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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Tech and Innovation - Why leading breakthrough requires the capacity to let go of control

Tech and Innovation

Why leading breakthrough requires the capacity to let go of control

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For the last 30 years I have run huge strategic change processes for global firms undergoing billion-dollar restructures, mergers, turnarounds, and IPOs.  These programs thrive when leaders have the courage to let go and empower others. Numerous studies tell us that most change programs fail because leaders want to be in full control. As this is impossible failure is assured.  

Leaders wanting to run extraordinarily successful strategic change processes need to be prepared to reach past the known, stretch themselves on every level of their being and have the courage to bring their people along with them.  This is as much a process of social engineering as it is a matter of thinking through the strategic issues. We know that strategy formulation is 5% thinking and 95% execution, and that strategy execution is 5% technical and 95% people related. 

My MBA was about thinking and control.  Experience taught me that reality in the changing world of business cannot be controlled.  It can be structured and measured (as it changes) but not controlled.  When leaders accept this fact, they can stop trying to manage change and get on with the highly valuable and strategic job of leading breakthrough success.

Leaders need current information not stifling control.

Luckily, with AI and the intelligence of IT control systems, leaders do not need to control everything that is happening.

As the CEO of a global bank put it, “When you are driving your car you are not trying to control the engine. What you need is a great information system.  Your petrol, oil and speed gauges give you the confidence to relax and concentrate on your driving and reaching your destination.  You do not have to stop the car every time you want to know if you need oil or petrol, you trust what your dashboard tells you.’

With a great dashboard, leaders are free to lead, to spend their time and energy on strategy and growing themselves and their people to master the rapidly changing environment in which we all operate.

For large global firms this is essential because they operate in a massive complex of interconnecting systems: geo-politics and legal systems, the metaverse, the global financial system, the global marketplace in their own industry and those industries on which they rely for supplies and support.   Complexity theory teaches us that the more complex a system (or set of systems) the more fragile it is and therefore the more susceptible to rapid change. 

“Life exists at the edge of chaos. I suspect that the fate of all complex adapting systems in the biosphere—from single cells to economies—is to evolve to a natural state between order and chaos, a grand compromise between structure and surprise.”  (Stuart Kauffman, Santa Fe Institute)

Thus, leadership in times of change involves leading through order and chaos, through both structure and surprise.

AI helps with the structure and order. For leaders to master the chaos and surprise they must ask the right questions.

It’s about asking the right questions.

The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions. (Claude Levi-Strauss)

Growing wisdom is not just an intellectual process, it is a body, mind, emotion, spirit, and soul process.  To ask the right leadership and strategic questions we need to increase our levels of consciousness – adult cognitive development. Thus, leaders need to:

Increase their own and their people’s powers of lateral thinking and creative problem asking and solving.

Increase awareness of self and others

Build capacity to break self-limiting beliefs and habitual responses thus enabling empowered personal and group action.

Rise to entirely new levels of relationship skill and understanding.

Strategically empower themselves and their people

Build change mastery and transformation skill into themselves and their people.

Increase transparency, trust and communication skills for themselves and their people.

Increase political acumen both within their organizations and across the systems in which they operate.

Learn to lead a process of social engineering so that their organizations can change at the same pace as the environment in which they operate.

For most leaders these are new skills and not easy to acquire. Adults learn by doing, leaders learn by leading, by facing our changing reality and getting their hands dirty.

The art of muddling through

Mastering leadership in times of rapid change is a holistic process, one best learnt by the age-old art of muddling through, trial and error and failing fast to learn fast. I am yet to see someone do this successfully without the support of a great guide who are unfortunately extremely hard to find. (There’s lots of rhetoric but rather scant results by the now thousands (if not millions) of coaches out there).  

Leadership in times of rapid change demands courage, risk taking and ensuring that you, the leader, are ready and that you have pluck to look for a heroic guide who can support you to use your changing reality to take you out in front of the crowd so tht you can breakthrough to new levels of achievement, consciousness and therefore joy, success and wellbeing.

Good heroic guides are unlikely to look or sound like you.  Master myth scholar Joseph Campbell in his work on the hero’s journey, tells us that heroic guides are those who can take us “beyond the veil of the known into the unknown” where the greatest treasure lies.

As leaders head into the unknown in search of the treasure of personal wellbeing and strategic success they must increasingly trust themselves because the road maps into the emerging future are yet to be chartered.

As David Judd (An Industry Week unsung Hero of Industry and creator of the World Benchmark for IR and culture in an aluminium smelter) put it: –

“I know from experience that significant improvements have been made by people who have no fear of trial and error in pursuit of objectives that have been set.  …They are thriving in an environment that supplants the fear of failure with the joy of success.”

He went on to say that: “it is obvious to me now – it wasn’t for many years – that the first individual that we need to change is ourselves.


Written by Margot Cairnes.
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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Tech and Innovation - Why leading breakthrough requires the capacity to let go of control
Margot Cairnes
Margot Cairnes has been a trusted mentor to CEOs and Boards worldwide, leading multi-billion dollar strategic change programs in collaboration with clients. A World Economic Forum participant and mentor, Margot has written 6 books on leadership in times of rapid and disruptive change. For many years, she founded and managed Zaffyre Pty Ltd, Australia's largest and longest-operating strategic change consultancy. She now resides in Byron Bay and mentors clients over Zoom.


Margot Cairnes is an Executive Council member at the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn, for more information, visit the author’s website CLICK HERE.