Whenever you work really, really hard and fail, it is because you’re missing something. Usually it’s reality. It is tempting to deny that anything has changed. Or that you need to know something that you don’t. Or that others aren’t inspired by the same things you are. Or that you’re going to have to take responsibility for things you don’t want to. The list goes on. There are countless reasons to deny the real reasons we are failing. So we wait.

We wait for things to get back to normal. Well, things are not going to go back to normal because something really, really big has changed. It is a revolution of epic proportion. It is simply this.

Anyone can know anything, instantly. 

In the last five years, access to knowledge through smartphones enables almost everyone to know anything they want to know within minutes. I frequently tell my career classes that anyone can become an expert in a specific field within six months. 

Hell, you can become more knowledgeable about a certain topic than 80% of people in three weeks. All you need to do is spend 20 minutes a day with a search engine on the Internet watching videos, reading articles, or searching the research. Want to become knowledgeable about 3D printing, how to finance a business, what makes a happy marriage, how to surf, garden, play the guitar, write a book, write code, manage a project, meditate, or quantum physics? It’s all there.

And there’s more. You can connect with people who are interested in the same things you are very, very easily. I know, you’ve heard versions of these breakthroughs incessantly. This is hardly new news.

But what is new is the radical impact these things are having on businesses and organizations of all types.

And radial is not too strong a word. Consider this. The invention of the printing press in 1450 was the beginning of the end of the dark ages. Remember the dark ages were really dark. In many places, human beings took a step back in terms of their calling in life and even life expectancy. For instance, in Roman times indoor plumbing, clean water and municipal sewage systems were common.

In the dark ages, people threw their crap out the window. Only 1% of Europeans could read or write the year the printing press was inventing. 50 years later, 50% of Europeans were literate. This democratization of knowledge spurred new questions and massive curiosity. The grip of the Catholic Church on people’s thinking violently conflicted with the Protestant Reformation.

The age of world exploration was born and the Renaissance flourished. The philosophers of the Enlightenment created new models of thinking about individual rights and human potential, and led to modern democracies, explosive growth in university education and the scientific method. Okay, that was a big change. Now, imagine that kind of world shaking change happening in a very compressed timeframe. That’s what’s going on. In my work, I see it being played out every day in the area of business. It shows up in tow powerful palaces… leadership and culture.

I think we should face the fact that most of our efforts at leadership development have failed. 

Although billions have been invested over the last 50 years and tens of thousands of books written to promote better leadership, there is virtually no evidence that leaders are any better today than they were five decades ago. When I ask business audiences today how many great leaders they have enjoyed working for over their careers, the highest number I get is two. That’s exactly the same number of audiences were giving me 35 years ago when I started working with Stephen Covey. Perhaps that’s not because developing great leaders is futile, but rather because the challenges of leadership are expanding faster than our ability to help leaders improve.

And, I’m convinced the gap between what’s needed and what’s happening is getting worse. 

It is because the technology and social revolution has changed the way value is created, work gets done and they very nature of the workforce. Here are the main points.

1. Organizational hierarchies are relics of the industrial age.

They are in the way of success. They are designed to maximize the productivity of routine work and minimize risk. When General McChrystal took over the Special Forces command nearly a decade ago it took 96 hours to plan a special operation. Within two years he was able to reduce that time to 20 minutes. He did it by converting the Special Forces command from a hierarchy to a network. Leading networks is a very different skill set than leading a chain of command. And most current business leaders are very, very bad at leading networks.

2. Competence is measured by strategic velocity.

That is the speed at which strategy is decided upon and executed. Most leaders today are still relying on PowerPoints and annual planning cycles. That is leadership malpractice. Today there is a huge gulf between what must be done and what gets done.

3. To be competent, leaders must open-minded enough to constantly evolve strategy and agile enough to stay engaged in the details of execution.

This requires the expertise to create strategy that is responsive to constantly changing trends, opportunities and threats and the social intelligence to work with teams of people as a peer to execute it. (Steve Jobs was an emperor in terms of strategy. But he was a teammate in product development meetings.) In my experience most leaders don’t have a clue on how to do this.

4. The workforce is changed.

Not just millennial’s… everyone. Employees used to give their best efforts because they had the security of long-term employment. They also felt they had a stake in the organization’s long-term success. No more. Research reveals that 80% of employed people constantly search the Internet for a better job. Global surveys that determine the level of commitment employees have to their employer’s success reveal that 70% are not very committed. This is unsustainable. For a network to thrive people must be focused, creative, collaborative and absolutely committed to results. Creating that requires number 5.

5. Human purpose is not optional. Since virtually all employees feel like they are simply hired guns it is impossible to create high-performing teams without genuine shared purpose. Survival and success on their own are not shared purpose. Shared purpose is working together to improve the quality of life of customers’ in a distinct way.

This is not just corporate social responsibility. It is not simply sustainability. It must be your reason for being in business. Real value-driving-purpose has to be at the core of an organization’s money making business model. Haley Rushing of the Purpose Institute recently shared their research with me. It’s simple.

Clear purpose drives:

    • Innovation, product development, pricing, brand, culture, advertising, hiring, technology investment, market segmentation, supply chain management… everything.
    • Purpose makes hard decisions easier and faster.
    • Most important, human purpose connects people directly with their job and the enterprise. It increases commitment and reduces friction.
    • Purpose is the inspirational glue that keeps networks working at very high rates of innovation execution.

6. You have to know what the hell you doing. Leaders must have extremely high levels of business acumen and competence. Purpose is no substitute for competence. Passion alone can put you out of business faster because you mistake your good intentions for good outcomes.

That’s my brief explanation of why old models don’t work, employees are disengaged and once great enterprises will fail if they are not lead in radically new ways. The good news is there are lots of people interested in this new way of leading and working. I hope you are.