2071 words: 15-minute read

My daughter works in a senior HR role for a big bank. She recently asked the questions below about tomorrow’s leaders.

I hope you find the answers I gave her helpful.

Given the scale of the challenge ahead in a new world where humanity and technology merge, how do you sustainably support leaders to make the transition from a controlling to an enabling style?

Uncertainty characterises the new world you describe. Being comfortable with it, and the complexities and ambiguities it produces, is a good starting point. Miss that and transition is hard because leaders understandably drop into survival mode, which isn’t one that’s conducive to learning.

Staying together and talking openly is a helpful way of “sustaining transition.” That’s why I advocate co-creating a development path with leaders, rather than making it too “curriculum heavy.” Building a shared understanding of what they’re moving from and to helps on many fronts. Leaders find answers to practical questions such as what do we need to learn and how do we think differently about the real challenges before us.

I find it useful to focus on what’s constant about a leader’s role before exploring the changing context in which it sits. For me a leader’s primary function is to create clear purpose and add value via a culture that executes strategies well.

Strategy execution typically gets most of leaders’ attention. Understandably so: that’s what they’re measured against and always will be. Open conversations about the why (purpose) and how (culture) however, reveal what would make execution easier. Leaders deepen their understanding of what needs preserving and shaking up during transition.

For example, ask them what’s pleasantly surprising about their work and what provokes their anger, outrage or fear, and you touch on the profound feelings that drive behaviour. If the reason why the business exists, and its purpose is considered idealistic and inspiring, rather than ego-centric because it doesn’t extend much beyond making money, this gives them something to build on.

Conversely, if they believe shareholders’ needs are paramount, to the exclusion and sometimes at the expense of clients, employees and suppliers – despite espoused values that suggest otherwise – and fear this undermines what’s achievable, the transition will need to address this.

Changing leaders’ mindsets

Leaders’ mindsets underpin the existing culture. Often handed down the generations they are habits of thinking on the best way to organise internally to meet external demands. They determine who has the power to make and oppose decisions, how strategy is created, performance monitored and what the consequences of failure are for example.

The research into why leadership development fails points to how mindsets are often underestimated and why little changes as a result.

Take the transition from a controlling mindset to an enabling one. You’ll be amazed at the number of development programmes that are designed to impose and control an enabling leadership style! This only reinforces the old mindset, conveys change isn’t for real, and fails to exemplify a new way of doing things around here.

Another problem is change professionals sometimes blame or stereotype leaders with a controlling mindset, rather than acknowledge where it emanates from as a means to altering it.

Historically we can trace the interrelationship between humans and technology-at-scale back to the Industrial Revolution. Over time, the idea that an organisation itself is like a machine became ingrained.

It still is in some quarters. Think of the language we use to keep this metaphor alive: we speak of “resources” (humans included) as “inputs,” which get “processed” to “produce outputs.” “Efficiency” is the goal and we use “systems,” “procedures,” “hierarchies” and “rules” as “levers” to change the organisation when needed.

Efficiency matters so for a long time this worked. It made sense to promote those who most understood the “mechanics” of how the organisation works.

If people’s careers took off because of their ability to control, no wonder they kept on doing it and passed on their advice to others to do likewise. We all tend to do more of what we’re recognised for, right?

The key question though, is whether this metaphor works in an age where efficient, information-enabled, artificially intelligent machines are pervasive. In tomorrow’s world of driver-less vehicles, super computers in your pocket, bots running the internet of things, hyper-loop transportation, and all the other technologies making up the revolution we’re all living through, what kind of leadership will make a difference?

The answer is pointing to a different direction: from “I’m in control” to “navigating complexity together.” Leaders who can build diverse cultures that people love because they’re doing work they believe is meaningful in multi-disciplined, self-managing, agile teams, will be worth their weight in gold.

What questions should we be asking ourselves about incumbent leaders?

Survival depends on adaptation if you’re a Darwinian evolutionist. So a key question is who’s up for exploring the new world that is coming and plotting the adaptations needed to transition to it.

Those who engage with this as though it’s an interesting puzzle worth solving, distinguish themselves from those who have little time because, most likely, they’re preoccupied with surviving today’s challenges and have no mental capacity for those coming down the tracks. So another question is how to make time for considering the future. This isn’t something that can be done on the back of an envelope: it needs reflection and careful thought if extinction is to be avoided!

Leadership potential

Asking yourself what you mean by leadership potential is critical too. I find this helps: someone’s ability to learn and adapt when faced with increasingly complex and uncertain situations. It’s distinct from competence, which is about the knowledge and skills already acquired and in use. If potential is a future-based lead indicator and competence a historic lag indicator, the question who has ample of both becomes relevant.

A way of helping people gauge their potential is to create clearly depicted scenarios they’d need to learn about, and adapt to. Examples might include:

  • Describing how a transformation in relationships with clients creates value
  • Weighing investments in different AI technologies, possibly in the face of employee resistance
  • Presenting their vision and strategy to sceptical internal and external audiences to build commitment.

