In the 1980s, Joel Barker rose to some fame in business circles with his elaboration of the work of Thomas Kuen on paradigms. He produced a video called The Business of Paradigm Shifts.
In its simplest form, a paradigm “is a typical example or pattern of something; a model.” It’s also defined as a worldview; a way of viewing reality; and a conceptual framework.
Barker describes several alterations in people’s perceptions he called a paradigm shift. His point was that paradigm shifts are essential for innovation. He uses the example of the Swiss watchmakers that first saw a digital watch at a conference. They pooh-poohed it, laughed at it, and dismissed it as a credible competitor. The company was Sony, and the rest is history.
The Swiss suffered severe financial losses as the world moved to digital. Their paradigm of a watch overtook what their eyes and brains should have recognized as an incredible departure and opportunity. And they missed the chance to switch.
So where does our worldview or the model of leadership we carry around in our heads derive?
For many who grew up in a two-parent traditional family in the 20th century, the first leader we ever met was our dad. Some were dictators (benevolent or otherwise). Others handed the pants to his wife for all but the important decisions. Still others were absent or modeled their version of leadership through the mist of a polished off bottle. Many were hard working, caring people who wore the leadership mantle joyfully or grudgingly.
In my case, my dad was a lawyer and judge. A kindly person most of the time, he ran our house like his courtroom only without the gavel. His word was final and often loud. As with many wives, my mother found ways to work around him for many of the barriers he created with the voluminous “NO.”
As a result, my paradigm of a leader was a kind autocrat who told people what to do—and expected them to do it.
There were other models growing up. School principals, for example. Most of them went to the same school of leadership as my dad, so the benevolent most of the time dictatorship style was what I saw. Graduate school classes in administration were more helpful in expanding my view of how to supervise and manage people but truthfully, not much more. My internships exposed me to others in leadership roles but most applied many of the techniques I already knew so well.
My first job as a CEO, I fell back on what I knew best: just do it and do it now. When I said, “now” and it didn’t happen as fast as I thought it should or as well, I let people know—not always tactfully or in private. While I did not use a gavel, I might as well have.
Awareness began to dawn that maybe I was part of the problem. Then I paid attention to how some of the best people I managed led their people. I noticed they did more asking than telling, and they were always polite and respectful. I studied the management literature, attended leadership classes and hired a coach.
I also saw the paradigm video and some things finally fell into place. I wasn’t looking at the real world but the world through my distorted paradigms. I also realized how much that was impairing my ability to lead. I call it my leaderdigm.
Slowly my leaderdigm begin to change, as did my deliberate skills in relationship building and empowering people. When the results improved, I started to get the picture.
I’m not sure if understanding earlier where my view of leadership came from would have helped me mature as a leader sooner. I am sure by not figuring it out sooner, many people paid an unnecessary price.
Like many who rise in authority, I had no formal management training for my early jobs. In my first leadership roles, I gravitated to dad’s style, “just do it and do it now” method of leading. It took awhile for me to figure out that it wasn’t working well.
To me, a paradigm is a window through which we view the world. In other words, they are how we perceive things. My former coach reminded me often “perception is the editor of reality” and it helped me understand my perceptions were often distorted or just plain wrong.
If it’s true that perception edits reality (and that one is really hard to argue), then how you view leadership may determine how you lead—unless you are aware of your view and make conscious effort to build on it or change it.
What’s your Leaderdigm?