From frameworks to improvisation

BUSINESS MATTERS (BEYOND THE BOTTOM LINE) - Francis J. Kong (The Philippine Star) - December 5, 2020 - 12:00am

A man is flying in a hot air balloon and realizes he is lost. He reduces height and spots a man down below. He lowers the balloon further and shouts, “Excuse me. Can you help me? I promised my friend I would meet him half an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The man below says, “Yes, you are in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above this field. You are between 40 and 42 degrees N. latitude and between 58 and 60 degrees W. longitude.”

“You must be an engineer,” says the balloonist.

“I am,” replies the man. “How did you know?”

“Well,” says the balloonist, “everything you have told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost.” The man below says, “You must be a manager.”

“I am,” replies the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Well,” says the man below, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You have promised which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. The fact is you are in the same position you were in before we met, but now it is somehow my fault.”

Both the manager and the engineer were operating within their familiar framework.

A senior-level manager attended my Level Up Leadership workshop. In that class, there were about 80 participants. This person is a manager who has worked with a manufacturing company for years. I explained the rationale of the program so that participants would know what they are getting. I explained that the Leadership Program they were attending would not be typical. It would not be based on “frameworks” as is typical with other programs but would focus more improvisational approach to handling people. This manager disagrees. He contends that everything works in a framework. Perhaps he is viewing things based on his “manufacturing” viewpoint while I look at things from the “entrepreneurial viewpoint.” I explained that management deals with frameworks. It worked brilliantly in the past. Maybe, it still works today. But if you see the evolution and development of business practices and landscapes, you have to embrace that both things and time have changed. So do people.

A framework is rigid. A framework follows norms; it functions brilliantly as a roadmap. Management has an important role, but leadership plays a bigger one. Management deals with control. Leadership deals with influence. A way to look at this is that we “manage” our people, but they still prefer to be led.

In a fast-changing world, leadership is a compass and not a roadmap needed to help navigate and bring the team through uncharted waters and conquer new worlds. The pandemic has challenged all norms. The enforced lockdown and the threat of the deadly virus has crippled nations, the economy, and businesses. Uncertainties abound, and one cannot find answers and solutions through the traditional management “framework” that companies embraced for the longest time.

I am not sure what this executive is thinking today. I hope that he learned enough in training to equip him not to merely “manage” his people but to lead them through this unprecedented event.

Influential leaders respond by employing soft skills and often engage in unprepared and improvised actions that have carried their people and their company through. It is now observable that effective leadership is more improvisation and cannot be confined in familiar frameworks that would have been effective in a predictable environment.

Leaders are pioneers and are not settlers. People are looking for inspiration. They need inspiration that can fire up their creativity and commitment. Leaders who empower their people create confidence in them, enabling them to be resilient and enterprising ever or perhaps more so during uncertainties.

If it were to be put in in musical form, leadership is jazz music more than classical music. It entails a lot of improvisation. Therefore, it can be argued that leadership training today necessitates an offering of a toolbox of leadership skills that equip them to become entrepreneurial, enterprising, and engaging. This pandemic has undoubtedly proven the point that rigid frameworks to quick, agile, and relevant improvisation. The world has undergone a reset. The way we deal with people as well as the way we deal with business will require massive adjustments and recalibration. Effective, knowledgeable and smart leadership is essential and would require a lot of creative entrepreneurial improvisation. Another way to say this is that it is time to enjoy the music.

(Connect with Francis Kong at Or listen to “Business Matters” Monday to Friday 8 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. over 98.7 dzFE-FM ‘The Master’s Touch,’ the classical music station.)

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