Custodians of the Future


John Kabat-Zinn’s quote, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf” was recently shared with me by a colleague.  It brought to mind the many leaders I have watched not just learning, but UN-learning, in order to remain relevant in the present, while trying to reposition their companies and organizations against an uncertain future. 

I recently did some work on change management and found how interesting it was that a model referenced in Torben Rick’s work could be mapped to Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ seminal research in the 1970’s On Death & Dying. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance were the key stages she ascertained one goes through in the process of dying. Taken from two completely different contexts, our behaviors in a variety of settings; personal, professional, and organizational; go through a rather predictable cycle; with perhaps death being the ultimate challenge in human change management. Beyond acceptance comes rebirth, and that is where the real work begins for leaders in organizations.

Once everyone has fought through the jungle and the survivors remain; moving from the battlefield into a new vision is a challenging adjustment for most; and not always one to which those who fought the battle can then become the cultivators in a new environment.  It requires a continued high-level of energy and out-performance with a different set of skill mastery to execute a new vision.  Staying at the top of the wave involves excelling at environmental scanning, coaching others to maintain their balance as the wave travels, a strong board newly waxed as a foundation, and flexibility both individually and as a team.

Whether it be personal change we have found our way through as the world re-balances talent, resources, and power; or responsibility for teams, companies, or our families; we are in the process of redefining our world in many respects.  What is the responsible use of our resources going to be?  How is access to those resources going to be permitted?  How will the pricing of education affect the ability to approach the pool of resources?  In whom will we invest to be our future leaders? What expectations do our children have of the world in which they are inheriting? How do we prepare them to be good surfers and stewards in this environment with a multiplicity of variables that seems to compound exponentially? What value underpinnings are the majority willing to coalesce around?

What often gets lost as we crash towards shore is the constant personal assessment one must undertake to stay up on the board to be prepared as a strong partner within the team.  We are moving from hierarchy and paternal/maternal-ism to a collaborative model of surfing the waves.  The idea of “Bowling Alone” has come and gone and instead of an individual surfer, we must look to the team being able to ride the waves together, while some remain on shore looking for the next waves about to crest.  This is a challenging transition moving away from “He who has the gold makes the rules.” How often we hear of those coming next, “Why do we have to adjust to them?”  It is an accommodation every generation must transition through at a similar point in their life cycle.

We have an opportunity to jump into the ocean now and engage in tremendous knowledge transfer, leadership modeling, coaching (ask questions 20% of the time and listen 80%), and teaching in order to foster even stronger outcomes from the collaboration that is a natural for the generations coming.  How incredibly exciting to think that instead of climbing stairs alone to reach a solitary career pinnacle that the world we live in allows interactive and creative design at each stage in a way that involves more energy, more skill, more diversity, with powerful outcomes from which everyone can benefit and jointly celebrate.  The opportunity to shape leadership teams of the future and help them come into their own is upon us; not to mention what we can learn from them in collaboration now. Will we build WITH them instead of FOR them allowing a seat at the table now in true partnership? Together we can surf the waves as custodians of the future.

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