HomeCommentSurvival leadership: Take a leaf from ‘terrorists’

Survival leadership: Take a leaf from ‘terrorists’

We all know that an organisation’s success depends on the power of the vision that is shared by all its members.

Systems Think Sam Hlabati

The conviction of the organisation’s members towards achieving the vision is guided by its espoused values and beliefs.

Ailing organisations have been known to revive their fortunes when they re-envisioned themselves, on the other good organisations take quantum leaps to be great and the great sustain their greatness, all this success underpinned by the power of the vision.

Conventional wisdom states that people without a vision perish; similarly organisations without strong visions are here today and disappear with the sunset. Lessons on leadership are found all over literature that highlights the accomplishments of business luminaries, such as Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Jack Welch and others.

A lot can be learnt from these celebrated leaders, please note that it’s not celebrity leaders that I bemoaned in a previous instalment.
Our own African leaders, bygone and contemporary: from Shaka Zulu to Nelson Mandela also have displayed leadership principles we can learn from.

These leadership greats’ lessons, among others, shall be discussed in future instalments of this column. In this current instalment, we shall discuss the leadership wisdom from apparently infamous groups commonly known as terrorists, insurgents, extremists and are ascribed other superlatives that are geared to convey a nomenclature with a connotation of notoriety.

Let me make things clear at the outset. This column instalment is focused on highlighting the organisational leadership wisdom we can learn from these groups, without lauding or vilifying them, that is not my commission.

The reference to the nomenclature terrorist groups is purely for the easy of discussion, using a commonly known term; therefore no reference to any persons, living or dead, of any credo or religion or any other social strata is intended.

Adaptability to the external environment and agility in the face of crisis are some of the qualities that executives lament as the survival traits that they wish for their organisations. Yet the terrorist groups have mastered the art of being nimble footed learning organisations.

Terrorist organisations continually renew themselves, changing strategies, adapting to the environment every day. Business executives are incessantly fighting the war for survival fending off competition from other players in the market.

The leadership in terrorist organisations do not survive by fighting against their competition for survival in the market place; rather they endure the direct onslaught of not just competition, but enmity that is determined to terminate their organisations.

Ask the armies across the globe and they will tell you that terrorists are a formidable enemy. Military commanders have openly conceded to the prowess of terrorists. These groups have learnt that the essence of survival is to regard all other players as enemies and constantly evade defeat. Such high levels of anti-adversary adaptability could make any business entity a conqueror, not just a survivor.

Many organisations cannot live without technology. Just imagine the day all technology freezes in your organisation. Do you remember how desperate and useless you felt the last time your computer or smartphone froze? Terrorists can continue to survive without technology. When the military forces’ interception of technology-driven communication poses a material threat, terrorists resort to the good old alternative of using pure human interaction.

Terrorists indeed understood the lamentations that are ascribed to Albert Einstein who should have said: “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction.

The world will have a generation of idiots.” Terrorist organisations are evidently not a generation of idiots for they have proved they can survive without high-tech communication gadgets; we cannot say the same about modern organisations and their executives.

Organisations develop long-term plans; and whatever gives good results is repeated. This precipitates long-term failure as an organisation’s next move is often anticipated by their competition. The competition would copy and improve on the strategies. Just take a look at our local environment, all mobile phone operators are rolling out money transfer services, banks are in the bandwagon with their own mobile money transfer services.

The pioneers of the business idea may loose the battle in the long-run. Terrorist organisations are aware that they fight adversaries, not competition, hence they continually strategise; thus planning as they move, not relying on a five-year strategic plan stuck on the wall.

Terrorists hardly repeat a particular strategy; every operation is unique in planning and execution. Yet their competition, cum-adversaries, in the form of military generals, spends vast amounts of valuable resources trying to get “lessons learnt” from the most recent attacks. Seriously, who is fooling who?

Business organisations tend to have leaders who are identifiable, yet the terrorist have been known to appear leaderless at times. The leadership of terrorist groups is more systemic than positional.

Terrorists allow group members self-leadership in their own assigned task. On the other hand, some business leaders are notorious for the penchant for managing minuscule issues.

In the business world, there is focus on the vision and the sense of passion about the task at hand is driven through values. Business executives motivate team members in to act in a way that manifests their allegiance to a purpose. In business, time and effort is spent in trying to inculcate the sense of organisational purpose and passion into team members.

The problem of incompatibility between the individual and the organisation often manifests, and then energy is directed towards incentivising the team members, alternatively energy would be directed towards separation of the parties, through actions by either party. The terrorist groups’ members are driven by their own convictions which ground their purpose in sync with that of the organisation.

A lot has been written and said about the impediments to innovation in organisations. One of the key stumbling blocks to innovation has always been singled as a phenomenon I would call “the funnel factor”, for the funnel constricts the movement of matter going in a particular direction.

This phenomenon of successive levels manifest through successive organisational leadership stifling innovative ideas that do not fit their frame of thought. A catastrophic example of the funnel factor is what I chronicled some time back in this column when I discussed the fact that Kodak was collapsing due to the lack of innovation.

I chronicled how Kodak’s fall had been triggered by the advancement of the same technology they had invented which they failed to capitalise on.

If you recall I pointed out that record number 4 131 919 under the date December 26, 1978 in the United States Patent & Trade Office; indicate that two inventers Gareth A Lloyd and Steven J Sasson of Rochester, New York ,from the organisation Eastman Kodak Company had discovered digital film and had filed a patent for an electronic imaging apparatus. The inventors’ technical report for the invention stated that: “The camera described in this report represents a first attempt demonstrating a photographic system which may, with improvements in technology, substantially impact the way pictures will be taken in the future.”

The Kodak executive team dismissed the existence of any value in the invention, most probably because the inventors’ presentation was titled Film-less Photography. The egos of the executives were certainly bruised, for Kodak had over 90% market share of all film sold at that time.

This was the beginning of the digital camera, but was unbeknown to the Kodak executives. Consequently, the project was shelved until 2001, only after Fuji unveiled their digital camera, igniting a revolution in digital photography.

The terrorist organisations’ functionality allows for innovation, as noted by J Arquilla and D Rofeldt in their 2001 book Networks and netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy comment that the terrorist world allows its people to do “what they think is best” to further the cause. The individuals are free from the constraints of managerial control.

The result has been that individuals have become “more innovative” in the way they execute successive missions, each event done by individuals who want to be better than their predecessors. Can you imagine what could have happened if the well-suited executives at Kodak had given Lloyd and Sasson free reign? Kodak would have continued to be a leader in photography to this day; the two inventors could have done much more in subsequent research projects.

This was not a sermon about terrorism, but about the leadership lessons we can get from that particular part of society.

We noticed that organisations should learn to be adaptable and change in tune with the environment, then aim to beat the environment and the competition (sorry the right word is adversary; for that is how competition is best viewed). Other survival essentials are to continually renew the organisation and its strategy, relying on pure human capital rather than technology; for human intellect is a unique asset. It would be more beneficial to allow freedom for personal leadership at individual level rather than rely on figurehead leadership.

However this requires that the recruitment process brings on board people who have the conviction and passion aligned to the organisational vision. When the people are on the bus, it would be best to give them the latitude to do “what they think is best” to further the organisation’s success.

Hlabati is a senior professional in human resources (SPHR®), a certified compensation professional (CCP®) and a global remuneration professional (GRP®). E-mail: samhlabati@gmail.com; Twitter handle: @samhlabati

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