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Future-Proofing Leaders for Uncomfortable Growth

Photo of the 2018 Quest for Excellence Conference Keynote Speaker Seth Mattison sitting on a couch.
Credit: Seth Mattison

Whom did I impact today? And how will I be remembered by the people I worked with?

These were some of the questions asked by Seth Mattison, founder and chief movement officer of FutureSight Labs, during his keynote presentation at the recent Baldrige Quest for Excellence® conference.

“Leadership is about impact,” said Mattison. “The cool thing about leadership is that you don’t have to wait to leave a legacy. You can leave a legacy today by the actions you take, the decisions you make, your ability to leave an impact.”

Mattison said his work is to help organizations and leaders to future-proof themselves by studying what “the best of the best do to navigate the future of work while pursuing excellence in all that they do.”

The best leaders have a remarkable ability to live in two separate worlds at the same time, he said; they “live in the here and now (performing with excellence as an executive), while simultaneously maintaining discipline in a second world of invention, experimentation, and growth” (i.e., positioning themselves to stay relevant for the future).

It’s easiest for leaders to get caught up in the business of work, and it’s hardest to “make the time to peer around the corner as to what is coming next to the industry and the world at large,” he said.

Defining the Future of Leadership

Mattison said that based on his lab’s ten years of research, he believes the future is being defined by the “epic battle playing out between hierarchies [i.e., top-down leadership, with knowledge and leadership shared from the top] and networks [i.e., the digital age of today, where knowledge and power ‘flow like currency’].” He loosely defined people born before 1995 as those most used to hierarchies and those born after 1996 (Generation Z or Millennials) as those most comfortable with networks, who may be “challenging the norms to help society to move forward.” To illustrate, he said Millennials may be more comfortable "teaching themselves how to do something from watching a YouTube video”  than seeking the guidance of an authoritarian figure.  

He said the research shows that how we grew up—whether among hierarchies or networks—sets the stage for how we understand leadership. It impacts how we think about rules, values, expectations of how we treat one another, business, and the marketplace, and it shows up in our behaviors, actions, and language.

Defining Culture

“Culture is about the experiences that we are creating for ourselves, our employees, our clients, and our customers in the marketplace,” said Mattison. “[Culture] begins and ends with [leaders]. If we don’t define [the culture,] it becomes defined for us. The experiences that leaders create for their talent need to mirror the brand the organization creates for its customers.”

Mattison defined culture as formal or informal agreed-upon attitudes and behaviors.

Culture is “what gets rewarded, what gets corrected. [It is] not just the values that live on the wall. . . . Enron had values on the wall, too. [Leaders should ask themselves] ‘Am I reflecting those values back to our people?’”

In order to sustain the desired culture and based on research, Mattison said the number-one skill that leaders need to “attract talent is the ability to collectively establish and then transparently cast a clear and compelling vision of the future. . . . This matters more than ever because the future is uncertain. When people are uncertain about the future, they leave--or worse, they stay and go into protective mode. People horde knowledge, resources, help (like animals in nature horde food).”

Staying Relevant

According to Mattison, the number-one reason why organizations stop being relevant in the marketplace is because their leaders stopped growing.

“How do you know if you stopped growing?” asked Mattison. Leaders need to ask themselves, “Do I feel uncomfortable?”

Category one of the Criteria within the Baldrige Excellence Framework focuses specifically on leadership and creating an environment for success, including a workforce culture that fosters customer engagement. Culture is a concept that also appears across the Criteria; for example, in categories focusing on strategy, measurement, and the workforce.

The Criteria comprise thoughtful questions to guide leaders to define the future, define the culture, and ensure their organizations stay relevant by focusing on the future.

Has your leadership made an impact today? And do you feel uncomfortable when it comes to professional growth?


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2019-2020 Baldrige Excellence Framework cover photo

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About the author

Dawn Bailey

Dawn Bailey is a writer/editor for the Baldrige Program and involved in all aspects of communications, from leading the Baldrige Executive Fellows program to managing the direction of case studies...

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