Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mood disorders may help people find leadership clarity

(Note - this post has been modifed since first published 24 hours ago to give additional contextual comment.)

Winston Churchill struggled with depression, and that may have made him a better leader.

Referring to Churchill, Nassir Ghaemi, professor of psychiatry in Tufts University School of Medicine, states: “The depressive leader saw the event of his day with a clarity and realism lacking in saner, more stable men.”  (Johansen, 2012, p.50)

This was one insight that hit me reading “Leaders Make the Future” by Bob Johansen.  Johansen is the former President and now Distinguished Fellow of the Institute for the Future (IFTF) - an independent non-profit think tank that has produced an annual ten-year forecast for over 40 years.  The 10 novel leadership skills he introduces in this book are worthy of deep consideration.

First, I should put a bit more context on the depression issue – Ghaemi’s work suggests that mood disorders may actually help people find leadership clarity in a world of increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA).  He considers that in good times, healthy people function effectively as leaders, but “...in times of crisis and tumult, those who are mentally abnormal, even ill, become the greatest leaders…..Mildly depressed people…tend to see the world more clearly, as it is” (my emphasis).

Johansen contends that “Being normal may be a disadvantage in abnormal times.”  And I am sure he is not advocating depression - rather the need for a mindset open enough to see reality as it is.

There is little normal in a world of increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), and Johansen argues that leaders operating in this world must learn new skills in order to make a better future including:

1)            Maker instinct (leaders approach their leadership with commitment of a job and energy of a passionate hobby)
2)            Clarity (leaders being clear about what they are making but flexible about how it gets made)
3)            Dilemma Flipping (turning problems that can't be solved into opportunities)
4)            Immersive Learning (learning by doing)
5)            Bio-empathy (understand, respect and learn from nature)
6)            Constructive depolarization (calming tense situations and bringing people from divergent cultures towards constructive engagement)
7)            Quiet transparency (ability to be open and authentic about what matters to you without self-promotion)
8)            Rapid Prototyping (ability to create early versions of innovations)
9)            Smart mob organizing (creating, engaging and nurturing social networks)
10)        Commons creating (stimulate, grow and nurture shared assets that can benefit other players)

The book is probably best suited to a seasoned leader with an experience on which to reflect and make sense of Johansen’s words.  He is effective in explaining the "what" and the "why" but not the "how”, and this is where an ability to draw on an extensive practice would be useful.  Getting through the book is not an easy task, but is one that will be highly rewarding.

My one major insight is that “Leaders make the Future” offers a novel approach to making sense of the present.  If you can do that, you are in a better position to shape the future.

I read many books on leadership.  Not often do I recommend one.  Johansen’s “Leaders make the future” is an exception.  You won’t find it easy, and you will need be prepared to take a time for some deep reflection.  If you care about the practice of leading then you will find Johansen’s ideas as very useful (along with anything written by Max De Pree!!)

Bob Johansen (2012) Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World.  Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco.  ISBN 978-1-60994-487-2