Leadership Lessons from the Mideast

By Jim Whitt

All of us are probably watching what’s been happening in Libya, Egypt and the rest of the Mideast with conflicted feelings. We’d like to see dictatorships overthrown but wonder if what replaces them might be even worse.

In a piece entitled The Tyrannies Are Doomed, the Wall Street Journal’s Barry Weiss shared some insights from historian Bernard Lewis. An expert on the Arab world, the 94 year-old Lewis cautions that holding free elections too quickly in the wake of these revolutions can be a mistake. He offered this example: “After World War I, the victorious Allies tried to impose the parliamentary system on Germany, where they had a rather different political tradition. And the result was that Hitler came to power. Hitler came to power by the manipulation of free and fair elections.”

I think Mr. Lewis is right. You can’t take one model to another country that has operated for decades or centuries under another model and expect instant transformation. And you can’t expect the new model to be duplicated exactly anyway. The U.S. model was constructed by incorporating parts of different models with some innovative elements and that’s what made it unique. And it’s worth noting that we still have some work to do on our model or we wouldn’t be more than 14 trillion dollars in debt. I could spend a lot of time on that subject but that’s not the point of this article. The point is there are lessons from the Mideast that can be applied not only to governments but to organizations as well.

We all want simple solutions. We want to believe we can copy the form of a successful organization or government and it too shall be successful. That might work if all the conditions were exactly the same. There are no one-size-fits all solutions. You just can’t copy what someone else is doing and expect it to be a perfect replica. Building a successful organization, or country for that matter, requires innovation. Innovation simply defined means to introduce something new. You can’t depend on innovation happening serendipitously so I’ve developed a formula that facilitates innovation in organizational design.

I borrowed the first part of the formula from the fundamental principle of architectural design — form follows function. A form that works well for one organization may be disastrous for another. Form is the wrong end of the equation to start with. That’s why it follows function. The form of an organization (or a government) has to be designed to effectively perform its functions. So, the functions have to be identified before designing the form. Here’s where I added another element to come up with my formula for organizational design. Form follows function and function follows purpose. To determine what functions must be performed you must first determine the purpose.

Our nation’s founders struggled mightily for years with the elements of purpose, function and form to come up with our model of government. Should we expect any less of any other emerging democracy? Tyrannies don’t require innovation — just obedience. Innovation thrives in a culture of freedom but it takes time to cultivate when it has lain dormant. Our form of government was birthed from tyranny, too. It wasn’t easy. It took time. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It wasn’t a copy of another model. It was different from any other model of government that had been created. It was innovative.

We applaud innovators precisely because they create something new. When was the last time someone received an award for plagiarism? Innovation is a requirement if you want to build a successful organization — whether it’s a country, company or any other entity. An organization is simply a group of people bound together by a common purpose. And that’s where you start — form follows function and function follows purpose. It’s a process. It isn’t easy. It takes time. And it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears. 

You’ll find more at www.purposeunlimited.com. You may reprint this article in your own print or electronic newsletter, but please include the following: “Reprinted from the Purpose Unlimited E-Letter: For a free subscription, go to www.PurposeUnlimited.com. Copyright © 2011 Jim Whitt Purpose Unlimited.”  

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