group that Joshua Cooper Ramo characterizes as the most innovative organization in the world. Constant pressure and hardship has resulted in incredible inventions such as the Improvised Explosive Device that, for as little five dollars, can paralyze the lavishly-funded military of the United States. That example leads me to wonder where else we should see innovation thriving. On a political level, I would think the Israeli military would be one place. The persecuted church should be another. Constant threat leads to either innovation or death.

From a historical perspective, I have great optimism for the next few years. World missions needs a reset, and I think it’s happening. The next couple of years should stand out as a period of incredible breakthroughs in strategies, technology, partnerships and ideation. Breakthroughs will happen, many of them outside the world of mission agencies. The question is which organizations will be best positioned to take advantage or to ride the wave? No doubt many who take advantage are not in existence today. But will older organizations make the leap? I suggest the difference in organizations that make the adjustments and organizations that dig in their heels to try to hold onto the past is leadership.

Let me close by quoting Steve Moore’s conclusion:

We need a fresh wave of Spirit empowered entrepreneurial risk takers and mission pioneers who lean in to what God is doing in the midst of turbulent times, seizing what may prove to be unprecendented windows of opportunity that come with a Great Reset moment.

I’m getting excited. How about you?

If innovation is the lifeblood of an organization, then organizations must put a premium on their greatest innovators. Chris Anderson claims in January’s Wired Magazine that “Out of 100 people, maybe fewer than half a dozen are likely to innovate … and their best ideas will come along only every few years.” If he’s right, you don’t want to lose your innovators.

What happens when you do? In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Ramo gives an extreme case study. Head of Israeli intelligence Aharon Farkash concluded in 2001 that Israel was approaching Hizb’allah all wrong. Direct attacks only made the terrorists stronger, forcing them to evolve. Under Israel’s traditional strategy, Hizb’allah became the world’s most innovative organization. Instead of strengthening terrorists, Farkash decided to identify and target the two or three in any terrorist organization who had the skills to help the organization evolve under pressure. The results of the new strategy? Terrorist attacks plummeted, and hundreds of Islamic terrorist groups went out of business.

There are two takeaways from this harsh example. First, organizations of all kinds simply can’t survive without innovators. Second, innovation grows best in hardship. The latter point is worth a blog post in the future, but let’s jump in on the first one.

This is the point where we conclude that an organization should hold onto and — if necessary — protect their innovators, right? Perhaps, but my inclination is rather to de-specialize. Get more people involved in innovating.

Anderson agrees:

Innovation has always been a group activity. The myth of the lone genius having a eureka moment that changes the world is indeed a myth. Most innovation is the result of long hours, building on the input of others. Ideas spawn from earlier ideas, bouncing from person to person and being reshaped as they go.

Michael Farrell describes the best conditions: “throughout history the best creativity has happened when groups of artists, reformers, writers, or scientists connected regularly with one another.” What better place for this to happen than social media? Ideas shared by one group can be improved by another, across more territory and in less time than was possible before. Social media shaves years off the traditional process.

Innovation doesn’t have to be the property of a few individuals. It can be cultivated in a community, diversifying the roles. Simply stated, innovators need support. For starters, the key first follower, the one who recognizes an idea. I shared a video a while ago that made the point that the leader isn’t the most important role in a trend. The first follower “transforms a lone nut into a leader.” In the corporate world, you need to get a boss on board. Half of innovation is the ability of managers to recognize an idea as worthy of support. Anderson adds:

The community needs to contain at least a few people capable of innovation. But not everyone in the community need be. There are plenty of other necessary roles:

  • The trend-spotter, who finds a promising innovation early.
  • The evangelist, who passionately makes the case for idea X or person Y.
  • The superspreader, who broadcasts innovations to a larger group.
  • The skeptic, who keeps the conversation honest.
  • General participants, who show up, comment honestly, and learn.

I see room for just about everyone. Are you over-reliant on a handful of people for your innovations? How can you democratize the process, pulling in others with different roles to participate in, feel ownership of and celebrate innovation?

Getting more specific, an organization that lists Innovation as a core value needs to consider the business side of how to get these kinds of people together. Is it a structural issue? Do ideas have a place to go beyond the chain of command? Do you need to schedule a FedEx day?

