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Author: Marcus Udokang

Are Leaders Born or are They Made?

Are leaders born or are they made? That’s a tough question, and probably as old as time itself.

It’s like wondering what came first, the chicken or the egg. I’d have to say there are some inherent traits that one needs to be a good leader, but many of these skills can be learned. If one has a propensity to read a lot, to be a good observer, to engage ideas with others, willing to have mentors around you, learn to be a good communicator, willing to accept failure and move on, then a great leader can grow from that. Persistence and fortitude are very important. And, you need an aptitude and a natural leaning toward learning.

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Having an aptitude to want to learn and excel, and refining those skills over time through training and practice, helps immensely in becoming an effective leader.

Other elements at play are environmental and cultural. Can one resonate well with one’s community? As a leader can one embrace these cultural expectations. Can one navigate well through constant change? Does one know when to be a transformational leader, a servant leader, an authoritarian leader, a laissez-faire leader? Can one delegate effectively?

There are so many factors at play for leaders to consider. It can be like playing chess sometimes. You need to train on the job, and even when playing the game, there is no guarantee one will win. Strategy, chance, hard work, and being at the right place at the right time can all be key ingredients in making a successful leader.

The Making of a Successful Leader

1. Established leadership qualities shared by some modern entrepreneurs

Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Ma all share some similar leadership traits which are worth examining.

Most of all they are passionate about what they do, and they hold values which they want to posit to others within their organization, and to the world as a whole. They are not resistant to change, and irrespective of their initial low chances of success, they are resilient to move forward, and take a huge risk to bring their goals and dreams to resolution. And, their transformational leadership style motivates and inspires people to take on new challenges. Other common themes among Musk, Ma and Zuckerberg include:

A) Organizational Change and Emotional Intelligence

Effective leadership is at the core of any form of successful change. All these leaders share an aspect of emotional intelligence. They all possess the traits, disposition and ability to understand and appeal to the mindsets of those around them. This enables them to successfully facilitate thought and change, and identify crucial skills needed to help build their businesses. For change to occur, there needs to be confidence to build an environment of open communication. By communicating a need for change to employees they can pointedly focus, process social and emotional information, and apply it appropriately when needed, benefiting themselves, and those around them.

And, for any resistors to change, they can persuade and inspire them by building better relationships, and encouraging more participation within the decision making process. This is how these leaders skillfully inculcate in others the motivation and positive purpose for change.

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B) Team Building

The three leaders are goal oriented. They all have a shared sense of enthusiasm, opportunity, and commitment, and are motivated to achieve excellence at all costs. And, they are all devoted to instilling and perpetuating these values into their teams. This contributes to successfully building and managing teams within an organization. Successful teams build successful companies.

C) Trust and Respect

Trust and respect is essential for team work and businesses to flourish. These three leaders embody these elements within their organizations and community. The trust and respect is reciprocated toward them, thereby creating a win-win environment for all parties involved.

2. Is this a new breed of leadership?

When compared to leaders of the past, Musk, Zuckerberg and Ma appear to focus on transparency of ideas, innovation at the forefront, constant adaptation to rapid change, and a conscious effort to make sustainable development all end-to-end elements of their businesses. It’s not to say these ideas were not present in the past. However, there is more emphasis on them today than say decades years ago. Part of this is due to a shift in the cultural milieu of our time. And, part because these leaders are acutely aware of the positive impact their ideas can have on the environment and world community.

Organizational Culture within The Walt Disney Company

To be sustainable does your own company culture need to change? How?  To be sustainable does your own company culture need to change? How?

Perhaps Walt Disney expressed it best when he said “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”. The Disney corporation has managed to be sustainable within it’s organizational culture, by doing what might appear as the impossible. That is, by building franchises while adapting to change. 

Walt Disney did a fabulous job in embedding a solid foot print in the franchise business. Later Michael Eisner, as CEO of the Disney corporation, filled those leadership shoes well, by focusing on creativity, branding and synergies. But by the late 1990s, Eisner’s centralized management style had created a rather contentious culture. Older management styles were not working. A sign of the times no doubt.  Walt Disney did a fabulous job in embedding a solid foot print in the franchise business. 

Since change is constant, Robert Iger, having taken over the reigns as CEO from Michael Eisner in 2005, showed fresh modern visionary thinking. Iger’s more unifying framework helped to integrate executives internally. This allowed him to better align with the external environment, such as promoting cooperation by mending sore wounds between Disney and Steve Jobs of Pixar Animation Studios. But most importantly, Iger’s early sustainable strategy was to adapt to changing competition and market forces by embracing a less rigid, and more flexible system with self-managing teams, allowing employees a wider span of creative control. Walt Disney’s horizontal organizational design with a flattened non-hierarchical structure, needed to become highly organic under Robert Iger, which is better suited to a faster changing business environment. Especially, where the emphasis is on the Internet and increasing globalization. By delegating autonomous business units, Iger increased trust and accountability throughout all levels of the business. 

