"There are times I wonder, 'Will I be the next Mubarak?'"
This question was posed to me not by a despotic ruler in the Middle East but by the highly-respected CEO of a multinational company who was worried about the prospect of his employees or consumers organizing against him, thereby rendering him powerless.
It echoes in my mind every time I try to make sense of the questions so far directed at the Occupy Wall Street protesters: What is their purpose? What do they stand for? How long can they keep this up?
At best, these inquiries miss their mark. At worst, they display a dangerous lack of imagination that all but ensures that this protest movement will continue longer than necessary.
The problem is that the questions ask too much of the protesters - and too little of the rest of us. Like most protest movements, OWS demonstrators are demanding freedom from the current system. Many employees joining the movement want freedom from command and control bosses and task-based jobs and freedom to contribute their character and creativity and collaborative spirit at work in pursuit of a values-based mission worthy of their dedication.
The ultimate impact of the this movement, like all others, hinges upon how all of us involved - and we are all involved - work together to create the freedom to enable all of our employees and citizens to pursue a meaningful career and life.
What's more, the protesters deserve credit for inspiring us to have the long overdue, truthful, no-holds-barred discussion that business and political leaders have failed to engage in for far too long. As leaders, we should be asking ourselves soul-searching questions about the underlying nature of our economic system and our business environment.
The CEO who used the Arab Spring as an opportunity to rethink his own leadership and the nature - and genuine quality - of his multinational company's stakeholder relationships would understand the need to have this discussion. He would use the Occupy Wall Street protests as an opportunity to ask some fundamental questions all business leaders should be asking, such as:
1. Are we ready for the truthful conversation we've been avoiding? We better be ready because the discussion about the fundamental structure and nature of business and the global economy is happening right now. The protesters' conversation may touch upon issues of fairness and justice, but it is fundamentally about freedom. The protesters do not want a free ride; rather, they want the freedom to pursue a meaningful life and build a sustainable career. As the college graduates, soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, hard-working single parents and other protesters have made clear in their chants, Tweets, blog posts and sound bites, our current economic system does not provide that freedom.
2. Can we differentiate between interdependence and co-dependence? As if we needed any more convincing following the global economic crisis, the world is hyper-connected and interdependent. A housing bust in Florida helps create a fiscal meltdown in Iceland. The threat of default in Greece decimates retirement-account balances in the U.S. Just because we're interdependent does not necessarily mean that our interdependencies are healthy.
As leaders we need to create genuine, healthy and enduring interdependencies because we rise and fall together. One banker in London can lose his company billions of dollars, force the resignation of his CEO and send shock waves throughout the global financial community. Or one vegetable vendor can spark revolution towards freedom in the Middle East. The world is also hyper-transparent: anyone can peer into companies and see how they treat suppliers, employees, customers, the environment, communities and other stakeholders.
The CEO who worried about the possibility of becoming the next Mubarak understood that our country's relationship with the dictator was more co-dependent than it was healthy or enduring. This chief executive also understands how quickly general dissatisfaction can become specific: if his company mistreats a stakeholder, he wondered, why couldn't a wave of protest sweep him out of his office or, worse, his company out of existence?
3. Can our companies foster cultures of Self Governance? The OWS protesters have demonstrated their ability to self-organize. Now it's time for our businesses to demonstrate the ability to self-govern. In self-governing organizations, people act on the basis of a set of core principles and values that inspire everyone to align around a company's mission, purpose and definition of significance. Employees reject top-down, command-and-control leadership or hierarchical, structure, control processes, performance-based rewards and punishments.
Sounds Pollyannaish? Not so. As the findings of The HOW Report - a new, independent study commissioned by my company LRN and recently written about in The Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/21530171)- demonstrate, self-governing organizations get much more of what they do want and much less of what they don't want. In fact, they:
• Deliver five times the level of innovation than other organizations;
• Experience three times more employee loyalty relative to the competition;
• Provide nine times higher levels of customer satisfaction compared with other organizations;
• Deliver significantly higher levels of financial performance than other organizations ;
• Are far more likely to report unethical conduct than their competitors.
4. Can leaders exert "power through" as opposed to "power over?" In today's knowledge economy, the sources of power--information and ideas--are infinite. Google gives them away for free. Because we can't hoard information, the command-and-control leadership habits of the Industrial Age are no longer effective. Just as important, people want more than a paycheck from their jobs--they want to feel that they're working with others to accomplish something important that they could not accomplish alone. If the only reason I work at a company is for a paycheck, I'll leave when I'm offered a bigger one. If the only reason I buy from one company is their price, then I'll switch my loyalty if someone else sells for less. So leaders need to shift from "command-and-control" to "connect-and-collaborate," from exerting power over people to generating power through them.
5. Can we address the careers crisis? Yes, unemployment is high and absolutely requires a solution from our political leaders, but it is not a root cause of anger for the OWS protesters - many of whom already have jobs. What fewer and fewer of our citizens have these days are careers: a clear path forward to meaningful, sustainable work. We must start placing a much higher priority on unleashing the potential of the people currently in work, not just out of work. In today's difficult jobs environment too many recent college graduates do not know where to invest their energy, talent, skills and innovation. We need a careers narrative powered by a national purpose and a story for recapturing America's greatness that comprehensively answers which are the industries, job descriptions, capabilities and skills that will be providing fulfilling careers for the generation now entering the workplace. Within individual companies, a similarly long-term narrative inspires employees to come up with new ways to connect, collaborate and innovate. And, as we know, innovation not only moves individual companies forward but also stimulates the economic growth necessary to create additional jobs and careers.
Securing enduring economic progress lies not in reforming our system but in rethinking and rebuilding our system. Just as the CEO who drew leadership lessons from an unlikely source has rethought how he leads and how his company behaves, we need to commit to rethinking how we operate as leaders and businesses. If we don't, we all risk following in Mubarak's footsteps.