By Irving H. Buchen

Aging and disease are routinely paired. The latter typically has dominated medical research. That is understandable: Disease is urgent, marketable, and hopefully treatable. Thus, procedures and medications focused on the disease side of the equation successfully have halted or slowed the three great killers and disablers: heart disease, stroke, and cancer. But recently the question of the cause-and-effect relationship between aging and disease has been raised and a new answer has been forthcoming.

Dr. Aubrey de Grey of Cambridge recently turned around the linkage of age and disease. He argued that aging itself was the villain of the piece, and then went on to identify its seven deadly ways of prematurely doing us in. In other words, the focus on the diseases associated with aging should be altered to the overall disease of aging itself. That shifts attention away from the branches to the root of the problem.

De Grey’s argument is persuasive. Both his starting and end points–cellular health–are not only totally inclusive, but also finally not limited to age. Disease resulting from cell debilitation can occur at any time in the life cycle. In addition, because the process is so basic and recurrent, is it also transferable? Can a case be made for the application of internal to external disabilities–from cells to organizations, from biology to psychology, from dysfunctional cellular direction to misguided leadership? And, in the process, preserve de Grey’s seven diagnostic stages?

The list below describes each deadly sin as a specific medical problem followed by its application to leadership:

1. Too Few Cells
Problem: Certain body systems lose their ability to renew their cells. The result: loss of muscle tone, brain cells and bone.

Application: Many CEOs unknowingly cut themselves off from self-renewal. They hire and promote personnel only from the same colleges and parts of the country or only the United States. Those at the top are routinely male and monochromatic. Most serious of all, training is reassuring not renewing. It affirms but does not disturb the basic culture. The result often is flabby, predictable, and brittle thinking.

2. Too Many Old and Harmful Cells
Problem: Cells no longer divide as they should, refuse to die, and secrete toxic poisons.

Application: The visions and missions of leaders no longer shake and engage. The bibliography of leaders and managers often ends with their graduation dates. Most of their ideas are so tried and tested that they are old and tired. Everyone is on Geritol. Even cutting-edge research and development professionals do not value or read science fiction. And they all obediently sign up for the same old conferences. The grim joke applies–dead at 40 buried at 80.

3. DNA Mutations in the Cell Nucleus
Problem: The control mechanism of the DNA breaks down or malfunctions. The cancer it causes is so endemic and inaccessible that it is extremely difficult to reach or treat.

Application: What constitutes the DNA of an organization? Its brains and smarts? The cortex has been called the CEO. But what does he or she direct and shape? If the characteristic answer is always–or only–leadership at the top, the company may be vulnerable. The correct antidote should be company-wide distributed or shared leadership. That at least multiplies the source and diversity of the DNA. Paradoxically, when the CEO controls less, the slack is taken up by the rank and file; the more dependent the CEO becomes, the more independence his or her new partners acquire. The shift signifies greater total health for all–from top to middle to bottom.

4. Muting of Energy Generators  
Problem: Mitochondria are the body’s energy generators and age to the point where vigor is diminished or lost entirely. Parkinson’s disease may be one of its signs.

Application: Who and what generates a company’s energy? Where are its energy centers?  What is its energy profile? Many leaders and organizations are listless. They just grind and drag along. No highs or lows, just a deadly even pace. They are boring. And their plans and decision-making process are generally timid and tentative. Both their thinking and their hands shake.

5. Clogging Cell Waste
Problem: Many cells lose their ability to break down and dispose of their own waste. Gradually, the waste accumulates and clogs vital systems and degeneration of various kinds occurs.

Application: Many leaders and organizations are not only dead wood, but also dead ideas. They have no systematic mechanism for regularly identifying and cleaning out such waste. They limp along, carrying excess weight and baggage that they should routinely and regularly be rid of. In short, if no one in the organization is in charge of regular intellectual trash disposal, it will gradually accumulate and choke off function.

6. Between Cells Waste
Problem: The waste between cells gathers and forms globs of gunk impairing brain and liver problems.

Application: Often the productivity problems within divisions are nothing compared to those between them. Carry-over or shared tasks frequently fall between the proverbial cracks. Managers are not so much in charge of as locked into their divisions. Their results are always inward facing and solely divisional. But who is charged with overall divisional connectivity? Who attacks and forces fragmentation to yield interdivisional gains? Who clears and cleans the passages between cells and divisions? The CEO–the buck stops there.

7. Proteins Sticking Together
Problem: Structural molecules cling excessively together and clog and harden arteries.

Application:  Leaders are responsible for defining and creating company culture. Certain structures and ideas bind and cluster. If they gain majority, thinking alike becomes the reassuring norm. There is no disagreement or friction. Everyone becomes a ball bearing. The argument of aging, however, is that no single aggregate or binder promotes healthy diversity. All needs to be free flowing, changing, and constantly circulating. Clogging is what obstructs company change and reengineering. The CEO is the unclogger.

In summary, what are the benefits of examining the causes of leadership and organizational aging? There are at least seven reflecting the organizational versions of the seven deadly sins:

Diagnostic Profile and Checklist of Organizational Aging                                              

  • To what extent are we a self-renewing company?
  • Are we coasting on past health and capacity?
  • What constitutes our DNA, and how well does it direct and manage?
  • What is the company’s energy level?
  • Are there dead wood and ideas?
  • What is the traffic between divisions?
  • What is the capacity to clean house and get rid of cumulative waste?

Converted into surveys and distributed internally to employees and externally to customers, the checklist may generate a profile of the degree to which the entire company is a senior citizen and a number of its parts should be retired. But whatever is portrayed, the process serves not only as a wake-up call but also identifies corrective action. As such, it can generate both the immediate and long-term future agenda of the organization and, perhaps, not just protect but also extend its longevity.

BuchenIrving120About the Author
Irving H. Buchen, PhD, secured his doctorate from Johns Hopkins; taught at Cal State, Wisconsin, and Penn State; served as a consultant and executive coach; and published over 150 articles and 10 books.