We know that the world we live in now is not just experiencing an increasing speed of change; it’s clear that change itself has changed. It’s now disruptive, exponential and turbulent, in every area of society from politics to economics, from our families to religions – uncertainty and flux seem to be everywhere. And this is going to last for the foreseeable future. Leaders are not normally very good with uncertainty – in fact many leaders think their main job is to bring stability and certainty to their environment. This is outdated thinking.
One of the challenges facing leaders today is to silence the shrill cacophony of voices demanding certainty. Helping those you lead understand the reality of uncertainty – both the dangers and opportunities, and what is required to survive and thrive in such a context – is an important leadership challenge.
The key question is whether leaders are able to adjust their leadership style to take account of this.
Our team at TomorrowToday often describes the successful leader of the future as the one who will ‘know what to do when they don’t know what to do’. What we mean by this is that there is a mindset and skillset that goes with leading in uncertainty, and a sense of confidence that an adaptive leader can have when facing adaptive challenges. This confidence comes from knowing that you are have the correct approach when dealing with situations you’ve never faced before, and that you’re personally capable of handling uncertainty and disruptive change.
“Adaptive challenges” refer to situations that you might face that cannot be engaged with reference to your past experiences, or the current knowledge or skillset of your team. In times gone by, we hardly ever faced adaptive challenges – or, at least, we had time to develop the new skills and approaches required to deal with these challenges. We don’t have that luxury anymore. The danger is that we fail to recognise the adaptive nature of the challenge, and therefore approach it on the basis of experience, old solutions, outdated thinking or incorrect assumptions, analysis and action. This can be damaging.
There are not many leadership development programmes that focus on developing leaders to respond correctly to adaptive situations. Most leadership programmes are packed full of content, leave little time for genuine reflection and are almost always so tightly programmed that uncertainty is completely removed from the system. In other words, most leadership programmes are completely unlike the world they’re supposed to be preparing leaders for. And so we have leaders who are completely unprepared for the world they find themselves in.
We must not underestimate the distance between our existing models of leadership and what the new world of work requires from our leaders at the moment.
We see the evidence of this mismatch in a variety of ways.
Innovation doesn’t happen by decree
Probably the most significant way in which mismatched leadership is visible is in the general lack of innovation we find in our organisations at the moment. We are sure that your organisation has added ‘innovation’ to your strategy – or even your statement of core values – in recent years. And we’re equally sure that as CEO you are frustrated at the lack of innovation coming from your team. This is indicative of an organisation that is stuck between two worlds. You know the digital era is being birthed all around you, and can see disruptive and exponential change everywhere you look – except inside your own organisation. You’ve settled for very modest growth targets in order to make yourselves feel better about this (“we hit our target again this year” feels comforting, even when the target was a mere 4% growth).
And that’s because you and your executive team are not prepared to unleash uncertainty in your business.
What would happen if you tried a few things where the outcome was not clear, where you didn’t know how it might be done or you let your team step outside of the safe boundaries of the benchmarks, industry standards and operating norms you’ve become used to? What would happen if you aimed at the extraordinary, instead of the merely achievable?
What you measure determines what you see
The measurements you use are also part of your problem. I am sure you remember that video from a few years ago where two basketball teams bounce a ball around and you’re asked to count how many times the ball is passed between the players. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading now (spoiler alert) and quickly watch the video at http://bit.ly/basketballcount
Nearly 80% of people failed to notice the gorilla that walks through the middle of the players during the video. It’s become a classic example of misdirection, and there are thousands more like it.
The message is powerful: if you’re focused on one thing, you easily miss everything else. In business, our focus is held by those things we choose to measure, and it is very easy to miss everything else. What are you and your teams missing because of what you are measuring? This is an important leadership question.
Learning to handle uncertainty
If we are going to develop our ability to handle uncertainty, we have to put ourselves in a place where we experience uncertainty and learn how we will react and respond. Leadership has often been taught using simulations, and these are superb tools for helping leaders become future-fit now. At TomorrowToday, we have developed a variety of adaptive challenges that simulate the real-life experiences of uncertainty. We put leaders in uncomfortable situations, allowing them to experience in a pressure cooker type environment what it feels like to not know what needs to be done. We later help them to debrief these experiences and take significant learnings away, about themselves, their colleagues and teams and their organisations.
