It is hard enough coping with the current demands of leadership so why worry about tomorrow? At first glance this seems like a reasonable question and may well get several heads nodding in agreementâ€Œincluding yours.
The notion that todayâ€™s leaders are under greater pressure than ever before is one that carries some weight of evidence. The blinding pace of change across many fronts â€? be that social, economic or political; the complexity of globalization, and the continuous technology revolution to name just three of the convergent forces that impact upon contemporary leadership. Leaders from Moscow to Washington, from Beijing to Beirut or Johannesburg, cannot ignore the inter-cultural currents in which they swim. Currents that can change without warning and which threaten even the strongest, most seasoned swimmers.
Of course the study of leadership is not new. Countless theories abound regarding just how â€˜to be a leaderâ€™. Most of which are enticingly wrapped in â€˜seven easy stepsâ€™ or â€˜five essentialsâ€™ that promise quick-fix answers to what it is to be a leader. Such publications are consumed with relish yet appear to have had little impact as we hurtle into a century that guarantees nothing but change, uncertainty and the promise that yesterdayâ€™s success will count for little in tomorrowâ€™s world. Few would argue that our old paradigms need to change, that yesterdayâ€™s answers will not provide the way forward, and that the trustworthy maps and familiar territories of the past have little use for the territories that beckon. The need to rewrite our maps and create new reference points is as essential as it is urgent.
What then of these new constructs that require our attention?
Firstly, there is the need to recognize that the nature of organizations has and is changing. Yesterdayâ€™s world of big business had the DNA of set structures, predictable environments and one in which â€˜thingsâ€™ could be measured, controlled and managed. Or at least that was the intention. Change was often greeted with denial: the kind of denial that was disguised by simply working harder, redoubling efforts and producing more of the same. A â€˜one size fits allâ€™ mentality towards leadership and managing people predominated. In fact for many years the prevailing maxim of management stated: â€˜Management is getting work done through others.â€™ Experience counted more than ability and respect was guarded in role, title and position. Status symbols and entitlement were the benchmark of seniority. Decisions and responsibility was easily deferred, innovation and creativity lost in a belief that the current formulae worked best. And so the often quoted adages, â€˜why change a winning team?â€™ and, â€˜donâ€™t fix it if it isnâ€™t brokenâ€™ were unchallenged mantras that made perfect sense. Not forgetting the unbroken succession of organizational fads, each promising greater effectiveness and most of which failed to deliver.
Several forces came together during the last decade of the previous century that was to forever change the way in which we do business. The massive downsizing of the early 1990â€™s created a surplus of capable, resourced people who had little option but to embark upon new careers of entrepreneurship. This trend was further aided by the emergence and availability of technology and software that created â€˜virtual officesâ€™ from the comfort of oneâ€™s own home. In a sense anything and everything became possible. The power of the network, speed of delivery, customized service and unbounded resourcefulness enabled these new entrepreneurs to not only succeed but to make inroads into the previously unchallenged monoliths of big business.
The fundamental DNA of organizations has had to change. Today survival and success are dependent upon speed of response, relationship, an understanding of the core of what drives the business, adaptability and innovation. Developing this DNA is not easy, painless nor instantaneous. But then neither is developing this DNA optional!
If the very nature of the organization is changing, what then of leadership?
It is obvious that the kind of leadership that worked in the old style organization will not be sufficient in the new, emerging organization. No longer does â€˜leadership by decreeâ€™ carry the day. Gone is the automatic respect that came with title and rank. Obsolete is the dichotomy that â€˜leaders thinkâ€™ and â€˜workers workâ€™. In the world of tomorrow, where power is nodal and the network vital, leadership needs to reorganize and recreate itself in such a way that it recognizes the new environment in which it serves. This change is fuelled in part by the new breed of workers that are emerging. Generational Theory teaches that there are some major value differences that underpin the respective generations. It is these differences that lead to real conflict within current structures as the different generations fail to understand each otherâ€™s motivation, attitudes and behaviour. As greater numbers of younger people (Generation X and Generation Y), enter the work environment, so greater diversity is inevitable. Failure on the part of leaders to understand and manage this diversity renders them helpless to its inevitable results â€? unhealthy conflict.
New descriptors and analogies that depict the role and function of leaders are needed. Wheatley in her book Leadership and the New Science lists some of the new metaphors for leaders as: gardeners, midwives, stewards, servants, missionaries, facilitators and conveners. Certainly understanding leaders as, â€˜storytellersâ€™ is not out of place in this new terrain. Storytellers will hold organizations of the future together: they will be the ones who weave the magic and invoke meaning and purpose.
Just how will they do this?
In part by asking significant questions â€? questions such as, â€˜what called you here? What were you dreaming you might accomplish when you first came to work here? They will share information; create space, nurture evolution throughout the organisation and facilitate networking. They will understand the importance of synthesis rather than simple analysis, of recognizing patterns â€? trying to stay curious rather than certain. They will embrace diversity and relish the challenges of exploration and invention. They will readily acknowledge and recognize their own peculiar lens through which they interpret the world around them and then strive to add to that framework where it limits, reduces or impinges on a wider vision. In short they will be â€˜learnersâ€™ rather than experts.
It is clearer than ever before that the character of leadership matters. Character is not something that â€˜happensâ€™ overnight, nor something that is acquired by attending a seminar or reading a book! Unfortunately, it would also seem that character is shaped primarily through adversity â€? by staying true to oneâ€™s sense of purpose and values when it would be easier, or even prudent, to abandon them.
Leadership into the future will be about relationship. Understanding this will require that leaders change what they pay attention to within their organization. Their agenda will shift from being one that focused on forms, structures, tasks and controls, to one where there is a fundamental focus on the things that determine and drive relationships. The â€˜newâ€™ questions will be ones such as: Do people here know how to listen and speak to each other? Do we respect and embrace diversity? Do we live out our organizational values and purpose? What does trust look like amongst us? Can people speak truthfully? Is innovation and collaboration honoured? Do people have access to one another and to information throughout the organization? In what ways are we learning from one another, the system, and the network?
This is a tough transition. Moving from a predictable world to a process world is not easy or even natural. It requires the kind of leader who understands this transition as one which Kellner-Rogers describes as, â€šI start anywhere and follow it everywhereâ€›. It is what Wheatley describes as relinquishing the role of â€˜master creatorâ€™ and moving into the â€˜dance of lifeâ€™.
Already I can sense some of you shifting uneasily in your leather-backed swivel chair. But let me remind you of a responsibility leaders share, something you already know: Leaders are obligated to help the whole organization look at itself, to be reflective and truthful about its activities and decisions.
Never before has it been more imperative that you exercise this key responsibility!