One of my great challenges as CEO of Junxion is to monitor and adjust my style of leadership to suit the changing shape, size, and operating conditions of our company. When should I lean in to my closely held personal value of generosity, and empower my colleagues to make decisions, and when should I lean in to my own learning and experience, making the call myself?
In Ben Horowitz’s fabulous book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, in a chapter on leadership, he writes about the differences between what he calls the “peacetime CEO” and the “wartime CEO.” For Horowitz, “Peacetime in business means those times when a company has a large advantage over the competition in its core market, and its market is growing.” By contrast, “In wartime, a company is fending off an imminent existential threat. Such a threat can come from… competition, dramatic macroeconomic change, market change, supply change,” etc.
It’s yet another conflict-framed metaphor; I find these unfortunately common in business. Nonetheless, his point is well taken….
Leadership must respond to context.
I’ve written before about the most difficult moment in Junxion’s history—when in mid-2015, we decided to close our office in New Delhi, India. While we knew it was the right decision, it remained heartbreaking. Due to the costs of exiting that office and market, my business partner and I found ourselves in a period of significant scarcity, which required a distinct approach to our leadership of Junxion.
In scarcity, be clear, focused, and decisive.
Rather than Horowitz’s wartime metaphor, we instead call this ‘the scarcity response.’ It called us to articulate a clear vision, focus all our capacity exclusively on that vision, and act quickly and decisively to muster our remaining resources toward that goal. Our implementation was imperfect, but looking back today, nearly four years later, we were more often successful than not, which has led us to today, when we’re opening to a ‘peacetime’ approach.
According to Horowitz, peacetime CEOs must enable and empower their teams to take advantage of the opportunity, making space for creativity, expansiveness, and growth. Again, dropping the conflict-laden metaphor, let’s call this ‘the abundance response.’ It’s a time to share power and decision-making more broadly, building leadership in others and seeking generative responses that will accelerate the company toward its vision.
Is leadership really that black and white?!
The thing is, business is never so either / or. Most of the great case studies of leadership are drawn either from deep challenge or conflict, or from something that emerges from an organization that feels scarcity in some ways and abundance in others. For example, abundant new opportunities lead to growth; however, growth can put strains on cash flow and other resources, driving scarcity. An expanding team can lead to new ideas and deeper creativity; however, new perspectives can stress organizational culture—the taproot of ongoing success. In short, we rarely find ourselves utterly enjoying abundance, or clearly constrained in scarcity.
Leadership needs more nuance.
So leadership needs more nuance. Horowitz offers a great list of comparisons between the actions of abundance-based leadership and scarcity-based leadership: “Peacetime CEO focuses on the big picture and empowers her people to make detailed decisions. Wartime CEO cares about a speck of dust on a gnat’s ass if it interferes with the prime directive.” (Yes, Horowitz’s language gets flowery!) Or this one: “Peacetime CEO spends time defining the culture. Wartime CEO lets the war define the culture.” Or “Peacetime CEO aims to expand the market. Wartime CEO aims to win the market.” The list goes on, but reading them through, I feel an aversion to the wartime mode.
Scarcity, as framed by Horowitz, is boldly aggressive, zero-sum, and explicitly “completely intolerant.” While I’m intrigued with the notion of abundance-mode and scarcity-mode leadership, I’m disappointed by Horowitz’s lack of nuance and minimal attention to the social impacts of his ‘wartime’ approach.
Can we embrace the gray?
Contrast Horowitz with Michael Useem’s The Leader’s Checklist. Embracing the blurry space between abundance and scarcity, he outlines a series of fifteen proven principles of leadership that can be thought of more as checklist than prescription for right leadership. In other words, they provide useful guidance for the reality of leadership living in between or in some combination of abundance and scarcity.
In abundance, share power through inspiration and collaboration.
All leaders must “Articulate a Vision,” “Think and Act Strategically,” and “Honour the Room.” Amid scarcity, they might “Take Charge,” “Act Decisively,” and “Communicate Persuasively.” Then, amid abundance, they might “Build Leadership in Others,” “Manage Relations,” and “Convey [Their] Character.” The former is authoritative and prescriptive, often manifesting as ‘power over.’ The latter is collaborative and inspirational, more often manifesting as shared power.
In all times, though—and this makes Useem explicitly tolerant of the gray—all leaders must “Dampen Over-Optimism,” “Build a Diverse Top Team,” and “Place Common Interest First.”
For me, these parallel not getting ahead of ourselves, being cautious in our growth and not abusing abundance; engaging across difference to make decisions based not only on intelligence, but on wisdom; and leading from a shared sense of purpose.
What’s purpose got to do with it?
Leadership today is less about position and authority than it is about inspiration and adherence to a clear, meaningful purpose. No matter how the fortunes of your team or organization evolve through scarce times and abundant times, the purpose remains centred.
The challenge for all leaders is to be purposeful in their leadership.
There is no cruise control for leadership!
For Adam and me, noticing in mid-2017 that we’d accidentally devolved our leadership, weighting it down in a scarcity mindset was a sign that we weren’t leading ‘on purpose.’ It’s a useful and instructive play on the word: we had failed to keep Junxion’s purpose at the centre, and we’d allowed our approach to become reactive in the face of scarcity and the fear it evoked in us.
Today, we’re shifting that—but not simply to aggressively and exclusively embrace an abundance mindset. While that sounds nice and comfortable, it’s equally dangerous as slipping into an exclusively scarcity-based mindset. Leadership must respect its context. If there’s one thing to take away from this post, its that context is nuanced.
What is the right mode of leadership for you to take right now? In this moment? Through this period of challenge or opportunity? What principles will you emphasize? Which will you allow to recede into the background?
Leadership is a practice of lifelong learning.
Leadership was never easy. It’s a practise that we sometimes get right but more often get wrong. This practise is at the heart of my intentions for my work in 2019. I’m privileged to hold a few positions of leadership—as the CEO at Junxion, as a board member at three amazing social change organizations, and as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at RADIUS. While they all align in a career focused on supporting our collective transition to a more regenerative and just economy, I’m learning to be deeply mindful and purposeful about how I show up in each context.
I’m looking forward to sharing more reflections on that in the months ahead….
Meanwhile, how do you show up? Are you embracing the gray? Are you reacting to scarcity or responding to context? Are you merely in charge, or are you purposefully leading?
Mike Rowlands is President & CEO at Junxion and a board member at Hollyhock, Social Venture Circle, and ORS Impact. He also supports fellow entrepreneurs as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at RADIUS. Reach him via [email protected].