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  • Sara Jolena

Leaders: Connect the Dots : Know thy history.


In our complex world, we need leaders who can connect the dots. Use systems thinking. Understand the connections between the parts, not just the parts themselves. Too often, that's not taught, much less well rewarded.

And in an age of networks, connecting the dots is one of the most important factors for enabling change. Brook Manville, a writer on (business) leadership challenges in an age of networks, writes in Forbes magazine that leaders’ ability to connect the dots is a major source of innovation and success. Uber, for example, succeeded because they connected two groups of people: car drivers wanting passengers and people who were frustrated at not being able to find a taxi near them via a platform that makes connecting up easy. Indeed, some business leaders see their primary purpose as connecting the dots: Steve Jobs being one of them. Sage Bionetworks, an open-source global research commons, arose from the moment when founder Dr. Steven Friend connected the dots between a “growing wealth of available clinical data (for both sick and healthy people) with the world’s increasing knowledge about human gene sequences and composition.” As Manville writes, Sage “now bridges traditional silos and disciplinary boundaries of the medical research world, creating collaborative communities and open source challenges, bringing together global networks of academics, clinicians, biologists, industry specialists, computational engineers, and even patients themselves.”

Nor is this only true in business and science. Part of the success of –as just one example - the Moral Monday movement coming out of North Carolina was Rev William Barber’s insistence that different segments of society work together when lobbying for change. If someone was going to lobby a congressman about health care, someone else from the LGBTQ community would be with them, to demonstrate solidarity and the recognition that the issues were all connected. Even their current phrase, “Repairers of the Breach” suggests that the core of their “moral movement” is one of making connections.

Connecting the dots is important for a lot of reasons. It sets the stage and supports the process of for innovation and new possibilities for action. As Manville says, “Connecting different networks and pieces of networks enables new discovery.” Including new art. Lady Gaga and Tony Bennet, for example, were unlikely but fully successful collaborators in part because of their differences and their ability to find connections between them. Multi-media artists thrive because of their capacity to connect the dots across mediums to create something beautiful. And connecting has a wonderful ripple effect – as networks come to know one another, new possibilities can continually emerge. (Why this doesn’t always work is another discussion!)

Here’s one of the things too many leaders miss about connecting the dots: knowing history really helps the process. Digging into the question, why are we where we are, helps us form the pattern of where we are. That enables us to better see which actions we are taking will perpetuate certain patterns or help form new ones. Systems thinking, unfortunately, tends to be very “flat”; it rarely incorporates a historical dimension. And yet to be part of evolving life is to be part of the living past not just a flat, disconnected present moment. I mean, it is about connecting, right? And that’s why I keep teaching history – even though there are many other things I could do.

Climate Change is urgent. Health disparities are urgent. Even as I teach history, I’m simultaneously engaged in multiple eco-justice projects in different parts of the country and the world, each one of them doing small things to support people in making connections that can enable them to take greater leadership, live better lives, and, hopefully, if it goes well, breath cleaner air and be safe during the next scorching heat wave.

I keep bringing people into the past – centuries before our present moment – because doing so enables them to make the connections to better live well today. Too many leaders are too focused on their conception of the present moment. And their conception is informed by inaccurate histories, a sense of a pattern that is, often, less- than-fully-true.

So keep looking for connections – and keep learning the history that will help you do so.

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