By incorporating creative content, technological innovation and global expansion, Iger had the recipe for modern day success. This combination had a disruptive effect because Iger recognized how to take an external market force, like technology, and make it an opportunity to expand Disney’s financial arm to reach across the world, enveloping many complex and sometimes simple-unstable forces. Thus, Robert Iger restructured Disney to comfortably fit into the external environment, by using their resources and capabilities to create a competitive advantage.

Iger created a business vertical whereby the Disney corporation could produce and distribute its own products and services, and diversify in investments and acquisitions of companies like Lucas Film, Touchstone, Marvel Studios, worldwide theme parks, media networks like ABC, licensing deals, comic strips, TV, and publications. Take a box office hit movie and capitalize on it with merchandise and product spin offs: an impetus for proud profits. Adding a video streaming platform was the icing on the cake. And, accessing emerging markets like Latin America, Europe and China helped to bolster beyond predicted profit margins. 

By focusing on core business drivers for change, Iger was able to overcome key obstacles. And, by exploiting technology, what might appear to be a threat to some, the Disney corporation was able to succeed and thrive substantially in the external environment. 

Though it might be impossible to believe, I’m sure that Robert Iger found changing Disney’s company culture to a more efficient and effective business model, kind of fun to do.

Artificial Intelligence Enhancing the Role of the Project Manager

Some fear the role of the Project Manager may be eliminated as the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes more prevalent in the workplace.

Others see the evolution of AI as creating new opportunities, allowing the Project Manager to transform their role to focus on more critical and crucial responsibilities.

Is “AI” just a new buzzword of the week? To some it may be so. Or when you hear “AI” do you envision the Terminator or iRobot. Or do you think of half human half machine like RoboCop, or Bionic Man? These overly intelligent machines are as mythical as the cyclops or leprechauns. Hollywood movies have certainly added to the myth of the super machine thinking and acting like a human, replete with human emotions; conscious, forgiving, understanding, and filled with empathy. Well, that’s the world of make believe. The real world is far from this scenario, and probably will not exist within our lifetime.

AI in the business world is something more tame, and less threatening. It refers more to robotic functions such as operations, data collection, tracking and reporting; those repetitive tasks which hold far less value, but which need to be accomplished within business. In complex projects AI tasks save time and improve data accuracy, thus allowing PMs better interpretation of the data. Automating workflows, predicting risks, eliminating human bias, preventing cost overruns, or digging deeper into big data for real-time insights, these are all tasks which allow the PM to spend more time on the human side of a project: the business, stakeholders and customers. AI allows the PM to provide more succinct strategic advice to the business, to be a more substantial leader providing value outcomes, rather than simply being a manager. AI can more effectively guide PMs on where to focus their efforts, thereby more accurately increasing the potential for project success.

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AI is not a threat to project management jobs, but a way to spend less time managing and more time doing those tasks that add true value to a business. Project Manager’s soft skills like communication, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, leadership and understanding the needs of stakeholders, are more valuable and more marketable than ever, and very much in demand in the world of AI; skills currently void within any robotic AI machine.

Since the core of the project management profession is not easily transferrable to a machine, PMs should not be fearful of AI inadvertently hijacking their jobs. PM jobs differ widely in complexity, and encompass unforeseeable or taxing challenges which can not easily be tackled by AI. This is AI’s limitation. It is relegated to recognizing patterns within data and making conclusions or forecasts based on those patterns. Therefore, AI is optimal for repetitive, predictive or computational tasks. In other words, AI is more like a tool to enhance the project management field, rather than to displace it. Imagination and adaptability is far more fluid within a Project Manager than within AI machines. If anything, the adoption of AI in projects will encourage the PM to embrace techniques which will sharpen our soft skills, making us even more marketable.

The introduction of automation during the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries gave way to faster manufacturing processes. This was enough to frighten many trades people during that period, who felt their jobs would be lost to machines. The automobile modified transportation, making the use of horses rather obsolete. The introduction of email forever changed the demand for posting letters in the mail. Each one of these transitions involved some form of mechanization, which altered the demands for certain jobs. Rightfully so, AI is yet another stage in this move toward more encompassed automation within the workforce. Like in the past, each time there was a dramatic shift in mechanization, new jobs were created, and many current jobs were enhanced, making them even more in demand. But, throughout this change there was always someone needed to plan, manage, monitor and control the work, and make crucial decisions on the job. The role of the Project Manager will continue to evolve, and will undoubtedly play a pertinent and pivotal role in the world of AI, just as it has done throughout the history of automation.

