What will be the next great shift in leadership? What will represent the next Rubicon for those in leadership? What will leadership 21C require?

These are questions that would be easy to ignore especially if we find ourselves thriving in our current context. But we ignore such questions at our peril. For not to ask them, is to risk transitioning into the new economy clutching old methodology. It will be like using outdated roadmaps whilst trying to navigate a new and challenging context. In effect it will be ‘leading from memory’ – as one CEO I was chatting too succinctly put it. In an age like ours where constant change is often our only certainty, leading from memory will prove fatal. However, in order to anticipate exactly what is the shift that leaders will be required to undergo, we first we need to understand something of this ‘new economy’. And here, looking back will help us in looking forward â€? a genuine ‘back to the future’ scenario if ever there was one!
History has been marked by four major epochs or economies. The transition triggers or key drivers of the change between each of these four periods have been based on technological breakthroughs. Technologies that have ushered in the new and by doing so have forever changed how we live, lead and do business. To illustrate this point, think of the impact of technological innovations in the area of ‘communication’ and the resulting impact of these advances in creating the transition from one epoch or era to the next.
The communication ‘bloodline’, originally rooted in oral tradition, was significantly impacted by the discovery of writing, only to be followed by the advent of the printing press. Then came the personal computer and most recently the arrival of the internet. At the juncture of each of these transforming technologies leadership was impacted and irreversibly changed. In much the same way, today’s transition into the emerging economy will unequivocally impact our contemporary understanding and practice of leadership.
The earliest era has been called the ‘Hunter-Gatherer’ economy. In this economy leadership was male and gravitated around those who were fitter (survival of the fittest), stronger, faster � in short, the best hunters. However as this nomadic epoch gave way to an economy that was based on land ownership, the ‘Agricultural’ economy, no longer was it necessary to only rely on physical attributes in order to lead. Leadership, still a male domain, went to those who owned the land. It became a class issue and the right to lead was, for the most part, locked into title, peerage and privilege. The emergence of the Industrial Age in the mid-eighteenth century in the UK would forever change both the context and content of work, leaving an indelible imprint on our understanding of leadership.
This era saw the emergence of the factory, the organization, with its hierarchical structure and the obvious dichotomy of labour (‘blue collar’) and management / leadership (‘white collar’). Both the function and nature of leadership remained distinctively male in character . Fuelled by the Newtonian science of the day the prevailing worldview was that the world was like a large machine that could best be understood through analysis, dissection and rationale.
The work place reflected this thinking as individuals were viewed as cogs in a machine, cogs that were dispensable and replaceable. It was in this context that the Quaker engineer, Fredrick Taylor, developed the concepts and tools that gave rise to the understanding of management as a science. His revolutionary book Principle of Scientific Management (published in 1911) laid the foundation for the decades that were to follow and had a significant influence in the development of Japanese production techniques of the 1970’s as well as the re-engineering fad that dominated American business in the mid-1990’s. Women continued to be excluded from leadership which was centred on education and privilege. It was autocratic, rigid and controlling in its expression. It is a legacy that persists to this day.
Next to arrive was the shift into what we commonly refer to as the ‘Information Age’ or by another name, the ‘knowledge economy’. Together with other convergent forces at work, the arrival of the personal computer and later the cell / mobile phone would both prove to be major ‘disruptors’ to how business was done and leadership exercised. Almost overnight several functions and methodologies were rendered obsolete. The first cracks in the male leadership mantle began to appear as any individual with access to education and opportunity could now lead and usually did. In a mirror image of what transpired with the advent of the printing press, a broader mass now had access to knowledge and information in an unprecedented manner. And so, the Chinese government attempts to limit the news of the outbreak of the deadly SARS virus in that country, was thwarted by their failure to reckon with some two billion cell phone users in China. Information that previously had been privy to the boardroom was now freely available to those both within and outside of the company’s four walls. And even those ‘four walls’ were under siege, being dismantled by virtual offices, mobile offices and the ability to clinch a deal in Asia while sunning on the beaches of the Caribbean or from the middle of the Atlantic.
Information technology provided the competitive differential at the onset of this information age. Those with the better information infrastructure were able to respond quicker and with greater accuracy to the turbulent global economy. However, the gap didn’t last long and in fact, those who were initially slow to set-up efficient IT systems were able to harness the better technology on offer, often at cheaper prices and learn from the mistakes made by their competitors. In essence the playing fields are even, or can be so in the blink of an eye. An example is the recent intrusion of a hacker to a major South African financial institution, ABSA which made sensational headlines and spead ripples of fear amongst tentative ‘ebanking’ clients. Before ABSA could respond, a major competitor, Standard Bank, had emailed their entire client base offering assurances and a downloaded patch that would prevent the problem from occurring in their fold. Impressive!
And so, if we find ourselves somewhere between the relics of the industrial age and the current information economy, what can we anticipate will follow?
