Seven capabilities for new era leaders

Today's world asks more of us as leaders than ever before.  Success, it seems, is more dependent on our ability to adapt, to respond to changes in our environment; than an historical precedent of commanding the environment melded to our own ambition.   New challenges, new opportunities, the paradigm shift in our world necessitates our shift in leadership:  What it means to lead |what we're accountable for | how it feels.

This journey is a personal one.

I was born in New Zealand, the kid that was into all the colour crayons and had to be kept busy right through school.  At university I chose a degree that included the arts and sciences, shifting gears on graduation to enter the construction industry initially and then stepping sideways into technology, where I spend most of my time these days.  There was always something new around the corner, another shiny object to chase and if I look at the crew I have around me today we all have that in common: a thirst for learning.  I'm fairly certain this is a lot of what attracted me to change roles - change through projects in large organisations; change in people through working shoulder to shoulder in their organisations as we redesign our thinking about the way we work and the work we do. Disruption. Recreating.

Working in this field across multiple industries, sectors, in organisations of varied scale, has helped me to see patterns.

First: People are happier, more fulfilled, give more than you'd ever think possible, when personal and organisational purpose are aligned; when they are respected and encouraged as masters of their craft; and have autonomy to make decisions and solve problems rather than simply fulfil orders.

Secondly: There is a paradigm shift required by leaders to enable this to happen.  And there's an equal shift required by our team members to not reinforce the old behaviour when we hit a bump in the road and revert back to what's familiar, what feels safe.  Change is scary and the old programming runs deep - when was the last time you got points on an exam for asking a question rather than giving an answer?  

You cannot do this work, for yourself, in your own organisation or for others, without getting personal.  Without the inner work on ourselves to support a fundamental shift in our foundations, then this becomes simply another change program, more propaganda, disruption without lasting change and something we can wait-out just like the last time one of these programs came along.

It's taken me close to 20 years to work out my true calling in life - I thought it was vet school, then I thought it was architecture, then project management, then an executive job in technology - and it's taken some pretty frank conversations with myself and others to deal with the internal narrative, to get out of the way of myself and our teams.  I now have the incredible privilege of working with clients and being trusted to ask the question "what do you want to be when you grow up?".

So what are the seven capabilities I think we need for highly effective leaders in the new era?

  • An improved threshold for handling uncertainty and ambiguity
  • Deep personal resilience
  • An ability to engage in positive conflict
  • The capacity for cognitive dissonance
  • Courage
  • Active reflection
  • Community building

 

Uncertainty and Ambiguity

It seems the one constant in today's organisation is change.  Whether it's market circumstances, new product launches or the constant churn of organisational restructures in large corporates; we're becoming conditioned to movement.  But constant change without anchor can drive stress in our people and create unnecessary overhead and noise in getting the work done.    It's further exacerbated by the fact that historically, uncertainty has correlated with a lack of job security - if we're not busy, or demand changes quickly, it can manifest fear on a pretty fundamental level.

Questions to consider:

  • Is our own desire for certainty causing us to make a decision prematurely?
  • Does this decision commit us to a long-term path without adequate room to adapt as we learn more?
  • What are we testing today, that can illuminate for us whether or not we are stepping closer towards the outcome we seek?
  • How are we developing our learning agility as an individual, as a team, as an organisation?
  • What in our environment is predictable vs fluid - Amazon's CEO famously said 'our customers will never wish their orders took longer to ship'

 

"The self confidence of the warrior is not the self confidence of the average man.  The average man seeks certainty in the eyes of the onlooker and calls that self confidence.  The warrior seeks impeccability in his own eyes and calls that humbleness.  The average man is hooked to his fellow men, while the warrior is hooked only to infinity."

