Leading from the future – insights from the US

by Peter Coleman, 2016 Harkness Fellow and strategic adviser to the Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force. 

The final third of my Harkness Fellowship has flown by, with it ending up the most interesting and diverse phase in terms of the range of people I got to interact with on my topic exploring organisational culture and how it might be quantified.

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Prof. Paul Hanges

Two experiences stand out, and are worth sharing. The first was travelling to the University of Maryland to see Paul Hanges, one of the original members/authors of the GLOBE Project’s 2004 book Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies, which had strongly influenced the culture work of the U.S Army War College paper that had inspired my Harkness project.

Paul is the Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology in the University of Maryland’s Psychology Department, and he took time to up-date me and share the latest insights from his research. He was also very interested in my Harkness project, and offered very useful advice as to how I might consider using the GLOBE’s cultural dimensions – that had been conceived thinking about societal culture – in an organizational setting.

East Coast wanderings

The other standout was being able to attend the Boston University Questrom School of Business Executive Development Roundtable (EDRT). The Executive Development Roundtable is a research center and consortium of leadership development professionals that operates at the intersection of academic research and contemporary business practice.

Established in 1988 by the School of Management at Boston University (now the Questrom School of Business), and has a collection of corporate and non-profit members. EDRT provides its membership community with leading edge research, best practices and essential strategic content, in collaboration with the Center for Creative Leadership. The Centre for Creative Leadership was just ranked No.4 in the Financial Times worldwide survey of executive education.

The EDRT meeting I attended in late May in Greensboro, North Carolina was focused on the topic of Leading from the Future: Living in the Moment and Listening to the Voices of Change. One of two keynote speakers was Bob Johansen, of the Institute for the Future. He drew on his work in industry forecasting by sharing his framework of New Leadership Literacies.

The other was Mark Johnson, Co-Founder and Senior Partner of Innosight, a consulting firm specializing in disruptive technology. Johnson’s work centered around innovating within a company while maintaining the integrity of the company so that disruptive innovation, especially through disrupting business models, becomes integrated and continual inside of a company rather than gasped in moments of crisis. Both speakers emphasized the role of leaders championing culture, as the owner of an organisation’s narrative.

Measuring culture

The EDRT event allowed me to make many contacts beyond the military community, with people in or consulting in industry, who have been using approaches to measuring culture, which was valuable to my Harkness Project. On a personal note from the EDRT event, on the final morning we visited to the Civil Rights Museum in nearby downtown Greensboro, where an incredible guide led us on an emotional and impacting tour of the people, ideas, and actions that brought about major changes to the cultural norms of segregation. It was an awesome experience for this Kiwi.

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A visit to Kitty Hawk

My family and I left our Pennsylvania ‘Harkness base’ about a fortnight ago, and have been travelling seeing some more of the North-East of the United States, before returning to New Zealand. We got to see the amazing Niagra Falls, spend the 4th of July in Philadelphia (including on the 4th itself a tour of the rooms where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and the a visit of the Liberty Bell).

And the last few days as New Zealand has been gripped by winter, we drove to the Outer Banks, North Carolina, where we’ve visited things like Kitty Hawk where the Wright Brothers first flew, with daily temperatures not below 30 degrees C. So coming home to New Zealand will be quite a shock to the system. But New Zealand is certainly ‘home’.

In plain sight

Nonetheless, the opportunity to spend time in the United States at this moment in their history has been fascinating. It has felt many times like they are in the grips of a crisis as the wider populous – generally incredibly warm, friendly and inquisitive people throughout our travels – have lost confidence in the political system that makes the important decisions affecting their lives.

The distance between government and those governed has grown, it seems to me, dangerously large. And institutions like the media are no longer viewed as supplying impartial information that allows people to make informed decisions, so entrenched views simply grow more entrenched. What this means exactly for this Super Power’s future isn’t clear, but the warning signs appear to be in plain sight.

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4th of July in Philadelphia