I was born and raised in Vaals, a community on the frayed edges of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. A melting pot of nationalities, where people don’t agree on anything except one thing: we don’t belong anywhere, we are not Dutch, not German and not Belgian, but we belong together (when it REALLY matters).
Historically a smuggler’s village, I grew up in a village of non-conformists, labor class and free thinkers, creatives in the broadest sense of the word ;-), which in later life gave me stories and insights into the diversity of human behavior and mechanisms.
I discovered that clichés do not exist without reason, while at the same time they were debunked daily. I noticed that understanding each other requires more than speaking each other’s language. That empathy is the magic that brings people together and creates the most beautiful collaborations. That it is not your education, the money in your bank account or that of your parents that is the determining factor for happiness and success, but the ability to connect on a deeper level; your creativity and innovative ability, your mind-set and cultural communicative empathy.
It makes that to this day I do not like to subscribe to any group, not even when it comes to magazine subscriptions. I feel most comfortable where people with different mindsets, backgrounds and cultures come together. I was allowed to experience the richness of diversity in time. Perhaps that is why populism, inequality and disparity are my personal triggers.
I have always had a strong urge to fight inequality. I usually did this by having robust conversations. What I had not taken into account was that having these conversations -with the goal of having them result in a positive outcome, in which not everyone has the same opinion, but space and understanding is created for other points of view- requires certain conditions.
It took years for me to become aware that it is not only the right arguments that make a discussion successful. However, I kept fighting and verbally jumped on the barricades every time I encountered inequality, or injustice. This eventually resulted in a state of exhaustion. It wasn’t until I turned my gaze to our socioeconomic conditions and cultural history that I understood what was going on.
Perhaps unconsciously, I began to focus professionally on what challenged me personally.
Through trial and error, I learned that I can achieve more with empathetic communication than with the weapons of discussion and argumentation. I apply this when I facilitate in transitions of teams and organization. The most essential principles here are:
- Allow yourself and the other person to grow.
- See where the other person is coming from and start the transformation from there. You don’t have to agree with to understand.
- Understand that for privileged people in positions of power, the need for transition is something new and not necessary. They simply do not feel the need, because for them everything is fine the way it is. Transformation can be disruptive for this group.
- To make the need for transitions clear to all stakeholders, we must create awareness of the breaking point in which we find ourselves evolutionarily and culturally. Developing and creating this awareness will require a lot of work and energy.
- Understand that empathy and compassion take training if you are not used to it.
Sense of urgency
What we need to understand is that the status quo always serves those who benefit from, or are not affected by it. That change is simply hard for people. It generates fear which, again, quickly translates into aggression.
For many there is simply no direct reason for change or transformation.
Personally, I learned that when I wanted to convince, instead of standing on the barricades I had to start the dialogue. The same is true for social transitions. We need to bring people along from the position they are in. Only then can we discover our shared purpose and sence of urgency that is necessary to make the change happen. This requires a new kind of leadership with thinking from equal constellations and abundance.
The times when people were seen as resources -we thought in terms of shortages and competition- are not only over, but this old thinking is even harmful today. In the current era it may still lead to short-term success, but in the long term it will be the cause of failure and bankruptcy. Success is not a piece of cake. A piece for someone else does not mean less for me.
We often understand this instinctively, but in our development, daily actions and evolution we are still at the intersection between the old and the new.
To understand the change, it is best to look at the business world. Only half of the companies are consciously working on a transition, in which the company can adapt to the new era.
Traditional leadership is what is still predominant at the moment. Traditional leadership is about dominating others. The goal is simply to win. The core of capitalist thinking; ‘dog eat dog’. The other is either the competitor that I must fight or the instrument (resource) that can be used to win the battle. What the other has, I cannot have.
This thinking is based on the deep-rooted mind-set of thinking in terms of scarcity, originating in the industrial age. We depended on resources that could run out. It was a race to procure resources at the lowest possible cost and to keep our own production as cheap as possible in order to gain and maintain a strong competitive position in the marketplace.
In today’s knowledge-based digital age, we face complex challenges. The legacy of the capitalist era and its associated way of life: Climate change, increasing inequality, refugee crisis and depleted resources. The challenges are all interconnected.
