Leadership's role during disruption
Omid Aschari, December 11, 2017
Leaders must prioritise three things to successfully cope with corporate transformation
Our world and its social and organisational systems are highly interdependent and, in the face of rapidly rising complexities and ambiguities, are in need of a unifying vision of what kind of future should be navigated towards. However, it is crucial to understand that unity of vision rests on lively diversity. Whereas unity ensures that, for instance, a corporate is effectively aligned towards goals and their implementation, diversity is the key ingredient for innovation and internal balance. Both elements – unity and diversity – need to be seen as intertwined processes that need constant leadership attention to ensure a successful balance.
What does this mean for governing and leading such processes? No longer is leadership defined by a position, which is often associated with assuming power over others. Rather, leadership is a responsibility to be of service to others. Similarly, for an organisation – in its quest to serve customers – the crucial question is 'what kind of an organisation do we want to evolve into?' For a leader this means shifting focus from purely gazing at (financial) success indicators, to explicitly including crucial organisational drivers that allow the corporate to unearth its future potential. This very focus requires the corporate leader to unify all levels of the organisation around a purposeful vision and to ensure there is a diverse mix of talents, approaches and perspectives to unfold the vision in an orchestrated manner.
Today many corporates are struggling with sustaining growth towards an envisioned future. One of the reasons is that growth is implicitly misunderstood as a linear function that can only be captured upfront in a strategic planning cycle. The fact is that our markets and industries are becoming less predictable. The viability of our organisations – like all living systems – rests on transformation. Leadership has a distinct role to play in allowing corporate transformation to take place. There are three quite straightforward preconditions leadership must prioritise to successfully cope with corporate transformation:
Leaders that can navigate corporate transformation need to first and foremost be crystal-clear on why they are working for their organisations. They must choose not to merely work for a career, but to do so for a purpose that goes beyond one’s job. On the basis of deep reflections, they can then derive a strategic lens of how to best serve their organisations. This is the basis of priorities and further deliberations with co-workers about organisational strategy.
It is the skill of advanced collaboration in its various forms and facets that can enable an organisation to constantly align towards an evolving vision and allow for diversity to be utilised towards innovation and progress. However, collaboration in the spirit of mutually interdependent responsibilities is a different animal than subtle hierarchy-based interventions in the name of collaboration. One central aspect is to understand that leadership is not confined to the top levels. Leadership qualities are needed on all organisational levels. Generally speaking, our organisations are still novices to using collaboration to empower their people to read, assess and tap into future potential.
Leaders need to understand that corporate transformation means undergoing a path of experience-based learning that, in the end, enables the organisation to sustain growth. In other words, we cannot build on growth if the whole system has not matured and digested the insights along the growth. This requires a learning culture that leaders must role model in their attitude towards growth. As Richard Branson once said, a "setback is never a bad experience, just a learning curve". The higher the awareness and determination of leaders and the more systematic their approach, the steeper the learning curve will be.Omid Aschari is associate professor of strategic management at the University of St. Gallen