The occasion was the launch of a senior leadership development Programme with an International blue chip company. The CEO made the customary welcoming speech at the opening evening in which he made the attention grabbing statement: “Tomorrow’s leaders will have to be better that today’s leaders”. All at once it provided both the incentive and permission for the participants to reach beyond the current benchmark and explore a new kind of leadership for a new kind of world. It was a bold statement that opened up a world of possibility. I also wondered just if the CEO fully understood the potential ramifications of what he had said?
But he was right. Tomorrow’s leaders have to be better than today’s leaders. They will be required to lead in a world that is interconnected at multiple levels: economic, social, cultural and political. It is a world of paradox and complexity. The old mindsets and skillets simply won’t be adequate when faced with these challenges.
The challenge then is how best to prepare tomorrow’s leaders today? The other question of course is how best to prepare today’s leaders for tomorrow? I think there are some obvious first steps but after that, it becomes your journey to navigate and explore.
Step 1: Be willing to challenge your current models. Abe Lincoln in addressing the US Congress in the December of 1862 said that the ‘dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present’ and that future success would require us to ‘disenthrall’ ourselves from our past. What a wonderfully rich word that…’disenthrall’! Without doubt this is where the major challenge rests for current leaders. In his book, Futureshock, Toffler wrote about the need to not only learn and relearn but more importantly, ‘unlearn’. The point is that we need to be willing to let go the past models and formulae that we hold with affection. It is easier said then done! Without the willingness to challenge our assumptions, paradigms and models we cannot make progress to new learning and ultimately a position of relevance in a new world.
In preparing a new generation of leaders they need to know that doing such work – challenging what has gone before, is permissible. All too often it isn’t!
Step 2: Be willing to fail. No progress or innovation can happen without an inbuilt readiness to fail. In the challenge to adapt to the uncertain and unpredictable future, failure will be a familiar part of the terrain. The willingness to experience and try new things whilst guarding against stupidity in the process will be essential. This sounds obvious and is certainly something that occupies a great deal of text. Yet, in my experience, the words (or text) seldom match the behaviour. For example, in my field of leadership development or education, the lack of innovation and willingness to experiment is all too apparent. Things are done ‘by the book’ with an emphasis placed on ensuing the least discomfort or disruption to the learners (be they executives or otherwise). The result? A sterile, predictable and often meaningless learning experience. Behavioral Scientist, B. F. Skinner wrote, ‘education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten’. In much of our current leadership development we have learning rather than education and programmes rather than processes.
Step 3: Frameworks will more helpful than answers. Preparing leaders to lead tomorrow will require the development of frameworks they can draw on when faced with the dilemmas and paradoxes they will encounter. In this world strategic thinking will out weigh strategic planning. We have become very dependent on planning methodologies, drawing comfort, a sense of security and control from such plans. However, in a world and context of exponential change and uncertainty, planning is of limited value. Of course I am not suggesting that there is no place for strategic planning – what I am suggesting is that it won’t enjoy the prominence it has had to date. Dan Pink makes the point that ‘management ‘isn’t a tree, it is more like a TV’ – in other words, it is something we invented and as such, is something that won’t work forever.
Leading tomorrow will require leaders to have access to frameworks that can help them make sense of the complexity and paradox that is the 21st Century.
Step 3: The future of learning is connected. Grasping this new reality and the collaborative response this demands will require a reboot for many. It will require a mind shift and again, this is easier said than done! This will be especially so for those in education – be that at a school, tertiary or corporate level. Information is readily available and is user generated. It flows seamlessly and all this implies a fundamental shift in our understanding, dissemination and utilization of information. What we refer to as ‘social business’ will be the norm and this poses a massive adjustment in both mindset and behaviour for current leaders. Tomorrow’s leaders will have no such adjustment but their challenge will be one of filters, influence and the ‘new’ implications that will doubtlessly emerge as our way of connecting changes.
Yes, tomorrow’s leaders will have to be better than today’s leaders. I think every leadership development initiative should start from this premise and be given this mandate. If they did, I suspect that what we do under the banner of ‘leadership development’ might well change!