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  • February 2022

“Sense and Respond”

Who says that corporate leaders invariably need a capacity for authoritative action and strategic thinking?

According to noted business thinker Frédéric Laloux, our notions of leadership and organizational structures are undergoing fundamental change. In an interview with Egon Zehnder, he explains why sensitivity and the ability to respond are critical leadership skills today, and why organizations must reinvent themselves if they intend to survive.

On the faded glory of the top jobs ...

Frédéric Laloux: When I started working in the corporate world, more than 15 years ago, there was a general faith that we were mastering the art of management. People were looking up at GE under Jack Welch, for instance, with a sense that this is it; this is how management needs to be done.

Today, pretty much all the leaders you meet will admit at some point that things are too slow, too bureaucratic, not innovative enough. People aren’t motivated. They are ready to try the next fad, because they no longer know what to do.

But I think there’s a deeper secret that no one talks about: Being a top executive isn’t fun anymore. It’s become a rat race. Top executives are bearing this incredible pressure on their shoulders and most of them are wearing it as well as they can, but they’re all on the brink of burnout.

On walking away and starting anew ...

Frédéric Laloux: I think there’s a general crisis of management in our institutions. As a result, an increasing number of executives are leaving the corporate world, sometimes because of a burnout, an illness or a divorce that has made them reassess their lives. But sometimes, they simply come to a point of realization: »Hey, I’m not sure I want to do this anymore; there’s got to be a better life out there.«

Not all of these people leave the corporate world. Some of them restart new organizations or transform their existing organizations in extraordinary ways. In my research I sought out a number of truly amazing organizations founded by leaders whose journey brought them to look at their work, at management, at organizations, in a whole different way.

On the "evolutionary purpose" of a company ...

Frédéric Laloux: "Evolutionary purpose" is a term that one organization that I researched created. This means not only that the organization truly has a meaningful purpose, beyond making a profit and gaining market share. But that the organization keeps listening to where that purpose will lead it.

Leaders of this new breed of organizations say, "The traditional concept of setting targets only makes sense if you believe that your organization is this lifeless thing that you need to program and give a direction. But we believe that our organization is like a living organism. It has its own sense of direction." And so our role as leaders is much more subtle. It’s actually to listen to that evolutionary purpose.

On the best response to growing complexity ...

Frédéric Laloux: The world has become so complex that the best we can do, the most powerful thing we can do, is not predict and control but sense and respond. Agile software programming has shown how much more powerful sense and respond is, compared to predict and control. Evolutionary purpose extends this to the whole organization, and replaces traditional strategic planning, budget exercises and cascading targets with much more lightweight, adaptable practices.

On self-management in place of hierarchy ...

Frédéric Laloux: We now have organizations with thousands of people who are operating entirely without a boss-subordinate relationship. That sounds crazy, but then again this is how hugely complex systems like the human brain or natural ecosystems operate. If you look at all the complex systems in the world, none of them work with hierarchy because hierarchy cannot deal with a lot of complexity. If you look at the human brain, 85 billion cells, there isn’t one cell that is the CEO and some other cells that believe they are the Executive Committee, and who say to the billions of the cells in the brain, "You guys, if ever you have a clever thought, pass it by me." If you tried to run the brain in such a hierarchical way, it would immediately stop functioning. You cannot deal with complexity that way. All complex ecosystems, like a forest, the human body or just any organ, self-manage.

On the route to a self-managed company ...

Frédéric Laloux: There are a number of things that leaders can do to initiate the journey. I’ve seen several leaders of large organizations assemble a team of enthusiasts and give them a mandate to go out there and experiment and prototype. Rather than impose self-management top down, the CEO nurtures that team, makes sure that it meets, that people learn from each other’s successes and that these people are protected, because the system is going to fight back. These islands of sanity create a buzz in the organization and get others to want to join.

On the wholeness of employees ...

Frédéric Laloux: The principle of wholeness is at least as powerful as self-management, but it’s more subtle, less headline-grabbing, and so people often underestimate its importance. It is this idea that, for some reason, in almost all organizations, we feel we need to wear a professional mask. When we hide so much of who we are behind a mask, we also cut ourselves off from a huge amount of our energy, of our creativity, of our passion. Some of the organizations I researched have understood this. They have put in place very deliberate practices to make us feel welcome with all of who we really are. People show up whole; relationships become much deeper, much richer. And with that comes a level of vibrancy, of aliveness that is just extraordinary.

Frédéric Laloux is an unsettling thought leader with an unconventional track record.

After an orthodox start with an MBA from INSEAD and a spell as a consultant with McKinsey, he embarked on the search for a new worldview. Laloux published his revolutionary management thinking in his best-selling book, “Reinventing Organizations”. Today he is an internationally sought-after coach and consultant to companies eager to radically rethink their culture and structures. Laloux practices the alternative approach that he preaches, spending a lot of time with his family and checking his emails just once a week.


Interview: Egon Zehnder ∙ Photography: Freunde von Freunden / FvF Productions

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