Taking an ‘if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it’ approach to leadership development undoubtedly constitutes a business risk in a period of such rapid change; and while the competition forges ahead, and new forms of competitor emerge, new approaches are undoubtedly needed. Many companies are recognising the need to grow leaders based on the changing roles played by customers and employees, and whilst no one person in an organisation should feel the challenge and responsibility of leadership is theirs and theirs alone, it’s important you have the right individuals and the right capabilities in place to drive business success.

Over the past six months we’ve been conducting some interview-based research, asking those responsible for making decisions about the direction of travel for their business just what issues and challenges they are facing and how they’re managing those challenges. 

We took our findings to the Change Associates leadership event on 20 September in London where we welcomed over 50 guests, associates and an expert panel. The event, A New Kind of Leader, was an opportunity to gather a wider range of inputs for the research before releasing the full report later this year.

To date we’ve had eight key themes emerge on the drivers for a new kind of leadership, covering environmental, generational and organisational challenges.

Here’s a summary of our findings:

Theme 1 – Customers and Employees now share the driving seat.

This means leaders need to connect in a way that builds engagement, connection and a sense of joint endeavour. The satisfaction of customers and employees can spread more rapidly and globally than ever before, resulting in the need for purpose and shared values to sit squarely in the middle of the the organisation with relationships cultivated around these goals which, by the way, must be authentic or you risk losing trust and loyalty from your customers and employees alike.

Theme 2:  Leading change is more than vision and strategy.

A successful past doesn’t guarantee a successful future. Vision sets direction but it doesn’t guarantee the results here and now. What we find through talking to our business leaders is that a common challenge is to set the scene for change and create the necessary alignment to enable change and bau to happen concurrently. Charles Handy calls this the Second Curve in leadership – essentially laeders must recognise that their role cannot be one of either/or in the face of such dichotomies; their role must embrace both.

Theme 3: It’s all about alignment, not hierarchy.

Leadership is not one single person’s responsibility. It’s a liberating thought that remarkably few leaders perform all leadership tasks well, as research by Pendleton and Furnham demonstrates. This is why, with some high-profile exceptions, we argue that the idea of the Hero Leader is past its sell by date. Figurehead leaders need leadership teams around them who complement their skills and bring different perspectives. Trying to employ clones of the leader is, at best, an unnecessary cost and at worst highly damaging.

Theme 4: No single leader can be exceptional at every leadership task.

A key leadership skill, therefore, is to be in the centre of the organisation orchestrating the bigger picture – pulling in or buying in what is required at any given time. Leadership must be regarded a team sport and we must consider leaders as individuals as well as part of the leadership team.

Theme 5: Organisational super-tankers are just too big to change direction.

Characteristics that once maintained the dominance of the corporate behemoths (established infrastructure, tried and tested processes) can become encumbrances that hold the organisation back and stifle innovation. This leads the way clear for smaller start-ups to take market share, with small nibbles at first but soon tearing large chunks out of the established order. Leaders need to accept that failure must be a possible acceptable outcome.

Matthew Syed writes about learning from mistakes in his book, ‘Black Box Thinking’. Professions in medicine, social care and business can learn from the airline industry practice of interrogating incidents for lessons to be learned, without assuming the most senior person in the room always knows best. 

Theme 6: Companies are disappointed in their people and people are frustrated in their jobs.

We have more choice than ever before as employees and as customers. And a global survey of 33k people showed the credibility of CEOs is at an all-time low. So leaders, whilst needing to become comfortable with this uncertainty and unpredictability, need to think about how they can change the environment and values of their organisations rather than trying to change the people. And this is closely linked to something very human – trust.

Theme 7: Authenticity – is it all just a fake?

Authenticity, shown through purpose, values and motives, but equally vulnerability, is absolutely essential. Authentic leaders are regarded as trustworthy, genuine and consistent. They practise what they preach, have the confidence to reveal their true selves and admit when they are wrong. Strong leaders see every situation as a trust building opportunity.

Theme 8: The future’s only just begun.

The changing nature of work and new generations entering the workforce is throwing up a lot of questions for our leaders. What we are finding is that for political, educational and business leaders, there is a need to embrace ‘digital’ to the point where its use as an adjective becomes almost redundant. For this to happen, a new form of intelligence needs to be cultivated and responsibility for this digital domain needs to be adopted by everyone.

And sometimes a radical change in an organisation’s operating environment requires a complete change of leadership and a new kind of leader. Leadership qualities need to shift according to business environment and context but will then need to shift again to operationalise the here and now so they can focus on next curve. Essentially we are arguing for the situational leader, which means tapping into the wider leadership team – or even needing a new type of leader completely.

Sian Dodd
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