To solve these big issues, we will have to make a transition from ‘making money’ to ‘creating impact’. This requires new, different leadership competencies. Competencies that can provide connection, social and relational intelligence, creativity and innovation capacity and a growth mindset. The crisis in which we find ourselves calls for joining forces and social intelligence. We need to be able to work together rather than war and competition thinking. However, the old driving force of wanting to win is deeply embedded in our system. Replacing it with the pursuit of synergy may be as big a transition as learning to walk upright.
The confidence that we are stronger together must be built. We must learn (again) to think from the connecting values: respect, commitment, openness, honesty and courage.
New leadership is also being able to give people a feeling of security who literally and figuratively do not look alike. In doing so, you provide the required diversity in your team. Passing on a feeling requires that you act from authenticity; that you radiate and do what you say. You will have to live and be this. People smell when you are not authentic. It is no longer possible to hide behind hierarchical positions. Shifting responsibilities is no longer a possibility. We are not only equal; we also bear joint responsibility for achieving our goals. This frightens some people. New leadership is in all of us, but we were never taught how to act accordingly. We will have to spend a lot of time and attention.
You make transitions happen by starting a movement
Einstein already knew: “If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got”.
Breaking new ground and building something new means allowing a sense of discomfort and learning to make it our friend. This, again, takes courage from all involved. You have to dare to go down the new path together, want to invent and trust each other in it.
We often tend to think that big changes or transitions start with a ‘big bang’ and ‘a call to action’. That is not the case! Change starts with emotions. Real sustainable change starts, when a voice emerges that provides vision and a direction forward that is within the capabilities of the crowd.
Change starts small. With a small group of passionate enthusiasts making a few modest victories. These small successes demonstrate efficacy to non-participants and help the movement gain steam. The movement gains momentum and scale once the group successfully co-opts existing networks and influencers.
Finally, in successful movements, leaders use their momentum and influence to institutionalize change in the formal structures and rules of society. They are the ones that shift the norm.
In this, we humans are no different from a hive of bees. In the search for a more suitable living environment, scouts are sent out. Once these have found a suitable new place, they convey this information to a group of fellow scouts. These fly out with them to approve the new environment. The fellow scouts in turn communicate upon their return and so more and more bees follow. This ritual repeats itself several times until a tipping point is reached. Those who do not then fly out with us stay behind. In our social transitions this is no different.
Unlike a movement maker, a leader of a company is in a position of authority/mandate. Hierarchical positions are often still used in a traditional way; power driven to direct people in order for them to ‘function’.
- As a leader/manager in an organization, you should use your hierarchical position to initiate the desired change in a different way: Lead the way, show what the desired behavior is by living it yourself.
- Give confidence first, so that others dare to do it too. ‘Leaders go first’!
- Pay attention. Know that where we normally strive for harmony, for change we need a moderate amount of friction. No friction means no change. The places of friction indicate where the dominant organizational design and culture needs to evolve. Be happy with the friction. It shows you which issues to focus on. Where friction arises, attention and action are needed.
- Change only happens when people take action.
It is the most challenging part of a transformation. It cannot be achieved by mandate. Change lives in the hearts and habits of people. You must create a movement with optimism, confidence, conviction and creativity. This has little to nothing to do with compliance that you can enforce through a mandate.
The daily work
Once the movement is initiated, agility helps you live through and realize the desired transition step by step. The framework provides tools, rules, roles and rituals that offer you and your team a fictitious safe space, within which you can achieve new ways of working together. With cross functional, equivalence-based and shared responsibility self-managing teams.
The life skills that our current complex environment requires of us in order to successfully complete the challenges on the work floor, become through the framework a daily expense and therefore a requirement that we will have to train.
Respect, openness, commitment, courage, focus and trust are prerequisites and consequences of the new way of working. Here, leadership is not just for the boardroom members, everyone must show leadership in their own way. It is therefore necessary that, in addition to our areas of expertise, we also pay attention to our creativity, communication, mind-set and the ability to work together.
In a nutshell
If your company does not want to lag behind the trends and be equipped for the challenges of the digital knowledge-based era, then you will have to ensure a corporate culture in which, in addition to specific areas of expertise (the so-called hard skills), there is also continuous attention for the development of social and relational intelligence (life skills), driven by new leadership to create an effect across the board.
It does not matter whether this is innate or acquired. What is essential is not only to develop a vision, but also and above all to take action.
I believe that there is an alternative path to the old one that we are still on. It is my mission to make it available to everyone.