Moving From Old School To New School Leadership - Proteus Leadership
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Moving From Old School To New School Leadership

In 2016, Proteus CEO and Founder Des Penny and I, designed and delivered a new conference called Shake It Up. The objective of this conference was to share with our audiences some new concepts, ideas and stories to ‘shake up’ their thinking and challenge them, by asking the question, ‘are you staying relevant?’

My first keynote was titled ‘From Old School to New School Leadership’, where I asked participants to reflect if they are stuck in old school thinking and practices that are making them become quickly redundant, especially in the key areas around Leadership, Followership and Systems. I then challenged them and their organisations to move to a new school approach to stay viable and relevant.

To do this, I framed the keynote by sharing two classic stories, one very old and one more contemporary. They highlighted the urgency of making the necessary changes to stay relevant.

Story #1 – 1890’s Transportation Crisis

In 1894, London, New York City and many other great cities of the developed world had a big manure problem. In fact, they had a manure crisis! Yep, it was labelled the “Great Horse Manure Crisis”, with the major industrialisation changes to these great cities, resulted in them drowning in horse manure!

With the current increased rate of horses required to meet the growing exponential demand of transportation and population growth. It was predicted that some of New York’s main streets would be 9 feet high in horse manure.

In 1898, four years later, a 10-day conference was called with the greatest leaders and thinkers of the time. However, the conference was abandoned three days later as these great thinkers had no idea how to resolve this crisis. Several years later, the problem started to evaporate and by 1912, all was resolved when the car made the horse redundant as a means of transportation.

Story #2 – The Demise of Kodak

Imagine you are piloting an aeroplane and you’re about to fly into the side of a mountain, due to a faulty GPS system. However, you are so busy being on autopilot, protecting your status quo, not looking ahead and adjusting for the future, that you don’t take over the autopilot system and slam head-on into the mountain, killing yourself and everyone on-board!

This analogy is how Michael McQueen describes the demise of Kodak.

In the mid 1970’s when Kodak had 90% of the global film market, the executive was presented internally with the digital camera – their initial response to this new technology was that it’s ‘cute’. During the 1980’s & 90’s, CEO George Fisher become hostile to change and described digital innovation as the “enemy” and “as the evil juggernaut that would kill film”.

In 2005, Kodak shed two-thirds of its global workforce and in 2012 filed for bankruptcy.

This Kodak story has become an infamous warning sign that no business is immune from the perils of being smashed into irrelevance if they ignore the signs, that things are changing fast and evolving radically. The kicker in the demise of Kodak is that they designed the digital camera themselves, but failed to adapt this new technology that eventually revolutionised the industry!

So, here’s the tension for us personally and as leaders in the workplace. We are all currently knee-deep in change and are in danger of being smashed into irrelevance if we stay too busy, just maintaining the status quo.

However, if we stop and look at what is trending and what is required for us to stay relevant and we start moving in a ‘new school’ direction, we can avoid the fate of becoming redundant. As the management guru Charles Handy states, ‘the future is not inevitable. We can influence it, if we know what we want it to be’. You see change is not coming, it is here upon us now and we can either ignore this or we can shed some of our old school baggage and start making the changes required to influence our future for the better.

Disrupt or be disrupted!

We are all aware that we are now living in the ‘digital age’, where the motto has moved from ‘innovate or die’ to ‘disrupt or be disrupted’. Not only is the pace of change breathtaking, but the global transformation to the way we work, do business, engage in our workplaces and our way of life, has now changed fundamentally. Just think of the impact that the following new technologies and businesses are having on us; artificial intelligence, Bitcoin, driverless cars, the sharing ‘gig’ economy, 3D printing, etc. When a Chinese engineer recently invented a 3D printer that can ‘print’ out 10 houses on a block of land in 24 hours, you begin to understand that the traditional old school models of business are dead and buried.

