• Gabor Holch

How 2019 will sharpen your leadership values

Technology resurrected philosophy, something only aimless idealists studied until recently — like I did in the 90s. Imagine, for instance, that your car’s breaks malfunction and you must either crash into a group of schoolchildren on the left or a single senior citizen on the right. Students of ethics, a branch of philosophy, pondered such theoretical dilemmas for centuries, but recent inventions added urgency: how would a self-driving car’s software decide? Any way it is programmed, silly! And recent research found that programmers anticipate and solve such conundrums differently based on cultural factors such as nationality, upbringing, gender, age and more. Asian cars will apparently save seniors more often than American ones. Welcome to the era that connects everything, including tech, traffic, leadership and yes, philosophy.

When I suggest to my coaching clients that 2019 will test their leadership values like never before, they often ask me why this year would be different from the last, or the one before that. The reason is that this year, technology will bring you closer to turning your heart’s desire into reality in seconds, and I don’t mean the in-built palm-chips that open the door of a Prius without a key. Instead, what will differentiate 2019 is the number of moral dilemmas presented to you via global networks: hiring local or expat, human workers or robots, capitalism or socialism, competition or harmony. The issues are familiar, but not taking sides was often an option. This year will be different. 2019 will require more snap decisions aided by nothing but the moral compass we call values.

Values are concepts of reality that allow efficient decisions based on limited information. They have guided us since we became humans. ‘Don’t risk lives’ is a value that has served hunter-gatherers and pharmaceutical CEOs alike — neither have complied at all times, but as guidelines, it helped tribes and firms survive. Similarly, ’be curious’ inspired the discovery of fire, tandem sky-diving and blockchains, one after another. Along the way, communities realised that individual preferences vary between values such as responsibility (‘Spare lives’) and innovation (‘Be curious’), apparently from birth. Those who survived hunts, blizzards, brawls and boredom therefore started giving risky tasks to brave individuals, for instance, meticulous jobs to patient ones and teaching essential skills people lacked at birth: nature and nurture, talent and education and all that.

When a CEO solves cash-flow problems by selling a corporate jet rather than buying cheaper gas masks for acid tank inspectors, he weighs contradicting items on his firm’s list of core values. Top management may be genuinely curious whether the cheap masks will suffice, but selling the corporate jet sends a strong message about responsibility. When values collide (and they do, even in a list of four corporate values), people become unpredictable, and as civilisation advances, we like that less and less. Understanding underlying factors such as personality and group dynamics has become an art and science, spawned several industries and Nobel prizes to experts like Daniel Kahnemann. Economic models, psychometric assessment and big-data applications aim at predicting and influencing the behaviour of teams, companies and nations.

Awareness: Learn to spot dilemmas

Why should you care? Because this year more than last, a global marketplace of goods, services and ideas will give you a tough part in a drama taking place on a divided stage. Ling, an executive I coached in China, discovered a horrifying damage rate while her workers manually loaded sacks of fertiliser on trucks. Instantly, she was caught in two modern dilemmas: local versus global, and man versus machine. In central China where the factory is, you cannot fire one single worker, because they come in clans and leave the same way — fire one and fifty will walk out. Hiring outside help could lead to dangerous feuds between locals and newcomers. Why not buy robots, I asked. Well, that would not only risk a riot in the local community but also attract ire from government officials: automation and full employment are parallel values in the ‘China Dream’.

Such dilemmas have been part of leadership since the stone age, but were made easier by cultural ‘operating systems’. One such system is tradition. In the 19th century, every modernising society faced the clash of human and mechanical labour. Descendants of bold American settlers pushed ahead, conservative Chinese authorities banned locomotives and European landlords became masters of vacillation between horses and horse powers. More recent values such as liberty and individual rights seem to suggest that somehow, opposing values can both be right: parents can keep children both cheerful and diligent, firms can manage people as ‘human resources’ while cherishing their individuality and leaders can be both honest and politically correct. In practice, however, we find that adding nodes that connect us to a global system also adds paradoxes. And while some follow the logical path of reducing outside interaction to get rid of such dilemmas, leaders in charge of action must learn a vital skill for the future: taking sides.

Skills: Learn to stay out of the middle

Instruct your Rumba to go left and right, and see what happens. In 2019 and beyond, leaders must learn to discover contradictions in mission statements, competency systems and their own instructions, and re-prioritise inherent values, whether explicitly listed or tacitly suggested. German philosopher Leibniz said humans could choose their actions but not their consequences. In leadership, there is a magical moment when someone suddenly realises the absurdity of a course of action, steps across an imaginary line and redefines the game. In a project simulation I use at workshops, two project teams hold one essential piece of each other’s puzzles. Most teams assume the game is a competition until they realise the connection. Observers record body language that clearly announces when someone reaches an ‘Aha!’ moment but hesitates to share it. Who steps across the line first speaks volumes of the team’s internal culture. Some groups declare victory over their incomplete projects and get shocked at the debriefing.

As opposed to Teslas and Rumbas, humans do not follow binary codes, therefore contradictions go unnoticed for much longer. Leaders must discover and override them, like human operators do with a self-driving vehicle stuck behind a stalled school bus in a no-overtake lane. Rationally, conflicting options all make sense, like robotic innovation and corporate social responsibility in Ling’s case. But they cannot both be chosen, and a leader’s job is decision rather than analysis. Selecting one value over another is a tough decision that take the leader, and dozens or even thousands of people down a new path that is often uncontrollable until the next intersection. That is why many leaders make half-hearted choices at one junction, self-correct in the other direction the next, wobble like newbies on bicycles and lament ‘constant firefighting’ at work. An over-connected, over-informed age calls for a new level of behavioural consistency. The question is not between right and wrong choices: it is which kind of future the leader commits to.

Habits: Learn to stay consistent

French journalist Maria Geyer has a surprising reason for disliking recent ‘Yellow Vest’ protests in Paris. “They flood the streets like ugly Pikachus”, she told me. Her view is unusual but defensible. Many leaders take an aesthetic view to solving problems rather than prioritising finances or politics. Top designers like Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren started their fashion houses in protest of the ugliness that prevailed after the world war. Steve Jobs added art to computers, and most Tesla owners crave coolness, not better batteries. Such leaders support civil disobedience as long as it minimises destruction: protest leaders in Hong Kong had such (perhaps Confucian) values at heart. Others defend decisions to sacrifice some of the profit for acting as responsible corporate citizens — like Ling did when she decided to personally train the sack-ripping local community, lodging with them for months. Or like Chinese and Japanese techies did when they included traditional social values in codes for self-driving cars.

Of course, leaders must produce results. The balance between what Max Weber (the last philosopher today, I swear) called goal-oriented and value-oriented action is precarious. On calm seas, captains can think rationally and safely follow through. Then, suddenly, waves strengthen, time runs out and leaders must go with their guts. This is how we (I mean humans, although bots read my blog too) are different from machines: we have comfort zones and skip in-and-out of it. Innovation usually happens under pressure, while consistent performance requires slow pulses and calm minds. Clear personal values inspire better and more consistent decisions in both cases, but become essential under pressure, when bottom lines blur and options clash.

Machines replace humans in jobs where value-free decisions are better. But many instances call for human intervention. (Watch the video of a Tesla running over a robot: you can call it work.) When they do, it is because available choices look equally good or equally bad to a rational observer. Such problems will call for people with clear values who can decide for others and handle the consequences. Those people are called leaders. I wish you a crisp New Year!

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