In 1998 I graduated from business school feeling I knew all there was to know about leadership. I began work as a management consultant and much of what I’d learnt was very quickly thrown out of the window. The basics of behaviour tell us far more than the latest fad. I became obsessed with observing like a detective, working out what, why and how. In fact, I was so fascinated that I soon returned to university to complete an MSc in Business Psychology.
Since then I have profiled and coached leaders from across the world. I have lived their journeys with them and while I’ve not bourn the scars or failure (nor shared in the rewards of success!) in their entirety, I have assessed and predicted who would fail, who would succeed. I’ve worked hand in hand with leaders who have struggled and those who have flourished.
With this experience in tow I returned to those original learnings to re-assess their relevance. What I’ve found is that it really isn’t the latest cutting-edge idea that’s most relevant, rather the foundations taught as long ago as philosophers such as Lao Tzu in 600BC that have stood the test of time.
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
Whilst we may now add in ‘he or she’ into this quote today, people are people and as the human brain has evolved very little (if at all) over the centuries the fundamentals of good leadership have also remained largely unchanged. What threatened people then, will threaten today, what motivated then, will motivate today. What is however changing is the rate of change itself and the volume of data leaders and followers have to deal with. As a result, those critical aspects of good leadership become even more important. They act as an anchor from which to weather the storm of a turbulent world and the foundation from which to build on new knowledge.
Hence, I believe the fundamentals of good leadership are as true today as they ever were, but with a twist:
1.Resilience.Leaders have always needed be resilient but what that means is changing. A generation ago resilience meant continuing no matter what: sleeping under the desk, not sleeping at all, skipping vacations, taking calls from a hospital bed. There’s still a badge of honour associated with carrying on in spite of pressure but this sort of behaviour was never sustainable (Arianna Huffington openly talks about this) and is arguably becoming even less so. As a leader of tomorrow there is a need for constant flex to your own physical and emotional needs, being hyper aware, understanding what energises and what drains, carefully managing of life and duties and giving permission for others to warn you when you become blindsided by stress creeping up on you.
2.Curiosity for Agility. We have an increasing understanding of how ‘plastic’ our brain is, even into later age. Until recently we believed many aspects of our personality were fixed and were unconsciously encouraged to approached life accordingly. However, as a leader of tomorrow, understanding this plasticity means that it is never too late to change or grow, to seek out opportunities, to learn, to flex to a new way of working and to adapt to the changing world around you. Remaining open and curious allows you to embrace unpredictable situations rather than being thrown off track by them.
3.Building High Performing Teams. All too often top teams are made up of high performing individuals working in silos which is then reflected down through the organisation. This approach massively limits the potential of the whole organisation, restricting the ability to flex and quickly respond to the demands of the fast-moving world. As a leader of tomorrow, it will become ever more critical to understand how to build and enable truly high performing teams that challenge ‘bricks and mortar’ organisation structures and ways of working. You will need this to allow for optimal agility and to fully leverage the collective capability of employees throughout the organisation.
4.Communicating Vision. The priority of this point is increasing exponentially with the ambiguity of the world around us. As humans we become emotionally and intellectually stifled in times of uncertainty. This results in employees feeling threatened and disengaged. As a leader of tomorrow, it will therefore be imperative to articulate the vision with clarity and passion, really connecting with the audience. This will allow people to feel a sense of unity, purpose and comfort that enables them to engage and perform at their optimum. As a leader it allows you to safely provide freedom to employees on how they work, empowering people to achieve in a way that is best suited to their own strengths, approach and personality.
The enabler of all of these is not only an increasing knowledge of behaviour and how best to leverage it, but also the presence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) working alongside that understanding. Many see AI as a threat but it’s also an amazing opportunity. A McKinsey article published in April 2018, for example says that AI ‘creates space and time to think by filtering the signal from the noise’. As a leader, letting algorithms work on the increasing volumes of data that you are expected to deal with, the aspects which are creating the constant flux and overload will mean that AI can ‘report back only what you need to know and when you need to know it.’ If used effectively both as a leader and employee, it could free up the brain from a huge amount of unnecessary processing and decision making. This will allow focus on the behavioural aspects for leaders who embrace AI to flourish in the landscape of tomorrow.
So, to be a great leader of tomorrow, don’t look to the latest fad or claim, return to the basics as your foundations to remaining agile, then leverage what the future world is offering.
Fiona Murdenis a Chartered Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, best-selling author and stimulating public speaker who has spent the past eighteen years working with leaders of multi-national companies. She is also founder and MD of Aroka Ltd which she has run globally for the past 11 years. Aroka profiles senior leaders in the UK, USA, Europe and Asia Pacific to assess their fit, strengths and the risks in relation to the role that they are being hired for. Her speaking commitments take her into boardrooms as diverse as the Institute of Directors, the Cabinet Office, the Royal College of Surgeons, Lloyd’s of London, The City Women’s Network and Nomura.
Fiona’s book, Defining You was published worldwide in 2018. Defining You opens a window into the process of psychological profiling in business and presents a clear path to improving your effectiveness with immediate actions and tangible tips.
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