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The Great and Perilous Leadership Journey Ahead

The following is a guest post by Art Petty.  Art is the author of The Management Excellence blog and when he’s not writing, he’s busy serving as a management consultant, speaker, graduate management educator and leadership coach and trainer. Art is also the co-author of the book, Practical Lessons in Leadership, and the forthcoming, Leadership Caffeine: Ideas to Stimulate Success. He resides in the Chicago, Illinois area with his wife and two sons.

While there’s much about leading others that remains consistent over time, the environment in which we lead changes constantly. For experienced and developing leaders, the emerging environment is likely to offer a Dickensian world filled with Best of Times opportunities and Worst of Times challenges. Now might be a good time to revise your thinking on your role as a leader and to begin cultivating the skills and experiences required for success during the exciting and perilous journey ahead.

In a career supporting the development of leaders, I’ve never witnessed an environment as complex and personally demanding as this one. The macro-forces in our world, including globalization, sustainability, diversity and demographics and the inexorable march of technology all are converging to create a “new normal” characterized by chaos, time-compression and constant disruption. Tomorrow’s leader truly must be armed with “The Right Stuff,” or, he or she is at risk of becoming global road kill.

Leadership: The Basic Building Blocks Never Go Out of Style

Certain characteristics, attributes and behaviors of effective leaders are timeless, regardless of the prevailing environment. Every leadership book ever written (including mine) emphasizes the importance of the following ten items:

  • A positive character
  • The need to earn respect
  • A high degree of credibility
  • Genuine regard for the development of others
  • Confidence in the face of adversity and ambiguity
  • The ability to motivate and inspire
  • Comfort conducting tough discussions
  • A style that is perceived as authentic
  • A willingness to stand up and fight for the right issues
  • Command of the business

These ten are table stakes requirements for effective leadership regardless of era. However, the supporting set of skills and attributes needed to effectively prosecute the role of the leader do change with the times and technologies. Recognize and build these skills and your world will be filled with opportunities. Ignore them and you will most definitely experience the Worst of Times side of this equation.

Welcome to the Leadership Blender: Speed, Ambiguity, Adaptability & Vector

There are so many complex variables at work in our world today, that the level of predictability is almost nil. The days of long-range plans are dead, replaced by a mid-term vision and a series of short-term ideas and experiments. The practicing leader must be strategically and tactically nimble, quickly identifying and selecting opportunities, experimenting, adapting, harvesting and then moving on to the next opportunity.

A battlefield analogy is appropriate in this situation. It’s long been understood that once the enemy is engaged, the plan is rendered obsolete. What is not obsolete however, is the effort, discipline and learning gained during the process of planning. The difference is subtle but important. Nothing occurs in reality like it is specified on paper. However, those that spend the time training and planning and assessing risks and opportunities are prepared to cope with the sudden onset of battlefield or marketplace chaos and ambiguity.

The need for speed must be tempered by a need for vector. Speed without vector is just random activity, and in a world characterized by increasingly scare resources, including time, random activity is potentially fatal. And unlike the historic role of the leader in choosing direction, the new leader’s responsibility is all about developing teams capable of recognizing, pursuing and seizing emerging opportunities. You may still get a big vote, but, your primary role today is bringing the talent and tools to bear to help others recognize, conquer and then to move on in pursuit of the next opportunity.

A Critical New Skill-Set: Leading Without Authority

In a world without traditional borders of time, geography and culture, the new leader must be capable of assembling and motivating temporary teams to seize opportunities. The goal is to bring the best resources available at the time to bear on a problem or an opportunity. A good number of the resources will have little formal accountability to the team leader, yet, they will be eminently accountable to the team for results.

Today’s role of Project Manager comes the closest to resembling tomorrow’s leader, although, the role is grossly under-positioned and narrowly defined in most organizations to serve as an absolute model. The next few years will see a merging of roles, where leaders will need to be great project managers and project managers will be required to hone leadership skills to succeed.

Teams will increasingly take responsibility for selecting their own leaders, with the sole criterion being, “Who is the best possible person to help us succeed?” While that may sound a bit socialistic, it is purely capitalistic, driven by the goal to succeed in the market and to strengthen the firm. An outcome of this “fitness for purpose” approach to team leader selection, will be the need for leaders to be comfortable and adaptable to a shifting role as leader one day, follower the next and so forth.

Building Coalitions for Fun and Profit

Power and politics are often interpreted as dirty words and less than noble pursuits. Tomorrow’s leaders will need to shed their inhibitions about the pursuit of power and focus on working across groups to cultivate respect, support the work of others and at key moments, gain the help and support of others to stem a problem or seize an opportunity. The most effective leaders will be the ones that drive results through others and in turn support the needs of others to drive their own results. Instead of a backroom type game, coalition building will become foreground and your success will be a function of your ability to make things happen for others.

Redefining Diversity

Tomorrow’s leaders face the remarkable challenge of working constantly across cultures, geographies and time zones to drive projects, create coalitions and seize opportunities. A gentleman that I recently interviewed personifies this situation. He is a citizen of India working in the Midwestern United States leading a global development team with representatives from 4 countries on the team. Of the ten team members, only three report to him directly. This type of a leadership situation did not exist a generation ago, and now it’s increasingly the norm.

Your ability to acclimate to individual cultures and to engage effectively with your global team members will be a material part of your job. And while people are people, you most certainly will need to learn the nuances of motivating, communicating with, providing feedback to individuals that all respond to power in very different ways.

An additional challenge in this category will be the need to blend the generations to leverage the experience of the oldest workers with the perspectives of the youngest. Much of the planet is aging quickly, and given difficult economic circumstances, the older workers will remain involved in some form or fashion for years to come. They represent remarkable talent, particularly when connected with the youngest of our workforce. Learning to blend and lead these mixed age teams is just another critical opportunity for tomorrow’s leaders.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

What a great opportunity for those that thrive on change and ambiguity and that cultivate advanced interpersonal and political skills. You will still be accountable to those timeless building blocks outlined at the beginning of this post, and ultimately, you will be evaluated on your ability to cope with and succeed in an environment where the only constant is something representing nearly incomprehensible change. Enjoy this leadership journey of a lifetime, and remember to lead with honor, integrity and professionalism while helping others navigate the challenges along the way.

Some other posts you may enjoy:

  1. Taking Another Look at the Leadership Pyramid
  2. 3 Steps To Help Get Your Leadership Groove On
  3. Mothers – Our First Example of Real Leadership
  4. Leaders, Are You Developing Your Employee’s Super Powers?
  5. 4 Questions To Help You Figure Out If It’s Time To Move On
  6. Do You Know How Your Leadership Is Perceived?


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