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            [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_22612" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Jack Welch was CEO of GE for 20 years. In a changing world, is he still the model for leadership? Jack Welch was CEO of GE for 20 years. In a changing world, is he still the model for leadership?[/caption]

 

When discussing the challenges facing business leaders it seems almost de rigeur nowadays to talk about the level of change organisations are facing.

The challenge to equip leaders to build the future in these uncertain times is certainly daunting, with seismic geopolitical shifts (in this context the Trump administration seems to be the gift that keeps on giving), disruptive technological change (how many of us even fully understand the implications of bitcoin, blockchain and whatever new technology will be unleashed on us next) and even severe climate and weather events.

The very ubiquitous nature of these challenges may however inure us to their real potential as both a threat and an opportunity to affect a true paradigm shift in how we view leadership, a classic case of an issue being undervalued through overuse.

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The Concept of Leadership

From the perspective of the 21st century the development of our concept of leadership is a little clearer than it may have been in the past.  From this remove we can see how the largely male, heroic models of leadership have greatly influenced the literature and teaching in this field.

The business leaders who are most often cited, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs etc. are broadly from a similar mould and the models of leadership, with the exception of Servant Leadership (as a servant leader you put the needs of others, particularly team members, before you even consider your own, but how many executives really model themselves on this type of leadership?) extol an assertive, confident, out-going and mainly extroverted style.

In fact, the Myers Briggs type most associated with leadership is the ENTJ (extraversion, intuition, thinking, judgment), which is described as the ‘general’, again exposing the military underpinnings of the leadership canon. We can clearly see this bias in the continuing popularity of books like Dale Carnegie’s “How to win friends and influence people”, the pseudoscience of NLP and programmes that teach executives how to create the right ‘impression’.

Given the genesis of the leadership concept it is understandable that people might misconstrue the notion of leadership presence as the ability to impose oneself (and influence people), but there is real hope that we are about to experience a genuine shift in the paradigm.

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Unhappy Influencers

[caption id="attachment_22617" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Richard Boyatzis studied how leaders influence those around them Richard Boyatzis studied how leaders influence those around them and how that effected their lives and careers[/caption]

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Recent research conducted by Richard Boyatzis and colleagues from Case Western Reserve University examined the relationship between the extent to which people adopted an ‘influencing’ leadership style and their later satisfaction with both their careers and their life in general.  Interestingly they found a very strong negative correlation between these factors, i.e. the more people adopted an influence style the less satisfied they were with their careers and lives.

Boyatzis and colleagues did not have an objective measure of career success, so one could still argue that the ‘influencers’ did better in their careers, but Boyatzis’ research does tell us that irrespective on how well an outsider might judge your career progress, the ‘influencers’ are less happy about their situation.  The researchers concluded that those who adopt an influencing style are pushing on their environment and trying to get more from others, e.g. they tend to show a high need to control social situations.

The crux of the problem, especially in the context of a VUCA world, is that pushing on or trying to control an environment that is in a constant state of flux, verging on chaos is unlikely to be very effective and will certainly lead to people being highly dissatisfied and unhappy in their work and indeed their lives.

Now would be the perfect time for the leadership movement to learn the lessons of evolutionary psychology that success in a changing environment falls to the most adaptable, those who can outlearn their competition.

 

The Adaptable Generation

This will require a cadre of new leaders who are less ego-identified with success and winning, who don’t see problems as opportunities to impose themselves and demonstrate mastery of the environment.

Rather we will see the emergence of leaders who can go with the flow, adapt to new realities quickly, work through and with others as either leader or follower and pivot gracefully as cherished paradigms fall away and hard-earned experience proves ineffective as a guide to new problems.

There is no doubt that the idea of women in leadership is in the current zeitgeist and may or may not create a fundamental shift in how we see leadership in the future.  I am however hopeful, that as the new model emerges we will see less emphasis on the old machismo of the ability to impose oneself on others and on the environment and more emphasis on the willingness to adapt, change and ‘flow’ with emerging realities.

