Imagine an American football player getting ready to go onto the field. He leaves the locker room and heads through the tunnel to meet the other players. He breaks through into the light, hears the familiar sounds – the hum of the crowd, the music – but as he looks at the field, he suddenly stops in his tracks. Something is wrong. The field looks different. The players are wearing different gear. They are chasing after a different ball. The game has completely changed. In this moment, he is faced with three options: to freeze up and be relegated to the sidelines; to try to play by the old rules (and again be relegated to the sidelines); or to acknowledge the new game, adapt and do his best to play. This last option takes courage.
What do you do when the game for which you’ve trained your entire life has fundamentally changed?
This is the question Henry De Sio posed during the BRIDGE Breakthrough virtual event on 29th April 2021, attended by 57 leaders across the globe. He explained that, just like the football player in his analogy, society is experiencing a similar moment. Henry was the Chief Operating Officer of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and also served as Deputy Assistant to the President in the Obama White House. He is now known as the Global Ambassador for Changemakers. During the event, Henry explained how the game in which we’re operating has completely transformed. In order to navigate this fast changing universe and solve present day challenges, organisations need to recognise, nurture and enable changemakers. The old playbook that has been passed down the generations needs to be thrown out.
To illustrate his point, Henry transported us back to his time during the Obama campaign. “At the start of the campaign, I had a ‘one leader at a time’ mindset. Somebody has to be in charge. You’re either a leader or a follower. The type of mindset you learn in school. When I left the campaign, I had a very different view.”
In the early chaotic days and weeks of the Obama campaign, the team was thrown in at the deep end, desperately trying to catch up with the speed at which the campaign was moving and the huge interest it was generating. Henry described that time as like “trying to build a plane in mid-flight.” Following the classic approach, they started building it “one silo at a time. You take the wings, someone takes the cockpit, another takes the aisles.” Everyone then separated into their different departments, each department run by a department head. But as time went on, “problems were piling up and were outpacing solutions.” The pressure of the media spotlight and the increasingly short runways between elections added to a sense of being moments away from a crisis. “It soon became clear that the old ‘one leader at a time’ hierarchy, the one we were following, just didn’t work.”
So they opened up the system, tore up the old rulebook and evolved into an ‘everyone leading in every moment’ organisation. Henry explained that this meant enabling everyone to lead and to step into ‘their bigness,’ shifting from a permission based system to one of trust. As they started to open up, he noticed that “the people lower down the organisation worked differently. They very naturally worked across those silo boundaries to solve problems and open up opportunities, more easily than those higher up the organisation. They didn’t need to have meetings to do it. And they understood one other. They knew each other’s talents and abilities so they recruited not based on job title but on someone’s possibility, interests, and talents.”
Without necessarily realising it at the time, Henry was building an organisation to accommodate changemakers. So what is a changemaker? For Henry, this describes someone with:
- An Innovative Mind
- A Service Heart
- An Entrepreneurial Spirit and
- A Collaborative Outlook.
Henry described learning three lessons during this evolution from ‘one leader at a time’ to ‘everyone leading at every moment’:
- There was no room for smallness. Everyone had to step into their bigness. People couldn’t just work to their job specification. They had to step into their leadership. Henry used the example of the Travel Bookers in the organisation (people who booked flights, travel etc for the campaign) to illustrate this point. In the old hierarchy, the Travel Bookers were typically perceived as having a low-end role. But in the new system, they stepped into their leadership and rather than simply booking travel (and staying within the confines of their job description), they proactively focused on saving money through recommending economical options. “They saved us so much money, we were able to campaign in a whole additional state. They were four of the most innovative people I had met.”
- Innovation is a human thing. It happens when you tear down walls and make connections between groups that wouldn’t normally connect. People assume it’s a technology thing. Technology can help with innovation and it can be a result of innovation. But innovation is fundamentally a human thing.
- As they evolved into this new system, change only got faster and more explosive, it didn’t get slower. When everyone is a changemaker, change happens everywhere. It is explosive and omni-directional. The rulemakers (or managers), couldn’t keep up. The only thing to do was to focus on setting parameters, and to move from a permission based system to a trust based system. Empathy based ethics was the way forward.