Farkash had it right: innovation is a life or death issue. The organization that fails to innovate will not be around long.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Ramo tells the story of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso walking down a street one evening in Paris when a military convoy rumbled by. What caught their attention was that it looked different: the first time either of them had seen camouflage. Picasso cried out, amazed. “Yes, it is we who made it, that is Cubism!” Sure, camouflage was the direct application of Cubism by a lesser artist than Picasso, who thought he could apply art to transform warfare. But at the same time, that moment summarized in a moment the completely different way of seeing the world that was Cubism. It took artists to start the transformation, and it took artists to note the cultural shift.

Today’s prophets are found among artists. They’re the ones who have the pulse of what’s next. For instance, they’re the ones who first debated postmodernism… in the 1970s. The rest of the world took notice thirty years later. And the Church began to debate it within the last ten years, as if they could make a difference entering the debate that late in the day.

I was first exposed to Postmodern thought at a conference in 1999. It was eye-opening for me. I still remember one of the organizers lamenting about the state of artistic expression in most churches as well as the exodus of young people — particularly the artistic class — from the Church. Her conclusion: “The Church kicked out all the artists and then decided it wanted art.” She’s right on so many points. Without artists, worship becomes formulaic and stagnant. Without artists, the Church is so late in attempts to contextualize the Gospel as to be irrelevant. Without artists, the Church is left out of public debate on culture shifts.

So, while the Church engages with yesterday’s cultural shift, the artists long ago moved on to other shifts. What were they discussing at the turn of the century? What are they discussing today? The reason artists can express or portray an idea in fresh ways is that they see in fresh ways. The key to thinking differently is seeing differently.

Remember the old Apple ad series? The only one I clipped was the one featuring Ansel Adams. I wish I had the one featuring Paul Rand. Recall the narration: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.”

Leaders would do well to maintain relationships with the arts community. Artists can make you uncomfortable. They are not always appreciated in their hometown. They love to note hypocrisy. But don’t try to forecast without your best “seers.” When it comes to anticipating the future, keep your artists close by.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo recommends changing the way we look at things. He suggests that our global financial crisis resulted from our tendency in the West to try to take things apart to figure them out or look at individual parts of a problem. For instance, a viewpoint that isolates mortgages from insurance fails to see the interconnections that brought the whole system down. Instead, he recommends taking in everything at once instead of fixating on pieces. He likens complex systems to a sandpile, where every grain is dependent on the others. It has an inherent instability and very little predictability. The way to anticipate change in a complex situation is to look around the edges, in unexpected places.

Ramo tells of a study where 100 graduate students were tested to track their eye movements. Half were American-born, and half were Chinese-born. The Americans fixed their eyes on the main object in the foreground, to the extreme that they sometimes didn’t recognize that the background image changed. Ramo goes as far as saying, “When it came to the environment, Americans were almost completely “change blind.” In other words, they stared.

The Chinese students kept their eyes moving, searching the background for additional context. They didn’t stop with a tiger in the woods. Instead, they looked for threats, clues to location, tensions, etc. that might influence the tiger. In fact, some spent so much time on context that when a new picture came up with the same background and a different foreground object, they thought they had seen the image before. His conclusion was that Americans typically stare at a small handful of data points while high-context cultures believe that the environment contains clues to what will happen next.

More than anything, what you want to know is when change is going to begin. In Chinese philosophy this sense is known as a mastery of incipience, and the skill is often praised as the highest form of wisdom.

Ramo’s point is that today’s world requires a different way of looking. Those who will be successful in the present and future are not those who narrow their gaze, looking for specific data points. He’s seen it in foreign affairs, venture capital and intelligence: those who can take in a broad range of data and infer conclusions are more successful. Ramo’s conclusion:

The chance for real brilliance or flair is usually best seen out of the corner of the eye.

So, how’s your eyesight as a leader? If you have a distinctly western view of the world, this is a great argument for diversity. Surround yourself with people who see the world differently than you do, and you might do well to bring in people who from birth have been trained to look at the edges of the paintings — to look at the whole to gauge what’s just around the corner.