Across Cuba on 4 Pedals and 2 Cranks, the Agile Way

Even on a vacation, you still think in terms of a project manager:

Initiating the trip, planning a road map, planning for assumptions and risks, planning resources and expenses (you need to budget), executing your plan, always monitoring and controlling circumstances, and eventually rounding up everything to a close, and heading back home. Sometimes you just feel being Agile would be so much better.

In March 2018, it didn’t take long to decide to cycle Cuba over nine days, from the south eastern coastal city of Santiago de Cuba, to Havana in the north. If I had any reservations, they were swiftly squashed by Sylvie, my cycling partner, whose intoxicating enthusiasm for the bike ride was ten-fold more than mine. We were riveted with anticipation, as we carefully planned our daily routes, our expenses, and whether to rent or bring our bikes: every minute detail was diligently reviewed and carefully recorded into our daily planning guide. In added preparation we purchased our plane tickets six weeks prior to the event: we were intrepid keeners, ensconced in thoughts of Cuba cycling nirvana!

On this trip, we wanted to see the real Cuba, we wanted to see the real people, the real country. What better way to do so than by bicycle! Thus, we were destined to cover Cuba on four pedals and two cranks!

We ventured through many cities and towns, both large and small. Our daily routes allowed for unparalleled views of the countryside, which lie in stark contrast from Cuba’s teeming resorts. The undulating hills were a good start to our journey.

For the most part, the roads were smooth and surrounded by lush vegetation. Though, we did have our fair share of pot-holed or roughly paved roads with few shoulders. Only a few times were the local roads a continuous blanket of semi-asphalt, sand, dirt and debris. I don’t think we saw roads with wide shoulders until we arrived within close proximity of Havana.

Along the ride, it was fascinating to see horses, cows and oxen used to till farms. Horse buggies, bicycles, bicycle taxis, stage coaches, mopeds, and trekking are main modes of transportation in Cuba, particularly in the southern part of the country, which is a bit less developed than the north. The further you are from a city the fewer cars you see. Most automobiles are either classic American 1950s cars or 1970 Russian Ladas, with some modern vehicles here and there.

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In some cases, the way of life in Cuba conjures up images of early 20th century Canadian pioneer farmers and homesteaders, which is certainly unique to us in today’s world. For instance, it was interesting to see oxen pulling carts of hay on country roads. It makes one rethink the necessity for time-efficient travel.

The casas (a type of AirBnB) which we stayed in were impeccable, and either very modern and chic, or old colonial homes with antique furniture, very large rooms and ultra-high ceilings. Some casas had courtyards adorned with flowers. One of our casas was something similar to a typical Spanish style villa.

Of all the towns we visited, Caibarien was probably one of the most impoverished. One could easily surmise this from the many dilapidated homes in that town. From scenes like this it may appear at first glance that Cubans are economically destitute. But their brilliant wealth instead, is tied up in strong cohesive social connections among friends and family, an affinity in helping strangers, and a richness in uniform kindness. And, not to mention free education and free health care available to all its citizens. Characteristics and institutions like these could make even the most doubtful visitor curious to know more.

If anyone has a dream to re-live the nostalgic period of the 1950s just for one moment, Cuba is the place to be: it seems to have been stuck in a time warp since 1959 (the year their revolution ended). There is a fascination with all things old school, I mean really old school, at least with cars, some music, architecture, furniture and the like. The former colonial buildings seem to echo history from the deep recesses of time, certainly well worth seeing. When dining at two restaurants, one in Havana and one in the town of Bayamo, we were entertained by musicians singing popular songs from the 1950s and 60s. In the spirit of the culture from that time-period, there is a more tempered paced lifestyle throughout Cuba, which is infectious and enduring.

As we moved from town to town, we marveled at the peace and tranquility around us, taking in the splendid sceneries minute by minute!

On our ninth day, triumphant in our glory, we eagerly arrived in Havana. We rested for a day, then got a ride to the airport in a classic red 1950s car, which had been refurbished into a taxi. It was a memorable send off to our last day in Cuba!

During our bicycle ride we were intent on immersing ourselves in Cuba’s surroundings with agility: taking occasional breaks along our route, sampling local cuisine, and mixing and mingling with locals. Managing and adapting to that swift current of daily change in a new environment was iterative in many ways. We truly relished the ride. Within nine days of distance cycling, we traversed the country on 4 pedals and 2 cranks! In doing so, it afforded us a cyclical movement through time, history and culture. What an irreplaceable and magnificent adventure! In a sense, taking a vacation like this can be a small precursor to planning for how to survive in the project economy.