Re-imagining modern leadership

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To make an omelette you need to crack a few eggs. To re-imagine leadership for a modern age we may need to examine ourselves in detail, says Khurshed Dehnugara, partner at Relume.

The past decade has seen a growing challenge to the legitimacy and leadership of our governments, institutions and corporations. It is particularly difficult leading at a senior corporate level if you first started working about twenty years ago. The picture this conjures, in my mind at least, is of someone who has been educated formally and informally in a particular frame of reference, and is now in the middle of a phase shift towards something new that they are not well resourced to respond to.

A growing sense of dissatisfaction is hemmed in by a paradoxical reaction. We realise that the old ways are no longer working as effectively as we wish, and there’s a frantic desperation to stick to them, by working harder at them.

It is understandable that we want to hold onto the old winning formula. In the Western world in particular, we are the beneficiaries of an industrial society that has contributed health, wealth and wellbeing on an unprecedented scale, through organisational practices that we are reluctant to question. We have moved from an industrial age to an age of connection. The context in which we are living and working has shifted dramatically. [See September HR magazine’s cover story for more on how leadership models are having to adapt to this new world.]

So maybe the first quality needed for the next age is to be able to see things as they are rather than as we want them to be, to be able to stop and lift our heads a little. How might we dare to re-imagine our role as leaders of large organisations? What work needs to be done on our adaptive capacity?

There are a number of routes into this inquiry and for the purposes of this article I have concentrated on the potential changes needed to improve our relationship with power and capability.

Unconscious rules

Every workplace has a public communication that goes on between leaders and followers, coupled with ‘unconscious rules’ that are less transparent.

These unconscious rules have less and less relevance as the nature of our workplace slowly changes, from one created through mechanistic, military and industrial designs to one that owes more to alternative forms, metaphors and ways of relating to each other. From one that prospered in a relatively stable, high growth environment to one that is challenged by an unstable and low growth world.

There is no sudden change and this makes the transition all the more difficult to navigate. There are endings, beginnings and ‘in-betweens’ going on all around us, all at the same time. We are left disoriented as some aspects are disintegrating and others are emerging.

The old paradigm was one in which superior value was placed on size, planning, security, control, perfection, high growth, individual accountability, consistency, positional power, and profitability. 

It is being forced to adapt to one in which instability, disturbance, emergence, networks, trial, error, informal learning, adaptability, low growth, fluctuation and momentum are playing a much greater role. The old constructs, typically masculine, industrial and full of certainty are less capable of meeting the changing nature of the world.

The difficulty we are having with this transition is manifesting in a range of ways in all our large institutions. Anxiety is expressed from both leaders and followers

in ways that spiral downward, through blame, self-protection, fewer risks, less creativity and participation, new rules and regulations, and less engagement.

I have been coaching executives and facilitating teams who are navigating this territory. The core question we regularly address is how to turn destructive anxiety about this phase shift into something that can be used creatively.

Power shift

In order to answer that question we must challenge our old perceptions of power. We can no longer exert our influence through dominating the thinking and directing the work of others. Power in the next age is exerted through our capacity to connect with others. As such we will have to work with awareness and persistence if we are to succeed. 

How we develop these key practices is a focus of the work ahead for our organisations.

The developmental work is likely to be split into two categories: inner work and outer work.

The inner work is a challenge to your mindsets and habits. It develops your courage, authenticity and resilience. The outer work focuses on your relationships, approaches and acts of leadership. It creates the environmental conditions that enable the shift to occur ‘out there’ in your workplace and market.

There are many avenues to explore in this vein. For this article I have attempted just one: how can both leaders and followers develop themselves, inside and outside?  The way we exert our power and the way we make contact with each other both need re-evaluating. 

Leading authentically

I am optimistic about the impact of this phase shift on our workplaces. There is the possibility that in getting through it we will meet each other in a manner that has been mostly disallowed and only occasionally glimpsed. There is potential for a new quality of connection to be made.

We may find new forms of expression if we are able to deal with the risk to self that challenging other people and old practices requires. It is a more unprotected, unknowing, incapable and inexperienced part of us that comes to the fore and helps navigate this challenging time.

This is an exciting and difficult era to be leading large, complex, global organisations. If, for our businesses, our workplaces and ourselves, we can realise the benefit of cracking ourselves open.

Khurshed Dehnugara is a partner at Relume. His second book Flawed but Willing: Leading Large Organisations in the Age of Connection is available now. You can contact him on twitter @relume1.

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