My sculpture class at Georgia State introduced me to some of the more creative artists at the school. One lady in particular was a practitioner of performance art. One day she piled sand on the floor “just so” in preparation for her presentation, only to find at show time a forklift sitting atop her sculpture. After a stern lecture on art appreciation, the offending construction worker removed his equipment, and the performance went on, complete with wooden railroad ties and votive candles. Part of her performance was the credit given to her generous sources, who seldom knew of their contributions to the art world: unwitting restaurants and construction sites were generous benefactors. Another time she incorporated a beautifully-carved fireplace facade. It’s amazing the art you can create when you steal beauty from other people.

While I have major issues with the particular way she applied the use of “found objects,” over time I’ve become a practitioner myself. There’s some real value in one artist building on another’s ideas. I’m not talking about plagiarizing or stealing your competitors’ ideas; in fact, the best companies and the most creative sorts ignore their competitors completely. Instead, I suggest stealing from other arenas. Let me explain the principle and follow with a well-known example.

An old mentor in my early days as a graphic designer told me not to read design magazines. Instead, read books or magazines about my interests. You will copy what you expose yourself to, and if all you see is other designers’ work, you’ll end up doing cheap imitations. His inspiration was manhole covers. He found ways to use the old European ironwork to inspire his work in paper, paint and wood. So, whatever your industry, don’t read the trade publications. Instead, expose yourself to the broader world around you.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Ramo tells the story of Shigeru Miyamoto, who borrowed a chip from an automobile airbag to create the Wii. He “‘mashed up’ two seemingly unrelated things — an accelerometer and a video game — to create something new.” The Wii singlehandedly transformed the gaming industry, not just in a technological way but by changing the mindset of gaming. No longer was the world divided cleanly into gamers — overwhelmingly male, couch-potato types — and nongamers. Now some of the fastest-growing markets were female and elderly. Wii Fit ridiculously turned all of the stereotypes on their heads.

Mashups capture a sense of creativity that passes established borders, that combines a sort of deep, curious yearning… with a hands-on, practical tinkerer’s spirit. But when these two are wedded, innovation becomes inevitable.

Mashups can be game changers, but it takes a visionary to find the usefulness of one industry to transform another. Leaders don’t imitate. Whatever problem you’re facing, perhaps you need to lift your eyes. Look outside your industry to see how you might apply someone else’s solution to your own problem.

While wrapping up Brad Smart’s book Topgrading, I launched into the first chapters of The Age of the Unthinkable, by Joshua Cooper Ramo. Both have me thinking about what characteristics to look for in the leaders of tomorrow. Predicting leadership characteristics in a broad view is easier than predicting for any one position, because the requirements for a particular position at a particular point in time are extremely difficult to predict. Organizational priorities and opportunities might require a successor to look very different from his predecessor.

Ramo doesn’t answer the question directly, but he does offer a suggested resume for someone pursuing a career in foreign policy. There are leadership implications in this list:

  • Should be able to speak and think in revolutionary terms
  • Should have an expertise in some area of the world — be it China or the Internet or bioengineering — where fast change and unpredictability are the dominant facts of life
  • Should have experienced the unforgiving demands for precision and care that characterize real negotiation
  • Likewise, should have experienced the magical effect of risk-taking at the right moments
  • Should have mastered the essential skill of the next fifty years: crisis management
  • Should be inclined toward action, even action at times without too much reflection, since at certain moments instinct and speed are more important than the lovely perfection of academic models
  • Most of all, however, we need policy makers and thinkers who have that revolutionary feel for the inescapable demands of innovation. We need early adopters…

Smart meanwhile talks a lot of about the competencies most desirable in “A players.” Number one on his list:

Resourcefulness refers to your ability to passionately figure things out, like how to surmount barriers… It is a composite of many [competencies]: Intelligence, Analysis Skills, Creativity, Pragmatism, Risk Taking, Initiative, Organization/Planning, Independence, Adaptability, Change Leadership, Energy, Passion, and Tenacity.

No wonder Smart refers to it as “the megacompetency.” Do you see the overlap with Ramo’s list? In an era of epic change, the leaders of the future will be resourceful, instinctive and action-oriented revolutionaries, risk-takers and innovators. This goes back to a previous point I’ve made that academic institutions and MBA programs have been training people for a reality that doesn’t exist anymore. There are few existing models for the world these leaders will face. So, perhaps we should add one more to the list: Critical Thinking skills. They need to be able to think on their feet.