What the Middle East uprisings have to say about leadership

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?

Democratizing innovation

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.