I love kung fu movies.
Go ahead and judge me. It’s one of my healthier vices. Gulping down sugary sweet Swedish Fish like a barking seal on a bender? Not so much.
It’s not just me that enjoys the occasional martial arts flick. Successful movies can gross more than $150 million from a legion of international fans. That’s not to mention the success the genre’s stars have gone on to experience since kung fu burst onto the global cinema scene in the 1970s.
Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh and Chuck Norris all kicked their way to box office stardom. Academy Award-winning directors Ang Lee and Quentin Tarantino tackled the genre in breakthrough films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and the “Kill Bill” series. Angelina Jolie and Jack Black brought it to a new generation of budding martial artists through the “Kung Fu Panda” movies.
But one performer stands above the rest, like a tall crane gracefully navigating through a flock of pecking pigeons. Bruce Lee was more than just a dynamic actor and performer who made such legends of the genre as “Enter the Dragon” and “Fist of Fury.” He became an international ambassador for the martial arts, bringing kung fu to legions of karate kids around the world.
For practitioners of the learning arts, there’s a useful leadership philosophy tucked in among Lee’s high-flying feats that resonates in the age of networked organizations and machine-driven artificial intelligence. His advice: “Be like water making its way through cracks.”
The thinking goes something like this: The key to victory is not to be rigid. Rather, success hinges on adjusting to the environmental conditions and finding a way through barriers and around obstacles. Skills and training are important but what is essential is to deploy them dynamically as the situation dictates.
To draw a line to leadership development, the focus of our special report this month, the skills of a successful leader are increasingly fluid. Leaders need to be able to thrive in a variety of environments and work with a diverse set of people. They need be able to adapt to changing business conditions.
That process should begin with CLOs themselves. To borrow a term I heard from Citi CLO Cameron Hedrick, learning leaders must cultivate in themselves the “shapeshifter” talent they seek to develop in others. Leadership and learning are a constant process of shedding who you are to become something new.
In the top-down era, the all-knowing leader possessed a singular charisma, marshaling the troops to achieve clear objectives often by sheer force of personality. Teams were well defined and more often than not benefited from years of working together.
Today, that’s not the case. Workers frequently span several time zones. Teams form and reform based on need and include a mix of full-time employees, contractors and an ever-changing mix of specialists and generalists. Organizations are not a single hierarchical team but rather a team of teams. Leadership looks quite different in this environment.
For leaders of learning, this has interesting implications. To be sure, much of the job of a CLO is the tactical blocking and counter punching required to get things done. But the more significant part of the job is listening and adjusting. It’s leadership that shapes itself to its surroundings, bending and bowing to suit the situation at hand.
Jim Irvine, global learning leader at Nissan, put it bluntly when I interviewed him for the Chief Learning Officer podcast. His advice to CLOs: Don’t try to sell your wares. Focus on solving your clients’ problems first. The rest will sort itself out.
That’s not to say that CLO leadership should lack drive or vision. A thoughtful, evidence-based point of view is essential to being an executive. And there is always an element of cajoling, prodding and nagging to it. Persistence and focus are essential to leadership.
But the CLO’s ability to adjust to the dynamics of their organization — to thrive within the limitations and challenges of the position — is a pretty accurate measure of their ultimate success in delivering results.
To use the words of another famous fighter with a few championship belts, CLOs should be able to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.