“There will be more change in this generation than the 200 years leading up to it. The skill-sets that we currently value are not the ones that will take the next generation forward.” Matt Church

There are several areas that I believe are critical to help us transform the way we think and behave and to embrace this new school approach. Things that will help us stay relevant and move forward within the workplace.

It’s all about Leadership

Firstly, it all starts with leadership. It is leadership where we can truly have the greatest influence on ourselves and the people around us. Furthermore, leadership done proactively and consciously can have an incredibly positive impact on successfully moving forward within a radically changing and volatile world.

We need to move away from the old school ‘command and control’, redundant management approach, of being autocratic, disapproving and thinking the only way to reward and punish people is through paychecks and fear. What is also redundant is having a telling communication style, where you broadcast news from the top down and expect your people to listen, obey and cooperate.

New school leadership is the opposite. We need to embrace a servant leadership approach, where we engage our people through being open and transparent, giving rich continuous feedback and motivating people by having a clear purpose, telling compelling stories and facilitating change through a burning desire to create something new and relevant. This is a very different skill set from the past, but the great news is that you can learn, develop and grow to become a new school leader. However, it requires you to let go of your ego and be prepared to adapt to this new way.

Followership is 50% of the equation

We know that leadership is a critical ingredient for success, but it also requires great followers. One of the most underestimated and little talked about topics, is the need to have positive ‘followership’ in the workplace. If the new school approach is to take full responsibility and be actively engaged at work, then 50% of the equation for success is to be a great follower.

At Proteus, we have a mantra to ‘be the best follower a leader could wish for’ and to fully support your leader. Unless your manager is a psychopath, do whatever it takes to work successfully with your boss.

As author Simon Sinek stated in Leaders Eat Last, “the ability of a group of people to do remarkable things hinges on how well those people pull together as a team”.

It is no longer OK to be a passive follower, waiting for instructions and having a sense of entitlement about the workplace. It is not acceptable or viable to resist change and put in the minimum requirements while you clock watch. We all know there are no more ‘jobs for life’. The new school approach is to ‘build a job’, one where you are a proactive stakeholder who brings passion for life to work, where being a change champion is the norm, and where you proactively drive your own learning development seeing your workplace as a privileged place to make a difference and have a positive impact.


Finally, you need to work on having amazing systems at work. Having great leaders and great followers is critical for a positive workplace culture however, if your systems are bureaucratic, complex and obsessed with sticking to policies, you are guaranteed to become redundant.

We have all seen the power of great companies that have designed systems that are automated, intuitive and beautiful. Where as a customer, your engagement with the company and the service is both ‘high tech and high touch’. If organisations like Apple, Uber, Airbnb, etc. can create not just loyal customers, but evangelists, then there is nothing stopping us from replicating this approach in all of our workplaces.

Call to action

In conclusion, we need to have a mindset to help future proof ourselves and our organisations to avoid becoming redundant and moving anything that is old school over to a new school approach. This means we need to continually ask ourselves; “is what we are doing in danger of becoming redundant and what needs to change right now to ensure we are relevant into the future”.

Even if this means cannibalising your own products or services and competing with yourself to put part of your business out of business! It is far better to do this yourself than to wait for your competitors to smash you into irrelevance. We are living in an exciting but daunting time, so don’t sit waiting and hoping that everything will be OK while you are knee deep in manure. Similarly, don’t stay on autopilot preserving the status quo, knowing you are about to fly into the side of a mountain.

Take back the controls and become a great leader. Be the best follower a manager could wish for and reinvent your systems so they are automated and beautifully intuitive to work with, so you stay relevant.

Richard Dore is the Co-CEO at Proteus Leadership.


Proteus Leadership is one of Australia’s premier leadership training and development companies. Proteus Leadership provides leadership courses and management training to a range of industries and assists organisations to build positive workplace cultures, implement change and Create Great Leaders. Proteus also facilitates a range of world-class management courses, workshops, conferences and events across Australia and beyond with the sole purpose of bringing leaders together to connect and grow.

“Our core purpose is to Create Great Leaders that will in turn build Great companies and develop Great teams.”