One of the biggest challenges Leaders face is an understanding that the wisdom and leadership practice that has brought us to this point, is unlikely to get us to where it is we need to be in the future. The point is, that in a world of change, leadership needs to change. Of course we know full well that the world has changed meaning that changes to how we think and practice leadership are inevitable.
Leadership is always contextual. This is why leaders need to pay careful attention to any contextual changes in both their specific environment as well as that of the broader environment or context. There are a number of complex and interwoven factors that drive the change including demographic shifts, generational shifts, political issues, economic factors, environmental issues, institutional changes and so on. All of these impact on society in general and the work environment specifically. Work is changing and so it is in this context that leaders need to lead. In this ‘new world of work’ I want to focus on just two areas that directly impact on leadership: generational shifts and technology changes. The two are not unrelated and leaders ignore them at their peril.
The new world of work is underpinned by a change in the balance or composition of the workforce. As Boomers exit and Gen Y make their entrance, there will be significant changes to organizational culture and therefore what constitutes effective leadership. Gen Y will look for, anticipate and need different things when it come to work and the workplace. A common mistake made by Boomers is to assume that the next generations (X and Y) will see the world as they see it. Boomers too readily assume that their take on the why and how to the workplace will be transferred to the following generations who will then lead and manage in the same way as the current template. This will not be the case. The reality is that Gen X and Gen Y have grown up in a ‘different world’ to that of their Boomer parents and bosses. As hard as this is for Boomers to ‘see’ or understand, an easy persuasion is simply to ask Boomers if they see or understand the world of their own parents. It is on this realisation (and the point being made) that I have then often witnessed the first signs of the ‘mist clearing’ as Boomers understand that things move on, change and are indeed not the same.
Leading Gen Y in the new world of work will require an understanding that they are incentivised by freedom, fun and flexibility in the work environment. They believe they can and they want to make a difference, work for a cause and contribute to something bigger than themselves. They are not content to give mere lip service to environmental issues – the green issue is important to them and they won’t tolerate corporate ignorance or neglect on this topic. This is also a generation that has been described as the ‘Me-We’ generation: Individualistic yet very connected.
It is the connection that brings me to my second point: that of technology. Social technology has changed the leadership landscape and agenda. The conversations have shifted and the issue is no longer one of control but rather one of influence. I still deal with leaders who believe they can control the conversation. The reality is you cannot. Instead of bulking at the impact of social technologies on the workplace, smart leaders understand how this can now be used to further relationship, conversation, information, innovation and collaboration. Sure there are challenges (some technical and some behavioural) but essentially the rules of the game have changed. Trying to reinforce the old rules is like trying to keep back in the incoming tide with a bucket. It is futile. This ought to invigorate and energize those in leadership. There is an exciting and inviting learning journey that beckons those leaders who understand that leadership needs to always embrace learning and curiosity. Leaders need to find themselves coaches who can coach them in social technology and more importantly, how the dots connect in this often confusing new world. There will be no stopping Boomers who ‘get it’ and then apply this new learning into the environment in which they lead.
So, what would be some key summary points?
• If the world has changed; so too must leadership. The world has changed. Conventional wisdom and methodologies simply are no match for the challenges posed by the future.
• Different generations see the world differently. These perspectives and worldviews will directly impact on the workplace. In part the changes will therefore be driven by generational demographic shifts.
• The onset of social technologies has changed the rules of the game. This will pose significant leadership challenges only to those leaders who are not willing to learn and adapt.
Some key questions that leaders need to be asking:
• What am I learning?
• What am I willing to unlearn and relearn?
• What is the average age of those I lead / my workplace?
• What will be the consequences of not adapting / learning?
Leading in the new world of work will be exciting. Success will be marked by ‘making progress’ on the adaptive challenges being faced. Of course the reality is that there is no alternative – leaders have to embrace the future and all that this means. It will impact on every aspect of organizational life including that of strategy and organizational culture.
Will it be tough? Absolutely… but then who said leadership was easy?