Leading consequential change through the Blockchain

Leading consequential change through the Blockchain
Asim Janjua, ConsenSys
Published: 4 May 2019 - 9:47 a.m.

Increasingly besieged by wicked challenges such as data governance and privacy, conventional tech companies are fighting to maintain positive public perception and trust.

From the backlash against artificial intelligence to the backstepping in social media, examples abound of those who have failed to exercise leadership time and again. And, dare we say, failed to exercise their own humanity. To quote Charlie Chaplin from The Great Dictator:

"We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost...The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men - cries out for universal brotherhood - for the unity of us all. "

The blockchain challenges legacy mindsets, protocols, institutions and market infrastructure. It also challenges us as humans to abstain from exclusivity for the sake of inclusivity and equality. While the blockchain relies on trust and mutualism of nodes coming together, Facebook and the like productize the individual node so that they are almost always the primary beneficiary. The blockchain fundamentally disrupts this mindset through democratizing data ownership and distributed consensus. On the other hand, Facebook and the like give the appearance of decentralizing power without actually disturbing the economics or mindset of monopoly, extraction and surveillance that give rise to scandals like Cambridge Analytica. As a democratizing technology, therefore, we believe the blockchain deserves an equally large commitment to a more democratizing kind of leadership.

The further exploitation and exacerbation of existing inequalities in society is a consequence of falling for our own technical approaches even while promising to be the great equalizers. For example, in many of the markets that are ripest for blockchain, democracy is actually declining from an already low baseline. And even in democratic societies, most of us spend most of our time at work or in schools run by an authoritarian at best and a dictator at worst. In fact, democracy in most daily settings is typically unexpected and deemed unacceptable. When was the last time you personally voted for or had a say in holding your CEO or boss accountable? It's virtually unthinkable. As we're increasingly seeing, questions about the relationship between technology and consequential, societal change are too important to leave up to an unexamined view of leadership. Technology or technical fixes alone just won't cut it.

More than anything this is a leadership moment. The vast potential of the blockchain does not provide immunity from tackling societal questions proactively and head on. At the deepest levels, we're talking about a change in mindset - a mindset now based on an extractive economy, but that can become one based on mutualism and cooperativism. We're talking about leadership that strives to be pioneering, that has a cadence for all things experiential, a bottom-up approach that balances and intersects with analytical convergent thinking, lateral divergent thinking, critical thinking and creative thinking. In other words leadership that is adaptive, seamlessly connecting and operating from the heart and mind. We're talking about a deep sense of responsibility that includes but is not limited to equality, democracy, accountability and hard-hitting, radical transparency. Leadership that is non-hierarchical and void of entitlement and power.

Unless we purposefully evolve the blockchain ecosystem and embody this kind of leadership and humanity within ourselves and our teams, we will inexorably perpetuate the very systems we seek to remedy. The blockchain's inherent "goodness" or "badness" is a function of the underlying incentives and actors, not the technology. Look again at Facebook. It decentralized the news and fostered a new generation of people calling themselves "journalists". It amplified marginalized voices who had never been part of mainstream. There is no doubt that the public has benefited. However, Facebook has ceased to be a democratizing or decentralizing force in journalism. It has set itself up as a gatekeeper that technology alone cannot undo.

The opportunity before us is to evolve the next generation of tech leadership - with a different sensibility than that which preceded it. The blockchain can solve the technical problems, but those who seek to exercise blockchain leadership need to transform at a human level too. Here are four distinct but mutually reinforcing ways to democratize leadership for the blockchain. This is not a prescriptive or linear progressive list. And we don't need to do all four. Just one would be a good start.

Allocate genuine, dedicated resources to blockchain leadership development (L&D)...and invest for the long-term.

This could range from a series of targeted pilots to a full-fledged department. Beware that most L&D departments tend to replicate the dinosaurs of power, privilege, authority and systems of oppression, rather than systems of freedom and leadership that can sustainably disrupt the status quo. Similar to the blockchain, leadership development - and adaptive leadership in particular - is not the sole provenance of the people at the "top". Everyone from developers to personal assistants can lead - must lead - adaptive change, every day. Leadership development is iterative and cyclical. It's a journey, not a program, that's lifelong or as long as the company exists. Checks and counter checks, coupled with mentorship, and consistent follow-ups are necessary. Leadership development delivered only in response to problems, or after the fact of hiring poorly, waters down the potential for any lasting impact.

Attend to the whole...while practicing radical humanism.

Growing the blockchain ecosystem without exacerbating the very problems we're trying to solve is key. The primary work of leadership is to empower people to move forward boldly while at the same time remaining open to the strong possibility that their solution contains within it the very problem they're trying to solve. Adaptive leadership involves deep shifts in human identity, personal narratives and biases that comprise the "system".  The system is just us after all; the algorithms are just us. This can be difficult to get ahead of due to the rapid organizational growth, but it'll be that much harder at 10-100x. There are scaling and efficiency challenges, yes, but focusing and building on the cadence of an individual or smaller group level is how you build a movement. It's what fosters symbiosis where mutualism is void.

Allow space for deeply conflicting priorities and "truths"... and build trust.

As a record, a source of truth that cannot be changed or modified, the blockchain is a powerful way to show consensus on the truth on technical problems. When it comes to adaptive problems, like eliminating corruption, everyone's truth is valid and partial at best. Have you ever asked a corrupt ministry official if they actually believe that they are corrupt? The answer might surprise you. When it comes to matters of trust, which are core to human interaction, blockchain assumes trust and is, therefore, in a way, trustless. The work of blockchain leadership is, paradoxically, to help people engage in a process to restore repair and uphold trust.  This is a larger and potentially richer space than the one delimited by technical thinking.

Strive in our work experience what we strive for in our product design.

Building on a strong design/UX and product development foundation, how might we think about design on a human and planet level? How might we move away from a conversation about quarterly profits or shareholders needs to human needs, and build ecosystems and platforms that are regenerative and replicable, agile and adaptive? These are important and selfless questions that enable us to get an early start on the bigger opportunity - if only we let go of our egos, and our obsessions with profits and short-term gains.

The blockchain has the potential to disseminate central power (often misperceived as leadership) by changing the relationship between the powerful and the powerless. For all the real benefits that conventional tech companies have brought to us, they're still beholden to an economics of monopoly, extraction and surveillance. Let's dare to both satisfy and transcend these powerful interests for the greater good and acquire the skills needed to self-govern.  To quote Anand Giridharadas in Winners Take All: "To talk like this is to flirt with actual, and not rhetorical, changing of the world."

Eric R. Martin, Founder, Adaptive Change Advisors, is ‘democratizing leadership' worldwide so they can make a difference in their everyday lives via

Asim Janjua is one of many leaders at ConsenSys driving organizational-design, operations, growth, and expansion with an unorthodox and radical human-first approach.

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