A Business Bestiary: "Silverbacks"
The following illustration comes courtesy of Ron Heifetz of the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and author of Leadership Without Easy Answers.
What better place to learn about leadership than the lush forests and highlands of central Africa. There, if we are quiet, we can witness the communal lifestyle of the highland gorillas. They live in bands of 15 or 20 individuals, always with a dominant male called a silverback because of the color of his hair. The silverback is silver because he's older and more experienced. He is a living example of traditional leadership -- in charge because he's been around and knows the score.
The silverback performs five basic tasks of leadership:
Now, make the crossing to human leadership. Must a human leader do more than a silverback? Indeed, yes. The skills of the silverback are only applicable to certain kinds of situations -- the technical work that bands of gorillas and bands of people are expected to be able to cope with in a closed system.
But there is another kind of work, which Heifetz calls adaptive work, that arises from outside the system, and that requires a dimension of leadership neither gorilla bands nor most human bands can provide.
Technical work is problem-solving. Finding berries and breaking up fights is technical work. Once you know how to do it, you simply repeat the process. Adaptive work, by contrast, is an open-ended challenge. It creates a new environment in which you cannot survive by relying on the wisdom of the old environment.
When poachers intervene in the closed gorilla universe and open fire on the band with automatic weapons, they pose a challenge that cannot be effectively addressed using traditional gorilla knowledge. Clustering only makes them easier targets. Chest-thumping has no effect at all. The silverback, so useful for everyday leadership, is useless in the face of a challenge requiring innovation. So the gorillas die, just as so many species, societies, faiths, and organizations die.
Bad leadership applies technical work skills to adaptive work challenges.
The silverback in you -- wisdom as already-learned experience -- may not be able to make the crossing to the new life. So you must generate new capacities to survive in the ecosystem in which you find yourself. Sad to say, you must learn all over again.
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