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I Can’t Hear the Trains Anymore!

O00ne of the most difficult things to overcome in an organization is complacency. This point was brought home to me on a trip to Argentina.  I was a consultant at an American school in a well to do Buenos Aries neighborhood. The school which served about 2,000 students was framed by the “River of Silver” on one side and the railroad tracks on the other, literally 50 yards from the administrative and classroom buildings. 

 In one of our sessions on creating the future, I was interrupted by a roar of a diesel engine and the click-clack of wheels on the joints of the rail. It really got my attention! I didn’t know if I should jump out the window or hide under the table.  In a moment, when the noise subsided one of the Deans said, “You know I can’t hear the trains anymore.”  Well I sure could! - ever hour or so a train would come by and literally shake the building.  Through it all, we managed to have a successful day.  After all I was the only one who was disrupted every time the train roared by.

On the way back to the USA, I reminisced on the train analogy and thought to myself - eureka!   That is the problem with many organizations - they are so stuck in the present that they can’t hear the future coming.  The leaders and many times the employees rely on habitual patterns of thought and action  and get caught in a psychic prison and can’t find their way out - even if they wanted to.  They are stuck in the present way of thinking about and doing things, even when they don’t work. 

 John Kotter says we have to overcome complacency and create urgency, Otto Scharmer says we continue to download the past when we should see the future as it is. I suggest that leaders must develop the habit of anticipating to gain perspective; seeing not only the big picture but changes in that picture.  These are lessons we could have learned long ago if we had listened to the mother of management, Mary Parker Follett who said, “The most successful leaders see a picture not yet actualized. They see things that belong in the present but are not there yet. . . “ 

The reason many leaders cannot hear the trains anymore is that they are caught in a cycle of downloading which has served them very well even it doesn’t serve their organizations to the same extent.  If the leaders do not change, can we expect people in the organization to change? What is missing in many mangers and leaders is the ability to; see into the future, understand the roots of the past, grasp the big picture, and then invent a new future.  

Leaders will start hearing the trains again when they anticipate or pre-sense the critical elements of their environment in order to strategically lead their organization and its people through the process of change toward a future of success.   In The Strategic Leader, I outline the strategic thinking protocol which provides the framework that enables both leaders and followers to anticipate and articulate a statement of intent that points the organization toward the future but allows it to get there through different means.  It all begins with the leader’s ability to develop an agile mind. 

If the leader can’t hear the trains, it’s likely they can’t see the future.  It takes an agile mind to switch attention across multiple perspectives, frames, mental models, and paradigms in order to generate new insights and options for actions to hear both the trains and see the future.  

What do you think? Do you have a story to share?

 "We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves.”  Galileo
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