Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Moses Leading Social Business

I was recently reading the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt into the wilderness and had a profound “Ah Ha - that’s like leading social business transformation.” Now that may be a stretch and I certainly don’t profess that those of us doing this are godly, will be able to turn our Sharpies into serpents, or part and cross large bodies of water. But the part of leading change, confronting opposition, and staying committed for 40 years–that was the part that resonated with me.

To refresh your memory, Moses was the guy who was born in Israel, sent down river as a baby, was found and raised by the Egyptians. He lived with the aristocrats for years while the Israelites were slaves in the same country. One day Moses gets enraged with the way an Egyptian guard treats one of the Israelite slaves and kills the guard. Moses then flees leaving his lavish life to become a humble shepherd in the country. He gets a “call” one day from “his boss” that he should go back and free the slaves and lead them back to their promised land of Israel. He thinks it’s a prank call and doesn’t feel up to it or worthy. But eventually there is no denying that this is a real gig. All the appropriate tools, communications and visions are bestowed upon him. He graciously accepts the job offer. And so begins the journey.

Moses heads back to Egypt and confronts the Pharaoh. When he arrives he respectfully asks “Let my people go”. To which Pharaoh scoffs at this humble mans request, mocks him and tightens the reins on the slaves. A plague hits the land (actually Moses’ boss calls this in as punishment). After the ordeal, Moses revisits Pharaoh and again respectfully asks, “Let my people go” and he is again met with opposition. This circle goes on for ten plagues and the screws get tighter on both sides - more serious plagues for the Egyptians met with stronger opposition, contempt and rebellion by Pharaoh. Finally though Pharaoh can no longer bear anymore and agrees to let the 600,000 Israelites free. As they depart,Pharaoh renigs and sends the army after Moses and the people. This is the part where Moses opens up the water and gets the people across to the wilderness safely while Pharaoh’s army is unable to get across and they lose.

They made it! They are free and have arrived. Well, not quite. They just got approval for the project and now the work begins. This is the part of the story where the real transformation is at work. This is the 40 years in the wilderness as the Israelites journey to the Promised Land. It was no cake walk. This is the part of the story where Moses really has to step up his game and keep reminding half a million people of the vision while he attends to their needs for 40 years! It is during this time when the people began to lose hope and patience. It is during this time when they complain about the change, complain about the journey and complain about Moses’ leadership. It is here in the story when Moses wants to quit. He wants to give his two week notice and call it a day. And it is here for me that the strongest nuggets of leadership wisdom reside which can be applied to social business transformation.

A Sense of Humility: First off, Moses didn’t chose the vision, the vision chose him. He was in a place and time and all systems pointed to him to lead this effort. He was most passionate and was given the right tools. But he was equally modest, respectful and patient. Pharaoh on the other hand had a “My Way or the Highway Attitude”. He led by complete and absolute power. He was arrogant, boastful, vain and defiant. He thought of himself as God and wanted others to see him the same way. I think the lesson is clear for me. It is important to evangelize the social business vision and instill inspiration in others but it is just as important to be respectful of where others are at in their acceptance or understanding of social business. Charlene Li defines open leadership as “having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control…” (p.14). Social business will eventually become something those opposed or ignorant off will not be able to ignore – it will be too pervasive. Be humble and patient.

Leading through Opposition: While in the wilderness, the people start complaining and bemoaning about the hardships of the journey and its inconveniences. Moses continues to provide and be there at every turn. He uses those opportunities to show concern and care for others through this transformation and addresses the needs of others. For me, this means interacting with those with may show signs of struggle or resist the change. While change is inevitable, as Peter Drucker states in his book Management Challenges for the 21st Century, people despise change much like death and taxes – it is an unwelcome necessity that should be postponed as long as possible.

Delegate and Empower: At one point in the story, when the going gets tough in the desert, Moses wants to throw in the towel on the whole vision. He says “I can’t carry all these people by myself because the burden is too much for me.” But rather than throw in the towel, he’s instructed to find a group of Elders whom he can train and off load the work. For me, finding other leaders and evangelizers in the organization is vital. Not only does it take a load off the leader, it also starts to build pockets of acceptance and momentum deeper into the organization. Leadership is not a solitary position – leadership needs to be a shared responsibility. Empowering the masses increases operational efficiencies, fosters collaboration, maintains momentum and builds acceptance.

Resist the Temptation to Rush Ahead: Oh this one is tough for me. At the first sign of perceived resistance, I want to quickly close the wound with a short cut or keep to the status quo. In Moses’ wilderness, it didn’t seem like there was a lot of productivity happening towards the vision. But we know great transformations do happen in the wilderness. For social business transformation, the “wilderness” is that place of anxiety, confusion, conflict, complaining, bemoaning. Moving too fast jeapordizes the very pain that is needed to give birth to the transformation. Let the work takes its course and stay true to the goal.

Constant Sacrifice: A leader must continue to make sacrifices. Giving up one’s own rights to help lead the people means making sacrifices. Moses could of opted for the easy way out, been focused on his own advancement or title, or rewarded himself with self indulgence or self promotion. He did none of that. Leaders dedicate themselves to what is best and what is right for all and continue to make sacrifices to get there.

A lot of wisdom from the antiquities still apply today. If I get stuck, perhaps I can ask “What would Moses do?” Though I must fess up. If any locust show up during this transformation, I’m outta here.