(Image – The assembly line at Ford’s Highland Park Plant, 1914 – Creative Commons – Source)
A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to be the guest of an online “meet and greet” session with the Intersticia’s community, shortly after joining this global community as an Advisor.
The closed Zoom meetup was in the form of an informal conversation hosted brilliantly by Jacquie Crock, whose questions covered various topics, from innovation and digital transformation to Sufism and many rich topics in between, as you can imagine. This diversity (and randomness!) was probably due to the Ask Me Anything (AMA) nature of the conversation, my career journey, and geography. I zoomed in from Sydney, Australia, but I was born in Sudan, which means diversity is a natural fate I couldn’t escape. Rather, a privilege I had to learn to appreciate. Sudan is where Asia meets Africa, Arabian Bedouins meet African Dinkas, where the Blue Nile and the White Niles merge, and where the great Nile emerges. This horizontal mix might be the platform that enabled my vertical career journey. At one point, I was a computer scientist coding in Assembly, and just yesterday I moderated a global virtual lab on public policy with public sector officials from Sydney to New York to Marrakech.
In line with my role and Intersticia’s mission to develop and support emerging leaders for the Twenty First Century, a subtle theme of the conversation was to share my thoughts and lessons that could be a source of inspiration for young fellows who represent the heart of Intersticia’s community.
The energy I felt in the virtual room made me reflect on the conversation we had, and encouraged me to share my thoughts in a structured open way with you, young aspiring leaders, whether you’re part of Instersticia’s community or not, and anyone passionate about the same mission.
Perhaps you agree with me that the ongoing pandemic and its cumulative burden on our societies, in addition to the recent footage from Kabul and the White House, make it timely to talk about the leadership crisis that our world is experiencing.
In this article and in two more to follow, I share with you seven principles that I consider essential for young aspiring leaders to consider while navigating their path in the 21st century and preparing to lead others. Needless to say, I am not sharing these principles as an inclusive list, nor am I talking to you in any way from a superior position. Rather, these are lessons I have learned through my ups and downs in the past phases of my professional and personal journey.
And because I am learning and growing myself, I will dedicate the third article to invite you to a conversation around the meaning of leadership in the 21st century.
Here are my three first principles for leading a life in the twenty-first century.
Principle #1: Remember that almost everything in your life was decided by someone
There is a good chance that you are reading these words at the moment while you are in lockdown in your place, or carrying your mask and worrying about staying 1.5 meters away from the people around you! Right?
Simply because someone has decided that this is how you should work, study and live your life in this pandemic.
As it turns out, many of us actually enjoy this and prefer to continue living this way even when the pandemic is over. According to a Harvard study that surveyed around 1,500 professionals working remotely over the past year, 81% either don’t want to fully return to the office or would prefer a type of “hybrid” schedule going forward.
This landslide vote is not a surprise given the enormous economic, social, environmental and other benefits of remote work, as most of us have experienced in the last year.
But this should make us wonder: if remote work is so awesome, why had we spent the decades before the pandemic commuting to the office or school every day?
Again, the answer is the same: mainly because someone had decided it for us.
Everything in life follows suit. Aside from gravity and other natural facts, everything you can see around you is probably the result of someone’s imagination, vision and action.
You can look around you right now. Notice the knob of your room door, the car across the street and the digital device on which you are reading this article. This principle transcends physical objects to laws, regulations, traditions and ideas that govern your society.
It is a simple fact of the system in which we live, but significant enough to make you rethink your life outlook.
I realised this vividly for the first time when I watched this short video of Steve Jobs, and I watch it every now and then to remind myself of this principle:
Principle #2: This system has missed some major updates
Steve Jobs, however, did not point out another important reality about the design of our world, at least not in this video. Many parts of the system in which we live today were originally designed in the 20th century or earlier.
Since then, the world has been through many changes, and the system has had to be regularly updated to accommodate these changes. But the system has missed many of these updates, and some of them are major ones!
This is a flaw in the system.
Depending on what changes have been missed and where you live in the world, this flaw could manifest itself in different ways. However, some changes are universal, including the invention of the Internet (and the Web) and now COVID.
As I said earlier, it was a non-negotiable fact of life until a year ago that we had to commute daily to work or study. We can trace the roots of this belief back to the early pioneers of the industrial age, including Henry Ford, who decided that the assembly line of the Model T required workers (all men of course!) to be present in the same location at the same time to do the job.
In the 1990s, Jeff Bezos and others challenged this, and since then we have been using the Internet to order pizza, book vacations, and play video games, but we continued to travel to work and study.
It took us a global pandemic, and someone telling us in 2020: Hey! Actually, you can (and must!) now use the same internet to do work from home. Duh!
You can spot missed updates right now, where you are sitting. Try out this exercise: take a look around the physical world around you. Yup, literally the room or space you are in. Whilst you are at that, think of the larger world you live in – the assumptions, beliefs, laws and ideas you, your family, your business, your community or small society operate according to.
Can you spot something that makes no sense and negatively affects your life and the life of the people around you? Or at least bothers you? It can be small or big, from something in your room you can fix immediately, to a problem in the world that goes beyond your ability to do anything about it.
My current long list includes the books stacked on the floor of my bedroom in the new place I moved to recently, the arbitrary borders between countries in the Middle East and Africa, the tradition in some societies that you can only hire or marry someone if they are from certain tribes, and the belief and formal foriegn policy in other societies that they can win the hearts and minds of other people by bombing them.
Also, I do not like the fact that every time I check-in to my local supermarket using the COVID app from the NSW Government I need to manually check out, and I forget to do so most of the time! Why doesn’t the app do that automatically once I leave the shop by detecting the change in my location?
Most likely you already have such a list!
Principle #3: You can and should challenge this outdated system
This list serves as your starting point. A potential space where you can practice leadership by redesigning this part of the system and improving life for yourself and the people (and other creatures) around you.
I encourage you to examine it through the lens of the previous principle.
There is a good chance that the observations in your list exist because the system was designed sometime ago on the basis of certain assumptions or needs. These assumptions are no longer valid, but the system has not yet been updated.
How is it possible that a car company founded in 2003 outside Detroit is now the world’s most valuable car company? Here is one answer from Elon Musk’s biography:
“Anyone who tries to build a car company in the United States is quickly reminded that the last successful start-up in the industry was Chrysler, founded in 1925.”
You can train yourself to have such a questioning radar active all the time, but this exercise can be more significant when you are about to make strategic choices in your life.
In 2013, I decided to change my corporate life and start my entrepreneurial adventure, and I had one key design parameter for this new life: to leverage the internet and liberate myself from the location factor. While enjoying the fun GoDaddy part, a disappointing reality struck me from the system: I had to legally rent a physical office to get my business license.
For more than seven years, I have been paying the monthly rent for an office in Dubai that I rarely use. But you know what? I do not think of this as a rent. This is the cost of no longer being location bound. This is the price I pay for challenging a system that was originally designed by Henry Ford for his Model T.
While challenging an outdated system, be prepared for paying a price.
In my next post I will share with you the remaining principles starting with Principle #4: Avoid the “next big thing” trap.