The Constant Constraints of Leadership
It has become a common place of organisational life to claim that we are living in a highly volatile environment where change is constant and uncertainty is a permanent feature of life. It is certainly true that rates of scientific and technical change are extremely fast and accelerating – artificial intelligence, nano technology, genetics, stem cell research, blockchain – will all greatly affect the way we live our lives and the way we work.
However, I’m not entirely convinced of this argument about volatility. I was comparing my life with that of my mother. She lived through 2 World wars, a general strike, a civil war in Ireland, the Korean war and the Cold war. My life in contrast seems to have been characterised by almost unbroken quietude.
Change Fast, Humans Slow
There is a more fundamental observation to be made about leadership in a changing world. While we can concede the speed and power of technology, just think how slow human evolution is. We are very like the people who walked the earth ten thousand years ago. So, let’s focus on some leadership constants.
Firstly, leaders read context. They collect soft information which gives them insights into the way their organisations are really functioning. They walk into the Cork office and can tell quickly that morale is a little low, they ask why things seem to be buzzing in the finance department.
This aspect of leadership can’t be replaced by management information systems or the latest fad big data. The good news is that situation sensing is a skill which can be improved. Try keeping a little diary of your observations of the workplace, nothing too demanding, just 10 minutes at the end of the day. The very act of recording your observations will raise and sharpen your antennae.
Secondly, leaders were and will remain compelling communicators. Indeed, in a world of Twitter, Instagram and the rise of digital communication platforms, the imperative to be a compelling communicator is even greater. Otherwise your voice is lost in the noise.
A Purposeful Vision
But what should leaders communicate? The most important is to paint a vision of the future, to give people coping with change some idea of where we are headed. Closely related is that they provide a sense of purpose, they answer the question “what is this organisation really for?” Our recent research shows that the desire for a sense of purpose is increasing amongst the young but is present across all ages.
Leaders also communicate values. The guiding principles which regulate and inform our behaviour at work. Recent scandals in both the private, public, charitable and sporting arenas have made the issue of values absolutely central. And leaders do more than communicate values – they live them. Leaders are exemplars of organisational culture.
Finally, it was true and still is that people want to be led by a real person who they can trust. A lot follows from being a real person – real people bleed, sometimes cry and have weaknesses. Many executives don’t take their real selves to work, rather they role play through the week in the hope that they can rediscover their humanity at the weekend. They are destined to fail – and this helps to explain the epidemic of executive stress. Whether we like it or not, we will spend the bulk of our adult waking lives at work. It had better be a place where you can be yourself.
Yes, change is all around us, but for leaders there are also constants. The challenge is to be yourself, but skilfully and in context.
Gareth Jones is an IMI associate on the Senior Executive Programme. Gareth is an expert on organisational design, culture, leadership and change and is currently a visiting professor at the IE Business School, Madrid, and a Fellow of the Centre for Management Development at London Business School. Gareth has published several books co-authored with Rob Goffee, including “The Character of a Corporation” and “Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?”