Leaders Need Wings, Not Wheels: The Profound Difference Between Elevating and Shifting Behavior

Leaders Need Wings, Not Wheels: The Profound Difference Between Elevating and Shifting Behavior

“I need you to elevate me here.” –U2, “Elevation”

Which would you rather attach to your company: A new set of wheels to help shift gears with incremental improvements, or a set of wings that elevates performance by addressing the threats and opportunities of an interconnected and morally interdependent world?

The answer is obvious. Wings enable leaders and organizations to launch the journeys that our new world requires – not to merely survive, but to thrive. New wheels (tactical, iterative improvements) only help companies move a bit faster on the same old, bumpy path. Wings elevate behavior as well as organizational performance and resiliency.

I’ve long argued that we’ve entered the Era of Behavior. I need to clarify that: We’ve entered the Era of ElevatedBehavior. Not only are companies competing on the basis of behavior, but the companies that succeed in this era will be those that generate – or, more accurately, inspire – employee behaviors that forge more meaningful connections with all business stakeholders.

In the past, leaders hoped employees would promote the company at dinner parties. Today, leaders need people who, on their own initiative, will hop onto Facebook and defend their company publicly. Elevated behavior is about collaborating with colleagues from different cultures, it’s about building true supply-chain partnerships that move beyond a check-the-box vendor-supplier agreement. In the healthcare industry, doctors display elevated behavior when they genuinely apologize for their errors rather than ducking behind legal defenses. On the business playing field, elevated behavior translates to building healthy, sustainable partnerships by eschewing zero-sum competition in favor of competere (or “striving together”), which is the true ideal of competition. It’s about being principled, however inconvenient or unpopular the ramifications.

Getting these elevated behaviors from employees requires a new leadership mindset. Although their instincts point them in the general direction of elevated qualities, business leaders have yet to figure out or explicitly articulate what they’re asking of their employees. Equally troubling, most CEOs apply outdated leadership tools – for example, motivating or coercing (i.e. “shifting”) an employee to become 1.5 percent more productive – instead of developing new ways to inspire elevated behaviors. Trying to “shift” employees to exhibit elevated behaviors is like applying Stone Age tools to a Bronze Age challenge.

That said, I’m encouraged that more CEOs are beginning to see that traditional employee behaviors no longer suffice. A top takeaway from IBM’s 2010 study of 1,500 global CEOs was that the best way to successfully navigate an increasing complex world was to instill “creativity” throughout an organization. These chief executives have a much bigger ask than higher productivity, greater efficiency, or greater technological savvy: they want all of their employees to bring more creativity to all that they do.

There’s a very good reason for this request and related Big Asks. As the world and business grows increasingly complex, a company’s strength hinges on the strength of the relationships its people develop, nurture and sustain through elevated behavior.

What CEOs can Learn from Suitcases

How tough is it to inspire elevated behavior? Although we’re only beginning to find out, we know that it will require a long, arduous and committed journey.

Consider how much work some of the most rewarding behavioral shifts of the 20th Century required, including the wheels that changed business travel. Rather than schlepping their suitcases and brief cases, road warriors now roll streamlined, stackable baggage through concourses, operating their smart phones with free hands and arriving at their gates free from back spasms and arm strain.

It wasn’t always this way. Despite the glaringly obvious benefits of rolling luggage, business travelers resisted this innovation for years, as Bernard Sadow and Robert Plath know.

Sadow, an executive with a luggage and coat manufacturer, attached four casters to a travel suitcase after hauling suitcases through airport on a family trip to Aruba in 1970. Sadow’s invention languished for nearly two decades. Before his death, Sadow told The New York Times that “people do not accept change well.”

In 1987, Plath, a Northwest Airlines pilot, introduced the Rollaboard, a two-wheel suitcase with a long handle that could be pulled in an upright position. Although pilots and flight attendants quickly snapped up Plath’s prototypes, it took years for the general public to dip their toe in the market. Business travelers saw the innovation as a “flight attendant contraption.” Later, manufacturers, like Travelpro International (the company Plath left his aviation career to launch), Tumi and others devised numerous tactical motivations (e.g., lower prices and features such as telescoping handles, attachments for laptop bags,  more durable frames, etc.) to shift travelers’ behavior. Years passed before they were successful.

Six Ways to Elevate Behavior

Rolling luggage hardly represents a transformative change—the advancement merely marks a shift to wheels. We’ve grown highly proficient in shifting behavior and, don’t get me wrong, much good has come out of these tactics. Companies have helped employees to save more in their retirement accounts through “opt-out” shifts; train platforms in India have grown safer thanks to better signage and communications; some food stores steer shoppers to healthier options via innovative shelving nudges. Although shifting remains useful, it is no longer sufficient in the Era of Elevated Behavior.

After all, employees cannot be “shifted” to exhibit elevated behaviors. So how do we do it? The following approaches represent early steps on the journey to elevated behavior:

  1. Replace “can” with “should:” Can thinking is rules-based. There is very little about rules that generate the inspiration necessary to put wings on companies. While rules require compliance, should thinking is values-based, and values generate the inspiration necessary to generate elevated behavior.
  2. Engage in two-way conversations: The days of leading countries or companies via a one-way conversation are over. When the movie-streaming site Netflix raised its prices in 2011 via a one-way announcement, 800,000 customers fled. Leaders must now embrace two-way conversations, and be prepared to truly listen, connect and collaborate with constituents, employees and stakeholders, who hold more power than ever before.
  3. Pursue resiliency and growth: If we still had 10-year cycles, it might be rational to pull down our sails, batten down the hatches, wait out the storm, and then set sail when economic conditions improve. But when storms are hitting us every 10 weeks, and likely will continue to do so, we need to learn – for the first time – to sail with sails up in a storm. We need to build the institutional and individual capacity for simultaneous resiliency and growth.
  4. Build healthy interdependencies: Moral interdependence can bring positive or negative global impacts. It is our responsibility — and opportunity– to build new coalitions and mutually supportive relationships (even with former competitors) as we eschew zero-sum competition in favor of striving together.
  5. Practice inspirational leadership: Business leaders must recognize that in the interdependent world, as power shifts to individuals, leadership itself must shift with it. We must eschew coercive or motivational leadership that uses sticks and carrots to extract performance and allegiance out of people and embrace inspirational leadership that inspires commitment and innovation and hope in people. Leadership is no longer about formal authority that commands and controls and exerts power overpeople, but rather about moral authority that connects and collaborates and generates power through people.
  6. Set your company on a journey: In order to inspire your employees to aim higher, your company must aim higher, as well. Replace linear, short-term goals with more ambitious, long-term missions. This will require curvilinear progress as you and your people strive towards these higher goals, but the ambitious targets will inspire elevated behaviors from you and your people.

Many leaders sense that they need more from their employees, but don’t know how to inspire the right behaviors. In IBM’s 2012 survey of 1,700 global CEOs, business leaders identified “empowering employees through values” as one of their top strategic objectives. This is the right instinct, but ”empowerment” is the wrong generator. Leaders who “empower” reinforce power as currency; they’re just being nice by giving some power away. Instead, leaders must take power out of the equation and inspire their employees to embrace, and behave according to, shared values via two-way conversations. Doing so requires wings, not wheels.

To move our companies and our leaders into the Era of Elevated Behavior, we need to first recognize our categorical mistake of applying the wrong solutions to a systemic challenge. Just ask Bono and his band mates, who released the song “Elevation” on their first album of the new Millennium. They didn’t call the song “Shift” – for reasons that the business world is just beginning to understand.

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