Issue #81
#81 - Making Jazz At Netflix, Learning To Surf, Creating Space For Calm: Three Takes On Modern Leadership
September 01, 2023

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” - Victor Frankl

One of the more head-scratching aspects of modern work is that we keep applying outdated processes and management principles to today's teams and businesses. Even though the content of today's work -- and the needs of the people doing it -- have changed so radically. 🤔

Our economy, once dominated by manufacturing and production, has since transitioned to services and knowledge work, and is now more creative than ever. While the workforce is now the most diverse in history; its worldviews are just as diverse, and its needs, values and leverage at work have all evolved.

Which then begs the question that Doug Conant put to us in the third Story of issue #64:

People are rethinking their relationship to their careers, their companies, and their leaders. What may have worked before to inspire employees is insufficient in today's environment. As a leader how are you adapting to this shift?

Today, we look at three templates for modern leadership, plucked from diverse sources, that cut across the traditional leadership grain. Like any framework, they may or may not resonate, or apply to your context. But we present them as thought-provoking alternatives to the default setting of "leadership as usual" in which we seem to be stuck. And we hope that you'll enjoy exploring them as much as we did:

🎯 Story #1 - An American economist and entrepreneur urges us to stop thinking of leadership as "climbing a mountain", and start thinking of it as "surfing". She explains why this is such an apt metaphor. 🌊

🎯 Story #2 - As an employee and leader at Netflix in the years I worked there, the CEO constantly told us that our job was to "make jazz". As in, jazz music. We dig into what he meant in our second Story. 🎺

🎯 Story #3 - If you accused us of stanning more for Brené Brown than any other org thinker out there -- we wouldn't fight you! Alas, let's just lean into the admiration, and find out what Brown now considers a "leadership superpower", shall we? 🦸‍♀️

Thanks for reading and exploring with us -- and have a fantastic week!

Aki + Usman


#Leadership #DontClimbSurf

Dr. Pippa Malmgren is an American economist and entrepreneur. This graphic ⬆️ is Gaping Void's, but it's a visual of one of the points Pippa made on a recent podcast. Speaking broadly about the ways in which leadership has gone "badly wrong", she offered up the surfing analogy as more relevant than the mountain-based thinking we tend to bring to leadership; a mountain being static, a big "event" to be taken on -- linearly -- and vanquished.

Pippa explains:

My angle is surfing because I grew up surfing every summer in LA where my grandmother lived. I find that when it comes to the world economy, whether you're talking about a trader, an investor or somebody building a company, they tend to take this approach of, "Okay. I'm here and I want to get to the top of Mount Everest. So I just have to assemble the team. We have to get the right equipment. We're going to pick the right time of year, and we're gonna go."
But it's not a fixed target." The world economy is super fluid, constantly moving. So it's a lot more surfing than it's like mountain climbing, and I've done both. I've been to the top of the Himalayas. This is not mountain climbing, it's surfing.

As with surfing, the need is to adapt in real-time to complex, uncertain events and changes; it's the resiliency to go after the next wave, again and again; and the ability to bring the team along with you as you do it. 🏄🏽‍♀️


#Leadership #JazzNotOrchestra #Netflix

The years I spent at Netflix were among the most meaningful and impactful of my career. The people, the product, and the timing of getting to launch Netflix in Asia were a big part of that. But much of it was down to the company's unique culture, which was equal parts fun, complex, empowering and hard.

Ultimately, it was a culture designed and honed to attract, inspire and empower creative people. Founder-CEO Reed Hastings, who pioneered the culture, and first codified it in the form of a PowerPoint deck uploaded to the web in 2009 (complete with yin and yang cover art!), "gets it". Reed understands that the world and the economy have changed -- and that the days of widgets, repeatability, and consistency are now long gone.

He explains this in his 2020 book, "No Rules Rules", written with Erin Meyer:

Now, with the growth in importance of intellectual property and creative services, the percentage of the economy that is dependent on nurturing inventiveness and innovation is much higher and continually increasing. Yet most companies are still following the paradigms of the Industrial Revolution that have dominated wealth creation for the last three hundred years.

In today's information age, in many companies and on many teams, the objective is no longer error prevention and replicability. On the contrary, it's creativity, speed, and agility.

Given this, Reed believes that if you run a business in this creative knowledge economy, you need to "make jazz". What he means is that your role as leader is no longer to be a command-and-control orchestra conductor, elevated on a pedestal, at the fore of a symphony. Because you are no longer a factory manager lording over a team of machinists, the way you might have been in the 1940's.

Instead, the role you play is more akin to that of a jazz band leader. Your job is to create an environment in which skilled jazz musicians feel empowered to do creative things: to improvise, experiment, be flexible, and spontaneous. And just like jazz musicians, you need to all be constantly communicating with one another; constantly signaling and listening to one another, reacting and riffing off one another in real-time.

In practice, as I said, it takes real effort. But I agree with Reed here, that when you pull it off -- as jazz band leader, or saxophonist (or both) -- it's exhilarating to create the music together:

Don't provide a musical score and build a symphonic orchestra. Work on creating those jazz conditions and hire the type of employees who long to be part of an improvisational band. When it all comes together, the music is beautiful.

🎵 🎵 🎵


#Leadership #CreatingSpace #CalmIsContagious

Brené Brown appeared as a guest on this podcast, along with fellow work guru Adam Grant. It was a doozy, and I recommend the whole thing, but to summarize the main points:

The show begins by acknowledging that so many of us are still "not OK", even post-pandemic. Uncertainty and stress are hitting front-line workers especially hard, but no one is immune, and per Brené, "a critical mass of people are emotionally unregulated right now."

And in this stressful, uncertain context especially, Brown says that leaders should focus on becoming "calm space makers.". She elaborates on what she means, and explains that she believes in it so much, she's got the concept tattooed on her arm!

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space is the power of choice, and in our choice is our liberation and our growth. The way I write it to myself is " s ( ) r ". In other words, between stimulus and response, there is a space. I can neither confirm nor deny that I have that quote tattooed on my arm.

As applies to leadership then:

Leadership becomes about creating space between stimulus and response. Imagine an elevator door closing and sticking your foot in and trying to pull that door back open.

Calm space makers, that's a leadership superpower right now. And I don't care whether you're leading a team of waiters at a sports bar or you're leading a team of software engineers in Silicon Valley, breath and space makers, calm leadership, being thoughtful matters.

Then, Brown tells us the story of a lesson gleaned from recent work with executives:

When I was leading this group of leaders just this week, one of the things that we've noticed, we've gone into organization after organization and asked, "Who's the person that walks into the room, and everybody goes, "Ahhhhh"?" [i.e. feels calm, zen, relief]
And so when I asked this group, "Who do you know that's calm like that?", we were on Microsoft Teams, and the chat blew up with one person's name.
[So I asked the person], and he said, "I've never thought about it before. It's a skill. I've learned it over many years. I guess I see my job as creating that space between stimulus and response. I see my job as making your tattoo work."


The main takeaways? Helping others remain calm in the face of uncertainty is a really important skill for leaders right now. Both by modeling their own ability to keep calm, and by helping their teams find the space in which to consider their responses to the changes around them. 🙌

Thanks for reading.

Work moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
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