Are you one of the 3 percent? I am talking about a very special group of adults here. (More)

Vision, Empowerment and Creativity:

Oddly enough when you were 4 or 5 years old 97% of you were in this group but by the time you were 20 only 3% of you remained. What is the group and what happened?

The group is people who tested as highly creative, not artistic necessarily but people who can see problems from many angles, who can ask ‘why’ persistently enough to see a new way and say ‘why not’.  Creative thinkers are not bound by “the way we’ve always done things” or “what will people think.”  Kids are natural explorers with a sense of both wonder and curiosity.  Then we educate them and civilize them and somehow, perhaps as an unintended consequence we have adults who are rather conventional.

Why is this important on a political blog? As Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I am waiting for the wisdom of this statement to dawn on those who continue to think giving tax cuts to the wealthy will solve our budget deficit problems and create good jobs for the rest of us. We cannot seem to collectively imagine that the way we’ve always done things using coal, oil and gas could be done differently using renewable energy.

When faced with a need for action, we have basically three possible responses.

We can REACT to a situation, we can ACT or initiate or we can CREATE and innovate.  Each kind of action is appropriate for certain situations. If we are driving along and get a flat tire, reacting is a good choice.  However if one is always reacting life is happening to you.  To shift from a reactive mode to an action orientation one needs to learn to anticipate. The ability to initiate gets lots of attention in developing managers. The skills of planning, organizing, directing and controlling can be taught. The military does it, corporations do it and non-profits do it.  This action orientation strives to give us predictability and order. It goes back to the Roman army and span of control. The 7-10 subordinates used for years as the ideal span of control was because that is how many men the leader could see and direct in the field of battle.

Organizations designed to deliver profits put a high premium on the action orientation. They invest significant resources in planning and executing according to plan. They manage Wall Street’s expectations based on these plans. In these organizations, by design people are NOT more important than profits.

Why do profit driven organizations need creativity? The end of a product life cycle means new products are needed. The squeezing of margins mean that process innovations are needed to improve productivity.  The introduction of new technology means that work must change.

The action continuum looks like this:

REACT——————–ACT/INITIATE————————–CREATE/INNOVATE

There is another continuum involved in the change process and it involves our beliefs or attitudes about POWER:

POWERLESS——————-POWERFUL———————EMPOWERMENT

People who believe themselves to be powerless see events as happening to them and see others as having the power to tell them what to do. Powerful people see themselves as able to impact events and influence others. Powerful people are in charge, in control of things.  One way beliefs about power appear in organizations has to do with information. Powerless people say things like, “Nobody tells me anything.” Powerful people believe that information is a source of their power and control. They say, “I tell them what they need to know.”  If need to know is a catch phrase you can bet that someone is trying to control information to consolidate and retain a position of power.

Seen in this light, the threat of wikileaks is that it makes reams of information available to everyone. I am not sure about the claims that such leaks threaten our national security but I am sure that they threaten the notion of information is power.

If a person wants to shift from powerless to powerful, there must be a shift in attitude and in accountability. If people feel that they can make things happen for themselves they will feel a sense of personal power. In better economic times, it is easier to imagine this shift. In times of high unemployment and job insecurity it is more difficult to imagine people feeling able to claim their personal power. Still 90 percent of people are working and organizations are still dealing with questions of developing managers and promoting people. Those people who can deliver results still shine and the need for powerful people that can make things happen still exists.

Training and development departments teach a set of knowledge, skills and attitudes that enable participants to increase their value to the organization. Being powerful is a skill set that can be taught and an attitude of confidence that comes from gaining skills.

Back to information, if the leader wants to empower people to help the organization achieve its goals or its vision, he or she will need to share information and trust that people will use it constructively.  If you let go of ‘need to know’ and move to ‘right to know’ you are letting go of control and you are left with trust.  For people who worked hard and were lucky enough to get some power in an organization is it any wonder that many of them cling to what power they have amassed?

Seen as a matrix it looks like this:

Empowerment     visionary leadership
Powerful   management  
Powerless victim  
  React Act/Initiate Create/Innovate

On each axis, the first shift requires adding new skills. Traditionally we think about education as each skill building on what one has already learned. We learn to add and then we learn to multiply.  The second shift requires letting go. Letting go of the notion that I am in total control is required to empower others.  To create and innovate one needs to let go of the way we’ve always done things.  Western culture is much more used to thinking of growth as additive. The idea that one would let go to grow seems almost un-American. The more successful an individual or an organization (or maybe even a nation) has been, the harder it is to let go of that which we see as responsible for our success. Only when it becomes terribly clear, say climate change, that our old ways are not sustainable will we entertain a new paradigm. Too often the first response is some back to the basics stuff.

Can you imagine a react mode where people are empowered? I give you the Tea Party.  Can you imagine powerful people who innovate solely for their own gain? I give you Wall Street and the financial reengineering of CDOs and CDSs.  How about powerful managerial types needing to react? Johnson and Johnson did this very well when Tylenol was tampered with.

Each of the cells in this matrix has a time and place where it fits. There are times when the classic managerial model of command and control works well. There are times when the powerless/react mode is what is, like the example of the flat tire. There are times when what we have done won’t get us to where we want or need to be and those times require visionary leadership. I think of the civil rights leaders who changed our notion of how things could be. I think of Henry Ford and not only his production line innovations but also his idea that his workers should be able to afford his cars.

For those of us who heard hope and change in the last campaign and were attracted to the message, perhaps we were more ready to let go of some of the old ways of being a people than our fellow citizens were.  Perhaps we were ahead of the right of believing the science of climate change and hoping for action. Perhaps we were ready for a bi-racial President in a way that clearly some on the right were not. Perhaps we hoped, when the economy was close to crashing, that some leveling of the economic playing field would be at least attempted. One of the things a visionary leader does while empowering people to be part of the change we need is to unite them around a common vision or story.  We don’t have a common vision as a people. We have the remnants of American exceptionalism and empire which some of us see as outdated and destructive while others see as our future.

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Part I of the series Morning Feature: Change, Part I – Vision and Change