Leadership in the Exaclasm

Nigel M. de S. Cameron
Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies
Washington, DC

When teens say TMI it means they don’t want embarrassing details. But Eric Schmidt, Mr. Google, has the ultimate TMI facts: until 2003, he states with customary Delphic authority, the world had created 5 exabytes of data. By 2010, we do it every two days.

This does not of course mean we have suddenly become vastly more productive; half of that data comes not from Wall Street and CERN and China People’s Daily, but my kids’ photos on Facebook. Point is: the explosion in data, and data capture, are partnered with the speed of change as drivers of complexity. How to know what matters when it comes to the future? To put it another way, what’s leadership in Millennium 3?

Back in 1998, an elderly gentleman was asked by a television reporter how he was going to vote. “If God had intended us to vote,” he responded, “he would have given us candidates.” Of course, there were two respectable candidates running that year for the presidency. But I took his point then and I take it even more strongly now. We are facing a crisis of leadership. At a time of deep geopolitical unease, with a seismic shift underway in power relations around the globe and fresh emerging asymmetries, and technological changes zipping up a curve that gets only steeper, leadership is faltering.

So what’s leadership in 2010? Well, we know about management. It was management – from Fordism on – that defined and exemplified the 20th century. In corporate and government life, we got ourselves organized. Management theorists don’t all agree with each other, but they tend to be speaking about the same thing. You can study “management” and write papers about it. Yet not so with leadership. Leadership books, like leaders, are quirky, guru-esque. Approaches succeed that look wildly different. Last month, I was speaking at a conference on leadership for emerging corporate leaders from around the globe. Two presenters who were among the top corporate leaders were asked to speak about leadership and change. One was modest, orderly, and made much of his walking past five of his executives in first class to take his seat in economy with the cheapest ticket he could buy; leadership by example. The other, flamboyant head of one of the largest automakers, was asked what car he drove: there’s a Maserati outside, he said, and I have Ferraris in my garage. What’s more – speaking of quirky – he has one hundred direct reports, and runs his company with three Blackberries and three cellphones. And in politics? There too, we’ve had consensus-builders and consensus-breakers. A recent writer said of Churchill that in 1939-40, he “defined leadership for the rest of time.” Point is: leadership is not the kind of thing that leads to uniformity, good practice, rules to be learned.

The medievals, as usual, knew a thing or two. When you can’t define something, you can get a long way by clarifying what it is not. Hence (in their case, with God), the via negativa. We know (well, we do, but plenty of putative leaders do not!) that leadership is not management. And neither is it emulation of your favorite leader. Yet there are things we can say. Leadership is always about change. It’s therefore about the future; about knowledge – and in the context of TMI and the petaclasm, knowing what you need to know. It’s about relationships, building the network you need- so you can locate yourself at the heart of the unique knowledge network that will drive your decision-making and make you the best-informed person on the planet for your particular role. It’s about the constant interrogation of ends and goals in the interests of clarity and fidelity; and utter, ruthless flexibility when it comes to means.

To put it another way: the leader is the bridge-builder. Since we were talking about the medievals, pontifex is the Latin word – inherited from the pagan Roman priesthood. But while the pontiff (pontifex maximus, chief bridge-builder) builds a vertical bridge to God, the merely human leader builds horizontal bridges of several kinds. The bridge between her/himself and the led. This is what we know best, and it lies at the core of our politics. If you can’t build that bridge, you just don’t get to be the leader. But – note well, politicos great and small – this is a mere necessary condition of leadership. On its own it is far from sufficient. Two others, at least, set the leader in play to lead, in the flux of the exaclasm, the shifting tectonic plates of global power, the asymmetric threats that chink like Ruskin’s dreadful geologists’ hammers.

First, a bridge to the future. And the faster change takes place, the more central this becomes. That is to say, leadership that is both innovative and constantly embracing of innovation.

Second, a bridge across the silos, disciplines, communities; a networking that draws on ever more diverse sources in the midst of the data deluge and the growing inter-connectedness. Leadership through innovation through networks of knowledge.

