Over the last few years, I’ve enjoyed a steadily growing following on Linkedin. I’m very grateful for that, so thank you if you’re one of them. To understand what you and others like, appreciate and think about, I often read comments and, occasionally, engage in discussions to better understand your viewpoints.
Based on this reading and interaction, I’m seeing a pattern among those engaging: you’re all protagonists! The term originates from literature and refers to the main character of the story. It’s the character that takes charge and makes things happen, rather than have things happen to them. Protagonists set the direction for their lives, rather than being the victims of circumstances.
In almost all discussions, the topic concerns the change that’s required, the resistance many of you experience when driving these changes, the tactics that can be used to overcome the resistance and the frustration of organizations changing too slowly and, consequently, increasing their risk of disruption.
These last years, I’ve written about companies and technology, but little about how to operate as a professional and change agent in a rapidly digitalizing world. The challenge is that it may easily become presumptuous and a bit arrogant, which is what I want to avoid as I’m as much a student as anyone reading this and just trying to figure it out as I go along.
However, having worked with quite a few companies, with hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and having observed and having been involved in successful and not-so-successful examples, I believe I have some credibility to share my reflections and thoughts on how to successfully lead and change companies as well as yourself. Here are 15 lessons I believe are worthwhile to consider. In the coming posts, I plan to discuss each of them in more detail and discuss examples, both positive and negative, from cases I’ve worked with in the past.
1. Own it
No matter what happens, what the root cause is or what the consequences are, you always have a choice: you can be the victim of the situation or you can take ownership of it. You need to own whatever happens and act, rather than rely on others to take action.
2. Have a purpose
Whether life has an absolute purpose or you view life as meaningless in and of itself, you need to find or select a purpose and define it in actionable terms for yourself. The purpose has to go beyond yourself and be something you put yourself in service of.
3. Compete intentionally
After millennia of scarcity, humans are hardwired to compete in hierarchies and exert themselves to prove themselves to be better than others. In modern life, and with scarcity largely exterminated, the number of hierarchies to compete in is infinite. This means that you need to put your energy into competing in hierarchies that align with your purpose and that matter to you, yours and the world.
4. Question everything including yourself
Especially older, mature companies have the norms, values and ways of working ingrained in the walls. Senior leaders are typically selected because they embody these norms and values and personify the ways of working. In a rapidly digitalizing and changing world, however, the old approaches are the surest path to go the way of the dinosaurs. To break out of this, you have to use questions to convert implicit beliefs into explicit arguments that can then be disproven. This applies not only to others but also to yourself.
5. Hell yes or no
Many of us spend vast amounts of time on activities that add very little to our lives, our purpose or the people around us. For a variety of reasons, we tend to accept too many responsibilities, projects and tasks. The only way to get better at this is to be more selective. One effective strategy is the “hell yes or no” strategy: if a proposal doesn’t trigger a fire in your belly but is more “meh,” the answer is no.
6. Get out of your comfort zone
Even if many of us build a comfort zone in our professional lives where we know we’re competent and can deliver, the problem is that nothing grows in our comfort zone. We need to get outside of it to develop. Often it’s the thing you fear that you need to say yes to.
7. Change your mind
Seniors in organizations tend to be respected for sharing their opinions, which are supposed to be based on experience and a competent interpretation of the current state of the product, the company and the world. However, once having gone “on record” concerning a topic, it becomes very hard to change position as it easily comes with a perceived loss of face. Instead, allow yourself to change your mind and share why with others.
8. Use data
During my life, I’ve time and again managed to create stories for myself that, in hindsight, turned out to be complete bullocks. As storytelling machines, we excel at creating stories that provide a level of sense-making. We need to ensure that these stories have a solid grounding in reality and the best way to do so is to use data.
9. Take care of yourself
We can only function at our best if we are at our best. That requires that we take care of ourselves. This has two components: our physical health and our mental health. The two ways to best take care of those are exercise for physical health and meditation for mental health.
10. Study stoicism and Buddhism
Especially when it comes to digitalization, the newest product is typically better than older ones. When it comes to being human, we easily fall into the latest fad as it triggers the novelty button. However, humans have not really changed over the last 200,000 years or so, so when it comes to ourselves, we’re better off with established, proven philosophies of life. Two of these are stoicism and Buddhism. Stoicism encourages us to spend our time and energy on things we can control whereas Buddhism encourages us to accept the things in life that we can’t change.
11. Give back
Even if Western society tends to focus on the successes of the individual, the fact remains that each of us is the result of an endless chain of people that helped us get to where we are right now. To keep the flywheel going, it’s our job to give back and help others achieve their dream and be the protagonist of their own story.
12. Always keep exploring
In many AI algorithms, there’s a balance between exploitation, where you use known knowledge to get a known outcome, and exploration, where you experiment with actions of which you don’t know the outcome. Exploration is very inefficient as many of the experiments will fail to deliver a positive result. However, you never break out of your comfort zone, you never learn something new and you never change unless you explore.
13. Be proud of who you see in the mirror
During our lives and in the companies we work for or with, we periodically are challenged to agree to courses of action that go against what we’d consider ethically or morally right. The best way to ensure you do the right thing is to apply the mirror metaphor: will you be proud of the person that you see in the mirror if you take this decision or even tacitly support it?
14. Don’t take yourself too seriously
Especially as we get older, more experienced and higher up in the tree of the organization we’re part of, we tend to start to believe our own cow dung a little too much. And the people around us tend to question us less and less as their future may well be influenced by our view of them. The risk is that you take yourself too seriously and fail to accept that you’re most likely wrong most of the time.
15. Memento mori
The final rule is that we should remember that we’re going to die. It puts value on everything we spend time on as the amount of life energy we have is limited and many things don’t matter in the big picture. It also helps us put things into perspective. For instance, how many famous Sumerians can you name? This was one of the most successful civilizations on Earth. Yet, everything they accomplished is gone and no longer remembered by anyone except for some arcane historians.
George Bernhard Shaw famously said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” We’re the protagonists of our own lives. We own the story our lives are unfolding into and we need to take responsibility for it. Life is lived together with others around us and it’s easy to fall into a victim role or to succumb to nihilism. To paraphrase J.F. Kennedy, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”