Bruce Lee used to tell his students to ‘be like water’, perhaps that is not a bad metaphor for what leaders will need to become.

 

imi-colm-foster-810Dr Colm Foster is Director of Executive Education at the Irish Management Institute. He has acted as a leadership development consultant to organisations in the US, Asia and Ireland, particularly specialising in Emotional Intelligence.

The next IMI Diploma in Leadership starts on 2nd May, 2018.
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Dr. Jonathan Westrup

Dr. Jonathan Westrup

26th Feb 2018

Dr. Jonathan Westrup is the Programme Director of the IMI Diploma in Strategy and Innovation and of the IMI Diploma in Regulatory Management.

Related Articles

21st Century Leadership: The Shifting River
Making Sure Your Leadership Legacy Counts
Bridging The Generational Gap In Modern Organisations

In Praise of VUCA

In Praise of VUCA – a method for looking at a crazy world

The term VUCA sounds particularly ugly but is very effective in stimulating strategic thinking. A key skill for a strategist is to make sense of what’s happening in the external environment of their organisation and assessing these factors under volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity provides a neat method of structuring a management team’s thinking.

Volatility is perhaps the most straightforward to categorise. Exchange rates and commodity prices are clearly factors that change on a constant basis. Sometimes politics and the tweets of the US president are discussed or the state of the Irish or European economy, but I suggest that they are better discussed under what tends to be the longest list of factors which is uncertainty.

It’s a bit of a cliché to claim that there are unprecedented levels of uncertainty in the world today. While certain political and technological tectonic plates are certainly shifting, for most organisations the external uncertainties are not too daunting. However, from the political machinations of the Conservative party over the Brexit negotiations to the upswing in the European economy, there is no shortage of factors to discuss for any organisation.

Opportunity in the Complexity

This is also an opportunity to begin to consider challenges such as talent attraction and retention which are proving to be significant strategic challenges for most organisations. What is important is to begin to ask questions about which uncertainties are most important for the strategy and to determine priorities.

Will your working practices motivate the millennial workforce? (Photo source)

.A question about whether organisational life has become more complex often provokes a collective sigh of identification. Asked to identify the reasons, increased levels of regulation and oversight are usually first on the list followed quickly by the impact of technology.

The millennial challenge of how to keep newly recruited younger colleagues motivated and engaged is a topic relating to organisational complexity that is increasingly raised. These discussions are of particular use in later decisions about how an organisation should consider changing its structure in order to address some of the complexity challenge.

Ambiguity often provokes the most interesting discussions. Once consensus is reached that volatility, uncertainty and complexity do all pose significant organisational challenges and opportunities, there is usually an acceptance that the inevitable result is an increase in the level of ambiguity in making sense of the external environment.

This insight provides an opportunity to consider the significance of our individual and collective unconscious behavioural biases in any strategy process. It also clarifies that ambiguity is not only inevitable in any strategy process but should be embraced to allow for continued discussion and challenge.

Getting the Big Picture

The purpose of a VUCA discussion is clearly not to decide upon immediate strategic action. Instead it plays two key roles; first, it gives a very clear external focus to the subsequent analysis and helps to avoid the classic issue of considering strategy from the “inside out” as opposed to the “outside in”.

Second, it gives the participants the license to return to the VUCA factors in the subsequent analysis of the organisation through the lens of different strategy tools. This allows for different scenarios to be considered, gaps in capability assessed and the key challenge of prioritising the key choices that the team and the organisation must make.

Sadly, there is no guarantee of strategic success even with the most informed deliberation. But a focused VUCA assessment at the outset of a strategy process does ensure an informed collective understanding of the external challenges and opportunities which is a great first step.


Dr. Jonathan Westrup is the Programme Director of the IMI Diploma in Strategy and Innovation and of the IMI Diploma in Regulatory Management.  His expertise is in the areas of business, organisational and regulatory strategy and corporate governance.