Without these two, no leader will succeed in the 21st century. Hence my semi-serious suggestion that all elected representatives be required every year to attend a series of conferences on technology and the future. Hence my serious suggestion that all political appointees should be screened, without exception, for their innovation-mindedness, alertness to the demands of the future, engagement in the knowledge network. Because what this analysis underlines is that we need the right kind of people in leadership. Unless they are knowledge leaders and innovation leaders, whatever their skills and virtues, their capacity to lead America in Millennium 3 is fatally compromised. They need to be the right kind of people, and they need to be operating within the right kind – of “corporate culture,” in which innovative future-mindedness, and knowledge networking, are prized. There’s no question that America shaped the global 20th century. If it is to be more than a bit player in the 21st, we need, well, change.

But back to the via negativa. Two things that I’m not saying. First, that in all its branches the USG lacks extraordinarily smart people who are innovative, future-oriented knowledge networkers. They are there. But who would claim that they set the pace? The general presumptions of Washington’s political culture and its priorities lie elsewhere, in the political short term. Second, that our global competitors (I’m drafting this on my way back from a trip to China) will have it all their own way. I think there is everything to play for. But other players seem, shall we say, rather more evidently aware of the fact there is a game afoot.

The genius of America’s global dominance in the 20th has lain precisely in its capacity to capture the imagination of peoples as they have strained forward into freedom, and to twin this visionary leadership with the potency of an educational/industrial economy capable of developing and delivering technologies to satisfy consumer markets – and in the late 20th century, the tools of change that have granted global access to the digital vectors of tomorrow. America’s challenge is now to continue to build comparative advantage at the meeting-point of freedom and technological empowerment; to demonstrate future-oriented leadership in the global knowledge economy. At the point at which high-value, creative efforts are now in the grasp of our competitors.

Stasis all over again?

Shall we? That raises another set of questions about leadership and change. I’m feeling for a category here. As we know well, there’s a tendency for stasis, or at least its expectation, to follow bursts of revolutionary change. Future fatigue? The change plateau? It’s as if once the exponential curve has delivered some game-changing shift, the players need a rest. They stop thinking about exploding the assumptions around them, and start thinking about their stock options. Yet the curve keeps on going up. To move beyond the middle ages into the Reformation of the 16th century, a favored tag was ecclesia reformata semper reformanda: the reformed church must go on being reformed. Listen up, Redmond and Palo Alto. My other gig in Switzerland was to lead a workshop at UBS on investment and emerging technologies. Who seriously believes that in 5-7 years the two uber-brands of the web, Google and Facebook, will still be as dominant as they are now, pressing ahead, and – crucial to their current valuations – generating economic profit? One reason the naïve statements and creepy actions of both these splendid efforts on the question of privacy are so interesting lies precisely in their assumption that their ways of doing business are here to stay, and we shall need to get used to the fact. 5-7 years? Expect both search and the kind of “social networking” embodied in Facebook to be well on their way to commodity status, prematurely ageing companies in a world in which everything – including the classic company life-cycle matrix – moves faster every day. (If that’s not a lesson to learn from the great AOL-Time Warner debacle, back in the 90s when things moved a lot slower, I don’t know what is; someone paid what – $100bn? more? – to teach us a classic biz school case.)

Key point here: Moore’s Law, globalization, and much else have created a situation in which it is not technology that is characteristic of the future, but change (and change in the context of growing asymmetry). This point seems to me to have been spectacularly ungrasped by major tech leaders. It isn’t that we shan’t need search or won’t wish to share pics and news with our friends. It’s that the ageing of these branded behemoths, with their hubristic tendencies, and the smartness that drives scores of start-ups year by year, will have moved our focus elsewhere. They will feel about as hip as the telecoms do now. (And this just in: who noticed the “Fear Award” delivered to Mark Zuckerberg for Facebook’s threats to privacy at the Stewart/Colbert “rally for sanity”? That should send shivers down many spines.)

From the Edge

So leadership, always the most daunting of human tasks, in the 21st century is intimately correlated with the two great facts of the age: the petaflood of data, and the instantiation of exponential change. The development and engagement of knowledge networks, and fundamental flexibility that grasps the change principle, have always been components in leadership, but they emerge now as the key qualifiers. The clock will not turn back. TMI will always define our data; a tempting stasis will frame our engagement with the latest change and the latest emerging technologies. We must now learn to lead not from the front but the edge.

Permission granted to reproduce in full and with acknowledgement.

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