- Carlos Casteneda

What the anti-pattern looks like:

  • Lack of visibility of complex problems, opportunities, organisational contexts
  • Indecision beyond the last *responsible* moment

 

Personal resilience

Those of us who have worked in an organisational change capacity know the incredible strength of character and patience required to help shift an organisation's position.  At times it can feel like trying to steer the Titanic, even once we've convinced everyone there really is an iceberg dead ahead.  Conversely, the pressure in a startup enterprise can be extreme when we feel like it's all hinging on us.  We tell ourselves we're pioneers, leaders, and we're driven, so stand strong and deliver, we operate on raw tenacity to pull us through.  But there's two sides to resilience - whilst we often choose to focus on the immense strength required, we spend less time thinking about those things that renew our reserves when we are low, ensuring that if and when we do need to dig deep, we've still got something left in the tank.

"...for growing stronger or to move in a direction that we want to move in our life, as much as we need the effort to propel us there, we need the ease so we can receive it coming."

- Meghan Currie

What the anti-pattern looks like:

  • "Pushing through" and "staying strong"
  • An inability to show and share vulnerability with self and others

 

Positive conflict

I remember a colleague speaking to me years ago about a problem he was seemingly having at work.  In his particular field of endeavour, there were two senior leaders with pretty starkly different approaches to common client problems of organisational redesign.  Within their own consulting organisation, this colleague was hearing rumours of people "taking sides" - there seemed to be a perception that you were with one or the other particular method and someone had even suggested the two were "at war".   So my colleague calls lunch with his peer and the two of them sit down.

"We're friends right?".  "Yes".  "Are we at war?".  "Huh?"

The conversation was quickly finished as the two friends agreed that whilst their views on how to approach a problem might differ, their enthusiastic discussions were about forming new ideas, pushing the limits of each others understanding, seeking some higher truth as they put the puzzle together in their own heads.  We reflected on how one of *the most functional* business relationships I'd ever seen (between these two good friends) had somehow been interpreted as dysfunction - and it struck us that we often equate a lack of conflict with a functional relationship - and any kind of disagreement is immediately equated with dysfunction.

Diversity of thought is critical if we're to build robust and adaptive organisations - perhaps consider in your own organisation which conflicts are doing you a disservice, simply creating noise, or where conflict could have a positive influence on the outcomes you're trying to achieve.

 

What the anti-pattern looks like:

  • Forums for the team to vent when the decision has already been made
  • Diversity on paper, rather than true diversity of thought, perspective, operating style
  • Decision making by consensus in an effort to share and reconcile everyone's views in a single outcome

 

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance - the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.  Why is it important for leaders to hold the space for two seemingly opposing viewpoints at once?  In today's society we have more and more pressure for the "AND" not the "OR".  The successful stewardship of our organisations often depends on our ability to see a path where others have not: "innovation" they call it.

Horses teach me a lot about people.  When working with these animals we have to communicate through the body and our language is pressure.  We can't show the animal a picture of the end point and then help them work towards it, you must build bottom-up for the learning to occur.  As partners we learn to develop this skill of deliberate application or removal of pressure to communicate movements between horse and rider.  We learn quickly that less is more, and the journey in finishing an animal is really about finding the least amount of pressure that can be applied to encourage a particular movement.  We can choose in some circumstances to escalate the pressure, continually building the size of the ask - but it's a bit like yelling at someone who doesn't speak your language.  The more subtle method is to wait.  At the same pressure.  Until we elicit the response we were after and then immediately release.  I think it's linked to uncertainty - how comfortable are we to wait at the same pressure with a problem we see until the right answer becomes apparent?

"...I was struck by his courage and the reluctance to reassure easily at the expense of deeper truths.

