Michael Malone: Shapeshifter Leadership in the Virtual Economy

Technology journalist Michael Malone releases his new book this week, The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory. It sometimes takes the profoundly interdisciplinary journalistʻs mind to tap into science in a way that challenges our ideas of who we are.

Take his 2009 book, The Future Arrived Yesterday: The Rise of the Protean Corporation. Publisherʻs Weekly summarizes his position: “We need ways of thinking about organizations that reflect the changing reality of the people who are part of them.The solution, he asserts, is the “protean corporation,” distinguished by its ability to constantly restructure itself to changing circumstances and new opportunities. Praising such corporations as Google, Wikipedia and the U.S. Army, Malone contends that these early-stage “shape-shifters” behave like perpetual entrepreneurial startups, continuously changing their form, direction and identity.”

author Michael Malone

Malone values the protean imagination, and articulates its power in leadership, noting in the end, that is a rare few who can embody the shapeshifter energy of our time while they maintain the stable-at-heart Protean Corporation: “It is the rest of us who represent the future, who embody that change. And by giving those few others the task of preserving what is defining and enduring, they in turn free the rest of us to pursue out ever-changing, ever-shifting dreams. The Protean Society belongs to protean imaginations.”

The Protean Society: quite a vision for the new landscape we find ourselves in, wherever we look. Entrepreneur argues that itʻs this protean innovator that will ride the recession through because of agility and innovation, but is talking more about the folks who innovate from what Malone calls “the cloud,” the place where consultants and freelancers are finding success through virtual presence. 

Indeed, it seems that the mainstream corporations canʻt easily support protean life in any sustainable way, relying on consultants and short-term employees/CEOs to rock the boat. Maloneʻs vision is reflected by a new form of leadership from the fringes. This makes sense, given that visible shapeshifters are rarely trusted, even when they are successful entrepreneurs. We are a culture that celebrates individualism, but craves conformity. We force our leaders into a kind of  cultural “iron maiden” torture device, closing them into an artificial, isolating performance of consistency that limits innovation and demands our core identities become a singular role. Once the leader conforms, we get upset that theyʻre not fulfilling our expectation that theyʻll become change agents, innovators, transforming leaders!

The Wall Street Journal lists a few examples — the 2008 Obama campaign, Virgin Airways, the Huffington Post, and other corporations that are “rings around a core,” with the outer core being consultants and the inner core a small group of employees who oversee the consistency and maintenance part of the organization. The inner core also probably makes most of the profits, while the consulting shapeshifters keep their freedom and space to innovate. Itʻs a good way to adapt “to an economy in deep trouble,” according to the review, but the author isnʻt so sure about the enduring benefits of such an organization.

Iʻm not sure, either, but Malone may have simply named the now and possible future, and that in itself is interesting when we think about what leadership will be needed for sustainable change and growth. It seems at the heart, thereʻs a potentially powerful collaboration between stabilizing business and innovative, adaptive practices, each of which requires its own kind of leadership.

We need shapeshifter leadership. Iʻll write more about these ideas;  for now, I want to simply raise a question.

How can a shapeshifter leader survive in the core of our corporate leadership mythology and practice? 

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