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The leadership we need for the age of disruption

Given the complexity and turbulence that have become the new normal, now more than ever we need the right leadership, at the right level, for the right time.

Yet both corporate longevity and executive tenure are decreasing, indicating that there’s a mismatch between the type of executive leadership that we have relative to what we need.

Effective leadership:

With leadership, do we understand enough about those who follow?

What to do when leadership fails

What makes the perfect leader?

Along with 17 veteran CEOs, I explored the ways of thinking, acting and being that executive leaders must become fluent in to lead well today. The research is called Advanced Executive Fluency: responding to new leadership challenges in a complex world.

I found that the most successful executive leaders evolve to meet the requirements and responsibilities of the level they’re at. Yet it’s the move to the C-suite where this is most likely to stall.

Too many executives fail to balance their functional leadership: a focus on execution – with enterprise leadership: ensuring the organisation adapts in our new world.

The research outlined the four areas that executives must become fluent. They are:

Cognitive fluency: Leaders are increasingly grappling with complexity, so they must develop the capacity and methods to work with it effectively. This involves avoiding the category error of trying to treat complex issues that are emergent, turbulent, and interdependent in a rationalist, linear way.

Future fluency: We need our organisations to be agile and responsive to change in the environment. But to do so, leaders first need to understand the plausible ways that change could happen so they can be ready to quickly pivot.

Future fluency requires leaders move out of short-term thinking and develop the capacity to spot weak signals early enough that they can take positive action.

Ethical fluency: Executive leaders set the tone for ethical behaviour. The decisions that leaders make and the behaviours they display will influence what becomes acceptable – even if they run counter to what’s set out in policies and procedures.

Ethical fluency is the ability to make human-centric decisions that take full account of the impact and consequences for myriad stakeholder groups.

Emotional fluency: We’ve come to accept that a rational data-driven decision-making style; characterised by research and logical evaluation of data is the only decision-making style. Rather than try to cover decision making in a cloak of rationality, emotional fluency requires that leaders accept that even sound and rational decisions are made using a combination of objective and subjective factors. Therefore, executives must learn to tune into and self-regulate their internal emotional states to exercise better judgement.

The CEO contributors worked with me to both explore the fluency areas and to examine the barriers to executive leaders becoming fluent in these areas.

The research has implications for how executive leaders and teams are developed. Of particular importance is that leadership at the executive level is collective, so the development should involve the entire team in situ as they work to solve live organisational issues.

Now more than ever, we need executives who can anticipate, navigate, and lead in a disrupted and complex world.

The research study was conducted with 17 CEOs across the UK and Nordics during 2021.


Jacqueline Conway is managing director at consultancy Waldencroft