The old game vs the new game
Through this transition to ‘everyone a changemaker,’ the organisation had to live by new principles, those of the new game. And Henry noticed the physics of the new game were polar opposite to the old game. For example:
- In the old game, one person big and everyone else small at any moment. In the new game, everyone stepping into their bigness. No one can be passive. Everyone has to see the big picture and advance solutions for the greater good.
- In the old game, teams are arranged by functional jobs. In the new game, you are recruited based on your possibilities over your responsibilities.
- In the old game, information was doled out on a need to know basis. In the new game, full transparency is the premium. Everyone has to have all the information to be able to act.
- In the old game, one had to have just enough empathy to be able to navigate their world. In the new game, empathy is the cornerstone for how you live and work together because rules can’t keep up with the pace of change. So we’re reliant on people. We have to trust that everyone is going to use their ‘change’ responsibly. Empathy, co-creating teamwork, problem solving skills, previously known as ‘soft skills’ are now hard skills.
- Transaction is the premium in the old game, interaction in the new.
- Permission-based in the old game. In the new game, change is happening so fast that it’s much more based on trust and integrity of the individual.
People may ask, how is it possible to let go of control and to risk something going wrong in this system? Well, when everyone is a leader, then everyone is a stakeholder, and, as a result, everyone is a steward. “We didn’t have rogue activity. That’s because the organisation shepherded itself all the way through to its very last days.”
Tapping into what already exists
When Henry left the White House and ‘resurfaced’ into the world, he was hit by another revelation. “What stood out [when I resurfaced] was that the world now looked more like my Obama 2.0 (i.e. everyone a leader). The world I’d left before I went into the campaign looked like my Obama 1.0 (siloed, hierarchical, one leader at a time). But now it was different.” Why?
Well, “we’re now in a world where we have rising individual agency, with tools of change at our fingertips, through our phones for example. We can be a broadcaster and a communicator in an instant; we have our printing press; all the tools of change that were previously only available to a few.” We live in an ‘everyone a leader’ world, one where we’re commanding our lives skillfully and where we’re connecting with one another.
So it wasn’t that the Obama campaign created changemakers. In fact, these changemakers already existed in society. They are part of the new DNA. The campaign tapped into this and “built a system that could connect with that universe of change-makers.” They tore down the old walls to enable changemakers to thrive.
How do you lead in a changemaker world?
What does this all mean for traditional leadership? How do leaders steer this new ship?
It became clear to Henry that a leader operating with the old mindset will lose the game. During his own journey, he “had to move from being the person who did it all to being the person who helped everyone else do it all. I had to position my leadership more as the coach and less as the commander in the field. I had to be close enough to the field of play to help navigate. But I was also reliant on their leadership to get the work done and that meant I had to invest in their leadership differently, and see my own role differently.”
He stresses, “all of the systems and ways of working have to change. That becomes the new job of the manager of today. Not developing performance based organisations but, instead, learning based organisations. How do we incentivise team work rather than individual performance? How do we ensure everyone is putting their changemaker capacities at work for the greater good? How do we build empathy as a cornerstone of how we work together? Building a trust based system is critical.” Henry adds, “we are the first generation to navigate this new world for many generations to come.”
To conclude, Henry adds “if you’re an organisation, ensure you’re not requiring people to check their bigness and changemaker tendencies at the door.” He often hears people say, ‘I’m a changemaker but I have to stop that when I go to work or school.’ We need to build our organisations around changemakers. The focus should be on building systems, capacities, culture, mindset to enable changemakers to thrive. If organisations don’t hire changemakers, if their people don’t see themselves as changemakers, then they cannot navigate this fast changing universe we’re in now. The new KPI for organisations needs to be: how many changemakers do I have in my organisation?
We also have a podcast with a 1:1 interview with Henry here. Henry’s new book is also available here. And if you would like support to bring ‘everyone leading in every moment’ to life in your organisation, feel free to reach out to your BRIDGE partner.