By nature giraffes welcome other herbivores into the herd (including zebras, wildebeests, hartebeests, and birds), animals that aren’t blessed with the giraffe’s extraordinary height and vision. By constantly moving forward to feed while living in a diverse, ever-shifting, and dangerous world, giraffes symbolize twenty-first-century leadership that centers on people working together on an increasingly level playing field.
In October 2009, former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz delivered a lecture to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point. His call for a new military leadership grabbed my attention because the military model has influenced business leadership since the end of World War II, a hierarchical style that served US corporations successfully throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
This style was powerful; it worked.
Deresiewicz, however, sees an urgent need to shift from our lingering bureaucratic model because it selects leaders based on sparkling resumes, which over sixty years has led us to become a land of “world-class hoop jumpers.” What’s still most important in leadership, Deresiewicz says, are “impressive titles” or “people who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.” The danger is that the type of person who climbs that slippery ladder and achieves in this environment is often “commonplace, ordinary, usual” because the skill that moves one up the ladder isn’t excellence but “a talent for maneuvering.”
Stubbornly, we still admire the twentieth-century technocrat instead of the twenty-first-century original thinker, who needs more freedom and solitude to produce. That’s a disaster brewing because technocrats inspire “neither love nor fear nor even respect.” What these leaders inspire most is “uneasiness.”
Last century’s leadership persona was talented at keeping routines going strong but untalented at stimulating a range of people to commit passionately to something that helps others. This leadership style is being pressured to shift because of the Web, especially social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Google+. Rooted in people sincerely connecting with one another, customers not only access information instantly but also learn of vital knowledge to offer others through virtual conversations that quickly can shift to innovation and real-world products and services.
A sharp business model is moving this idea further, the “mesh economy” or sharing-based business that focuses on collaboration. Technology not only helps people connect but also fosters trust between strangers. That’s key in a model that focuses on swapping, lending, borrowing, and even sharing skills. Using a strategy known as “collective consumption” (once the norm in rural areas where farmers shared barns and special vehicles), Zipcar is a significantly growing mesh business, a fundamental shift so that people have access to cars that are sprinkled around neighborhoods in dense cities or other populated areas such as universities. By sharing, people in these communities now have access to cars that they once had to buy, maintain, and pay insurance for—even though they rarely used cars since they had access to work and shopping through subways and walking. Zipcar (http://www.zipcar.com) gives them a better option to bypass traditional rental companies when they need a car near their home to drive to a specific location a few times each month without planning or spending a great deal of time going to a rental agency such as Avis or Hertz.
People are more empowered than in the past, and leaders must understand this shift, accept it, and learn how to evolve. In London they’ve taken the mesh business further through Good Gym (http://www.goodgym.org) with the goal to take an energy surplus to where it’s needed. For example, an active jogger can take a three-mile run (which she would do anyway three times each week) with an envelope stuffed with vital information that an elderly man in her neighborhood needs that afternoon. The younger runner uses her exercise time to help an elderly person in her community, a unique connection, a new herd.
Hundreds of sharing businesses are arriving, moving away from traditional brick-and-mortars into collective businesses of people that act through trust.
- Airbub: books a room in a private home with the owners (or without) all over the world’s continents. (https://www.airbnb.com)
- Kickstarter: helps people raise money for projects in the arts, including film, art, music, and publishing. (http://www.kickstarter.com)
- Kiva: loans twenty-five dollars or more to a farmer or someone in any field in the developing world who needs to create a business; the loans get repaid, without interest. (http://www.kiva.org)
In a 2011 article in The Atlantic, Sara Horowitz describes these new businesses as a “Quiet Revolution,” or better described as “a return to basics, with a focus on community, health, ecology, happiness, and balance. At its root is the idea of mutualism—people coming together, pooling resources, and meeting their own needs.” Even though government and big business are not leading this movement, all leaders should be aware of this growing new herd of humans with shared needs who work well together.
Today, however, most businesses are firm (not customer) centric. Leadership must act to increase benefits for the customer as the Web swiftly moves forward. Research has predicted that in the next fifty years we’ll be dealing with many more people—not simply a pretty unit of measurement cherished in yesterday’s businesses. Companies need to embrace customers as the new CEO, or one day they’ll be tossed away like rotting fruit.