- David Whyte

What the anti-pattern looks like:

  • Continually reinventing, rather than an evolutionary purpose
  • Getting stuck in transition, a "foot in both camps" so that we continually encounter the noise of being pulled in multiple directions
  • Indecision beyond the last *responsible* moment

 

Courage

There's a lot of talk about failure in organisations these days.  Our acceptance of it, our need to embrace failure as a means to learn and improve - but it's become clear to me (particularly in very large organisations) that there are acceptable and unacceptable forms of failure.  It will never cease to amaze me that we can continue on with a multi-million dollar program of work almost entirely predicated on the "sunk cost" fallacy - it took us that long to get the thing up and running, we should keep going!  Acceptable failure: keep a project running long after it's used-by date, keep spending money and hit the budget.  Unacceptable form of failure: killing a project that we've burned a lot of time and energy on and everyone knows will take far too long to finish and probably won't get us the impact we're looking for in any case.

Fear isn't a terrible looking thing lurking in the shadows, but something lovely and seductive.  That corner office, that enormous salary, that sense of comfort that comes from feeling secure in our foundation; and we're good at it, so we never need to learn the lesson of fluidity; we seek instead to continue to build on what we have; and wonder why we wake up one day yearning for more.  To look inward, to truly listen, and to have the courage to follow.  True power scares us.  I was petrified when I started my business, taking a step away from everything I knew I was good at - corporate. and a big salary to match.

One of the major causes of fear is that we do not want to face ourselves as we are. So, as well as the fears themselves, we have to examine the network of escapes we have developed to rid ourselves of them.

- J. Krishnamurti

What the anti-pattern looks like:

  • Big commitments, "bold decisions" usually in the form of large projects of work that cost a lot of money to implement a "big idea"
  • Courage in the face of acceptable forms of failure, without challenging the paradigm
  • Building solutions without a clear understanding of the current system, without surety that the new work will redesign-out waste and failure in the current system, or enable more time on valuable work (to customers)

 

Active reflection

Krishnamurti in his book On Fear writes of a beautiful concept, 'non-accumulative seeing'  "not recognition - but seeing the fact"[1]  Like businesses accumulate processes, we often accumulate our own stories, collect our own debris, our civilisation's conditioning; without a method for actively "putting down the luggage" after our journeys.  How many of us at one point or another received feedback to "modify your style based on the style of the person in front of you" or "find a way to navigate the organisation" when one of our ideas fell flat in a pitch meeting.  One of my most treasured mentors gifted me the concept of shifting a frame.  We all have our frame, our collection of experiences and knowledge and personal traits that mean we see a world in a certain way.  "... the trick..." she said "is to work out how to first see where the boundaries of your own frame sit, and then deliberately move that frame so that you may see something different.".  Active reflection is our calling to continue to observe our own frame and then work out how to shift it, to unlock a greater potential.

"...as we practice going inward, we come to realise that much of it is not depression in the least; it is a cry for something else, often the physical body's simple need for rest, for contemplation, and for a kind of forgotten courage, one difficult to hear, demanding not a raise, but another life."

- David Whyte

What the anti-pattern looks like:

  • Valuing rational analysis to the exclusion of deeper "knowing" - sometimes the answers don't come to us in the clearly articulated format of words in the mind as we'd expect
  • Using quantitative and qualitative data interchangeably 

 

Community building

True leaders know how to set the vision and create a movement.  Community is queen in a self-organising structure.  As we seek to remove the hierarchy and bottlenecks for decision-making that is conventional management overhead; we must actively invest in something new.  Common purpose, support for each other, autonomy in decision making are all necessary ingredients and require an active investment from leaders to avoid sliding towards token slogans, false empathy and consensus-based decision making.

What the anti-pattern looks like:

  • Swinging from command and control to consensus-based decision making
  • Special interest groups and forums that dissolve if we as drivers aren't in attendance
  • Delegation under the guise of empowerment, when in actual fact all that's happened is a shift in responsibility without adequate support from a leader to remove blockers

 

In my experience, there's two sides to the change equation.  Change in the organisation, and change in ourselves.  Actively cultivating these  seven capabilities in ourselves and others supports the personal transformations we must continue to undertake as we move towards a different model of leadership for ourselves, our teams, and our organisation.

 

Materials

You can also follow our twitter feed for more homework for leaders.