One of our favourite adaptive challenges is called the Silence Class. Adopted and adapted from the Adaptive Leadership model, the silence class begins by engaging participants in a discussion around how leadership is taught and learnt, with an agreement being reached that there is a joint responsibility between teacher and participant to make this happen. At that point, the TomorrowToday presenter becomes completely silent (while still being engaged with the class) for an extended period of time – something that has lasted for up to four hours! Imagine you are on a leadership development programme and this scenario confronts you. How would you respond? Where would you think the learning is coming from? How do you think your team would respond?
We’ve had every type of response you can imagine, from threats of physical violence to walkouts. But we’ve also been told that this is the most powerful leadership learning that people have ever experienced. After the extended period of silence, where the group has had to experience ‘now knowing what to do next’ a few times, we debrief the experience fully. This makes it more than a ‘team building game’ – the lesson is in the debrief and the learning that comes from it.
Read more about our silence class here: http://bit.ly/silenceclass
This is just one of many examples of adaptive challenges we use to help leaders learn to ‘know what to do when they don’t know what to do’.
When we ask senior leaders, “how do you learn?” we are often surprised at the answer. Many CEOs and Executives think that this question relates to their company, and direct us to the HR department. Some give us a list of the training courses their company offers. But we genuinely mean, how do YOU learn? When the question is properly understood, we are often met with mumbled answers, because most senior leaders do not engage in formal learning and development anymore.
This is not good for them as leaders. It is even worse for their companies and teams.
Being Part of LDPs
Our team does a lot of work on Leadership Development Programmes (LDPs), either ones we run ourselves or as faculty members of LDPs run by business schools. Our team can only remember two occasions in the past 15 years when a CEO attended a full LDP as a participant. Very often, the CEO or some other senior leader will drop into an LDP for a session to ‘share the vision’. Sometimes they’ll stay for a few hours to answer questions in an extended Q&A session, and maybe stay on for some drinks (when this happens, the CEOs session is often scheduled for the mid to late afternoon).
Even worse, we are often asked by participants on LDPs whether their bosses are going to hear the content we present. The answer is almost always, “No”. So much effort and energy put into the programme to develop senior and mid-level managers goes to waste when the senior leaders in the organisation are disengaged from the learning. And the very worst is when we hear feedback from participants that their bosses did not even bother to ask them what they’d learnt on an LDP or to share their insights. In fact, for some LDP participants, the only feedback they get is a grumpy boss who didn’t like them being away from the office for a few days.
The message that all this sends to leaders in the business is really bad. If these things happen in your organisation, it will be clear to everyone that leadership development is not valued by the senior leaders. This is not just about learning – it turns very quickly into an arrogance and a closed mindset. This kills questioning, creativity and ultimately innovation. The great management guru, Peter Senge, is absolutely right: the best organisation for the 21st century is a learning organisation. And that requires learning leaders – particularly senior leaders.
What your actions are saying
Another way to make the point is to think about mentoring and reverse mentoring. You probably ask our mid-level leaders to be involved in both of these activities (at least, I hope you do, and especially that you have a formal process of reverse mentoring in your organisation – it has been proven to be one of the most effective leadership and talent development processes available), but many companies don’t expect their c-suite leaders to do it. Is this true in your organisation?
If the CEO’s implicit (or even explicit) statement is: senior leaders are too busy to be involved in leadership development, mentoring or reverse mentoring, then the attitude of ambitious mid-level leaders will be that these are activities that should be dropped from my schedule as soon as possible. Leadership development should go all the way to the top, and should involve all leaders at all levels of the organisation.
Every LDP should have a senior leadership representative integrally involved in it. C-suite leaders should actively seek feedback from LDP cohorts. Senior leaders should actively be involved in mentor and reverse mentor relationships. CEOs should be actively, openly and proudly attending development programmes, both inside and outside their organisation.
If your LDPs are not good enough for your senior leaders, then, frankly, they’re not good enough. And if your leaders think they’re too good for LDPs, then, frankly, you have a bigger problem than you imagine.
Leading into the future, adaptive challenges will become more frequent and pronounced. How good are you at handling uncertainty? How do you even know? Are you actively and consciously working on improving this area of your leadership? Are you formally and systematically learning the skills to handle them? Your future genuinely depends on the answers to these questions.