Getting leaders to engage with the potential / competence question and likely future scenarios, enables them to weigh up what’s likely to be expected of them. It fosters discussion about the extent to which the new world is one they want to help shape. As a first stage they self-identify as future leaders in other words.

What if they can’t lead in the new way? How do we know and have those conversations?

The Peter Principle suggests we erroneously promote people to their level of incompetence. We then lose their expertise as they either struggle to cope in a bigger role or leave. No one wants this. It’s far better to design roles that play to people’s strengths rather than force-fit them into ones that don’t.

This Principle is a useful frame for conversations among leaders about the new kind of leadership needed for a sustainable transition. For example, it facilitates decisions about which roles to keep, drop and create, and who has the competence and potential to thrive in them. This second decision is one that can be decided by leaders’ peers. (Think locking yourselves away in an enclave to decide who’s most suited to what role, like cardinals do when choosing a new pope!)

Role-design conversations open up the possibility of technically brilliant specialists, who want nothing to do with people management, doing jobs they can thrive in and vice versa.

How do we identify new-world leadership in our existing workforce (not just those that have surfaced to the top of the ‘talent hit list’) truly bottom up? Do you need to be 50+ before you can be a great leader?

When we’re very young we’re quite narcissistic: we think the world revolves only around us. In most cases our worldview develops through stages as we encounter playmates, family, friends, peers, work groups, departments, a whole company, an industry, and right up to the point where we can fathom our way through complex issues affecting humanity as a whole.

Not everyone progresses through these development stages at the same rate or to the same extent. A certain US President I could mention might be considered stuck at an early development stage for example. Great leaders – think Mandela, Shackleton, Einstein and their like – operate from later stages of development.

In-house leaders whose worldview naturally focuses on the threats and opportunities facing a department, company or industry show they’re suited to front line and senior leadership roles.

Though the probability of finding late-stage developers in very young people is low, they do exist. Worldviews, and the actions that flow from them, are only partially age dependent. It seems to me young people like Simon Sinek and Elon Musk have reached later stages of development for example.

Whatever development stage people have reached can be independently assessed and provides some reassurance to the would-be leader and employer as to readiness for leadership roles. Where people are not ready, they can be pointed to learning activities that accelerate and enable their development.

My experience has been that Leadership Development programmes are often enjoyed by the participants and they do indeed come away with a least one thing they would like to change, but sustainable change in leadership doesn’t take place due to ingrained systems and practices – it becomes “too hard.”

This is my experience too. It seems the way we’ve conventionally delivered leadership development is useful but not sufficient. If we go back to first principles, distinguishing between these two can be helpful.

What’s sometimes described as “horizontal development” is premised on providing leaders with more knowledge and skills. It often comes in the form of personality profiling, skills training and the application of numerous tools and techniques. It’s useful.

“Vertical development” on the other hand is about broadening the mind such that leaders can piece events together more easily, see the patterns likely to produce opportunities and threats and take preemptive action. This ability to “see around corners,” as a colleague of mine once put it, is vital in a world that’s more complex.

Vertical development moves leaders through the “development stages” I mentioned above. The pace at which they do this is accelerated by understanding the philosophy of experience and recent findings in neuroscience. It’s from here leaders get to see why those “ingrained systems and practices” make life “too hard” and how new answers emerge.

And finally

A final thought is to start with the end in mind and imagine what you’d see every day in the business as a result of successful leadership development.

This is what’s in my mind’s eye:

The risks and problems of doing business remain, they’re somewhat inevitable. What’s different is people’s perceptions of them.

I see teams fully engaged by challenges, experiencing them as puzzles they’re keen to solve with elegant, innovative solutions. And they know what that means – innovation is something that’s superior to what’s been available before. It has a wow factor.

I see people fully listening to each other. They can talk about anything: there are no taboo topics. On those occasions when someone does feel vulnerable about speaking up, they’re encouraged to see that’s part of being human. Vulnerability is considered a strength because it’s not only a bridge to courage but the foundation of trust.

I envisage teams disagreeing healthily. They want to solve problems at the root cause because they’ve learnt that expedient treatment of symptoms is wasteful. Disagreement is an inevitable part of that process, and is entered into with the intention of stimulating innovation, not scoring points and giving or taking offence.

Finally teams are clear about what they’re there to do and who depends on them. They care about that and show it through continuous improvement and a passion for fulfilling all their promises.

Irrespective of the context in which people are working, to me the above signals a leadership has done a good job. Purpose is clear, and value is created for all stakeholders via a culture that executes strategies superbly (or “eats them for breakfast” as Peter Drucker once said!)

An end point perhaps that helps would-be leaders decide if this is something they want to shape, and a base from which to work with leadership developers to co-create programmes that help them get there.

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