As people emerge from all levels in business with the knowledge that they can exercise their power to shape the future of their organisation, leadership has become something that we can all contribute to, regardless of our level of ‘authority’. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter pointed out, many years ago, “Companies used to be able to function with autocratic bosses. We don’t live in that world anymore.” With old fashioned, imperial style leaders exposing their shortcomings in today’s fast-paced and complex business world, strong, democratic leadership is now about having the vision to share ideas and to derive momentum from an engaged and empowered workforce, but most importantly it’s about having the ability to embrace change.
However, the journey to acquiring the skills and knowledge to become a strong leader is not the same as that travelled to become a successful manager of change. The process of becoming a good leader is linear and incremental, whereas the process of change is much more dynamic. Whilst leaders can work their way through the traditional steps to becoming a good leader, either by reading books, being coached effectively or by following in the footsteps of an inspiring role-model, unfortunately no one can be taught the characteristics required to steer an organisation and its people through the choppy waters of inevitable and constant change.
To manage this fluid process we need to accept that it is both multi-faceted and dynamic. This requires a flexible and responsive means of managing change –a process through which the desired future can be defined and achieved but that also allows scope to respond to changes of circumstances that will inevitably arise and to unforeseen challenges that may emerge. In a world of perpetual change and complexity, organisations are looking for leaders who cannot only cope with and accommodate a wide range of variables, but flourish within them.
With this in mind, the image of the ‘totally together’ leader needs to be replaced perhaps with one of the ‘life-long’ learner. The idea of the implacably correct, unchallengeable leader may be reassuring for those that simply want to be led, but was always doomed in reality. In today’s world, where automatic deference is far less likely to be shown, this old, out-moded image has become untenable. It cannot be overstated that there are great benefits to be had for both leaders and their organisations, in embracing the ‘life-long learner’ as a new paradigm. We now accept complexity, diversity and constant change as unavoidable, inherent parts of the world in which we live and operate, and accordingly, leaders – like everyone else – must constantly seek to adapt and develop their understanding of, and response to, changing circumstances and situations. To grow, thrive and to overcome the challenges that inevitably arise, we must continue to learn.
We must also pay heed to the terminology used to label this important role. While there is undoubtedly a danger that ‘leadership’ is now said or written when ‘management’ is what is meant – or needed – the difference is important. As Peter Drucker famously said, “One does not manage people, the task is to lead people…and the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of each individual.” The measure of successful leadership is not about the status of the job title or the prestige of the role, but more about what is achieved. Leadership is about outcomes: pioneering approaches and good ideas – effective leadership can come from anywhere, but organisations need to have the foresight to allow that to happen.
Whereas organisations experience a process of change management, the people within them experience a process of transition. Groups and individuals will need to learn not just new tasks and processes but new behaviours, consequently they will need to be supported, encouraged and inspired. The ease with which they make this transition and surmount obstacles depends on the leader’s ability to guide them. Where they endeavour to emphasise the potential gains and benefits, work proactively to ensure people are fully and regularly informed, and share their own concerns and feelings while maintaining a positive focus on achieving the objectives, their behaviours and actions, they are certain to make a positive and significant impact.
Another defining characteristic today’s leaders must have is the ability to face change with a sense of excitement and challenge. The combination of globalised business, technology, demographic change and the role of innovation in maintaining or building competitive advantage is a demanding ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances for any organisation to navigate. Change – and organisational initiatives that are launched and implemented either in response to it or are undertaken proactively to keep ahead of the wave – are unavoidable. Sadly, there are few approaches that provide organisations with a sturdy, integrated and pragmatic approach to the dynamics of the change process. Available models tend to be too simplistic or too academic and consequently of limited use to the organisation or leader that wishes to address a changing corporate context. Many are linear in format and pre-suppose that a pre-defined ‘desired future state’ can be achieved through a stepped series of interventions.
Handling the process of change successfully is more of a choice. Leaders with the natural born vision or wisdom to decide to listen to the flow of ideas from its people, encourages the organisation to collaborate, problem solve and collectively identify opportunities. This sharing of power and appreciation of the value of the whole team to ‘lead’ requires a complete lack of regard for hierarchy or rank. In contrast, leaders acting in isolation show a disregard for the feelings, values and ideas of their workforce and ultimately bring their organisation to a standstill rather than capitalising on the opportunities that change inevitably brings. Allowing the cross-pollination of ideas in a culture where leaders are unafraid to share their own intellectual capital gives clarity on the road ahead and provides a clear route to the future that inspires and reassures the whole team for the benefit of the organisation.
Dr. Anton Franckeiss, Global Business Development and Practice Director, Acuity Global Development