The signs are that the next economy will be what some refer to as the ‘emotion’ or ‘relation’ economy. This will be where the competitive differential will be determined by the quality of relationship both within and outside of the business. Friendly, smiling PR fronts will no longer suffice and will need to be replaced by an authentic, quality relationship emanating from deep within the business and that spills over in the dealings with clients, customers, suppliers and in fact the entire network.
This reality will demand a very different type of leadership to the old ‘command and control’ to which we have become accustomed, not only business but throughout educational institutions as well.The next big challenge of leadership will be that of control. Learning to relinquish control that is!
There are some clear and obvious factors for asserting this:
1. We live in a connected, networked world. Disregard for others will come back to haunt one and the science of the day (quantum physics) teaches us that in this environment relationships are key. That is the new reality. The new skills on which leaders will need will centre will be those which allow them to foster, nurture, grow and develop relationships. Attention will shift from focus on the organization’s form as it relates to its tasks, to its capacity for healthy relationships. For years the accepted definition of management was, ‘getting the work done through others’ where the emphasis was on the ‘work’. Now, using the same definition as a marker, the emphasis will shift to the ‘others’. ‚No leader can hope to lead by standing outside or ignoring the web of relationships through which all work is accomplished‛ writes Margaret Wheatley in Leadership and the New Science (p165). For the controlling leader, leading in this direction will simply not be possible.
2.There is a new generation in the workforce. Commonly referred to as ‘Generation X’ this segment of the population don’t resemble the preceding generation (the Baby Boomers) at all. Living off a different value base they have a fundamentally different approach to teamwork, relationships, work, communication, information, training and just about every aspect of the work environment that you care to mention. This has already caused a great deal of anxiety for their Boomer bosses who need to attract, retain and lead these ‘bright young things’. Leading from memory on this front is a sure receipt for disaster and by doing so, failure is guaranteed. On top of this is the next generation (Generation Y or Echo Boomers as some refer to them). Leaders will have to work at understanding these different generations in order to mould a suitable and appropriate leadership where it is no longer merely style that counts, but character.
3. The old paradigms that shaped the context and content of work are changing and in many cases, have changed. Several convergent forces, including technology, globalisation, the massive downsizing of the 1990’s as well as trans-Atlantic mergers and the well documented crisis in the moral character of several prominent large corporates have all served to created a gap for new business models and ventures. Leadership in fragmented, merged and diverse organizations can no longer be done in the manner it was in the past. New ways have to be found for the new context.
4.Innovation will become a key to survival. Every company will need to ensure that innovation is part of its very DNA. In the past there have been some grave misconceptions that have distorted our understanding of innovation. For instance, that to innovate what was required was ‘radical innovation’ or, that innovation came from the ‘top’ of the organization. Both are false and damaging assumptions. Authentic innovation is incremental and the role of ‘the top’ � of leadership, is to create the environment in which the culture of innovation can breathe and flourish. Innovation demands embracing diversity and diversity requires, ‘democratic’ leadership. I don’t like the term ‘democratic’ as it comes laden with baggage, however, right now I have no suitable alternative. What is certain though is that controlling leadership will act as nerve gas to innovation and prove to be fatally toxic. To engender innovation in order to survive and thrive in today’s emerging tomorrow, control will need to give way to a new type of leadership. Perhaps that modelled by Richardo Semler, the Brazilian Business leader who transformed Semco, is a note worthy example in this regard. I have no doubt that had Semler been the CEO of one of the Fortune 500 companies his name would be on every business leaders lips and his star would be shinning even brighter than it is, but that is another issue altogether.
Leadership in this fast emerging economy will require new mindsets and different tools. Some of the things that leaders in this context will need to understand / consider include:
“ Recognising these shifts and not leading in denial or avoiding them.
“ Recognising that mistakes will be made and some things will be missed (just ask the IBM CEO of 1947 who predicted a worldwide need of four computers � for the US, British and Russian governments and Ford Motor Company‌or the 1985 comment from IBM that there would only be a worldwide demand for about 40 000 personal computers. Who said lightening couldn’t strike in the same place twice!). Leading to avoid mistakes will not work; recognising them and learning from them will be the dexterity leaders need.
“ Embracing diversity and ambiguity at the expense of predictability and certainty. These characteristics have to be confronted internally before they can be mastered externally.
“ Recognising that effective leaders are world-class learners. Being a learner goes against the grain of much of contemporary leadership mindsets and behaviour. That will need to change.
“ Understanding that the character of leadership is more important than the image, skills and posturing that seems to preoccupy so much of today’s leadership. This ‘inner landscaping’ that will be a necessity will require deliberate work, effort and is a never-ending process.
“ New measurements (such as the return on relationship) will be needed. And some of what is most important may prove to be immeasurable.
The migration from ‘Controller’ to ‘Collaborator’ will not be easy. In fact it will be beyond the capability of many, maybe even most. But without this transitional journey leaders will not survive the new frontiers of the 21st Century. Of that I am certain.

TomorrowToday Global