New Leadership Lens

Before COVID-19, many leaders had accepted that the world was “VUCA”, or volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. COVID-19 took this classification to a new level. Post-pandemic, every industry is going to require change and reinvention. This disruption will impact job security, job creation, money, and opportunity. Leaders desire control, stability, and certainty, but we must learn how to adapt to those changes with new ways of working and learning. Leadership in this environment consists of defining boundaries, seeding the space, paying attention to emerging patterns, providing stimulus to the desired patterns, and dampening the undesired. It is a shift from surviving to thriving, achieved by confronting the old ways of thinking and doing.

If we are to confront our biggest challenges, we need organisations dedicated to learning. And with learning comes an appreciation that we must make mistakes along the way. That is a challenge for leaders and organisations who desire certainty and stability at all times. In order to affect real change, we need courageous leadership and disruptive discomfort, risk, and uncertainty.

While leadership is certainly a function of time, place, and circumstance, there are some common capabilities that are shared among high-impact leaders, such as the ability to adapt, adjust, and learn. A new view of leadership is emerging, one that believes that experiential learning that is constructed from exploring and analysing one’s experiences throughout a personal leadership journey. This analysis is key to leadership development and capacity enhancement. With this new lens comes the recognition of new models of leadership, such as “distributed” or “shared” leadership, as it is often that no one person could have all the requisite expertise to affect major changes in a complex system.

Leadership sits in every chair. The pandemic has confirmed purpose, empathy, and shared meaning as critical qualities for leaders, as they build the foundations for stability and growth. Stale protocols, outmoded agendas, incomplete strategies, forceful top-down mandates, self-serving ambitions, and unavailing quick fixes must be abandoned. 

Moving From Quick Fixes

Many leaders promote “quick fixes” at an incredible rate, and along with a “quick fix” comes a constant stream of change redo. Most challenges in human systems cannot be solved with a quick technical fix, regardless of how badly we yearn for it. Quick fixes lead to postponed problems. Leaders, eager to please, will often respond by developing solutions that might alleviate the undesirable symptoms, but not the underlying origin. A major pitfall of leadership is an assumption that they alone are the ones who must come up with each answer.

Quick fixes keep folks focused and rewarded for repair solutions. Leaders who promote ‘quick fixes’ live in a fishbowl of tinkering and temporary “band-aid” fixes, the busy-work that papers over festering wounds, old mindsets and behaviors, elitism, outdated processes, uncertainty, and threat. In the meantime, the leadership gap and disengagement continue to grow. Like a fish swimming through water, many leaders often can’t distinguish themselves from the context around them, making it difficult to see the impact of their actions on the culture and functioning of an organisation.

Conventional tweaks and quick fixes only prolong the ills of human organisational systems. The perpetuation of the status quo must be terminated. Leaders need to be gritty–they need to stand up against outdated systems and relationship patterns. They need to use their voice, influence, and energy to break down and remove each component that obstructs system change. Leaders must strip the human organisational system of its futility and detritus, so the system can become nimble and capable of transformation

Agility and Adaptability

As the world becomes increasingly chaotic and unpredictable, leadership will require increased agility and an ability to adapt to both internal and external environmental conditions. There is no clear answer as to what the “right” leadership model should be. To an extent, the culture and context in which the leader functions determine the needed model. However, when we are clear about who we are and what is important to us, our organisations have a higher probability of achieving lasting goals.

It is all too easy to revisit the same issues, engage in the same conversations, and appeal for money as the solution to all problems. Clinging to outdated processes will continue to fail us. Our job as leaders is to discover solutions best suited for the situations before us. The solutions required are found within your own organisations. The necessary understandings leaders seek live within the hearts and minds of the organisation’s employees.

Yes, little is certain. The tempo is quicker, the dynamics are more complex, feedback loops are intense, and all of these changes exist within a hyper-connected world driven by informed customers. Leverage lies in understanding dynamic complexity and seeing inter-relationships rather than linear cause-and-effect chains. Leaders have an opportunity to provide strategic thinking. The skills, power, and passion required to meet this challenge today are present in abundance in our organisations. So leaders must begin dealing with polarities and conflicts with precision.

Transformation demands that leaders, wherever they are in their leadership journey, change their behaviour in order to improve their systems thinking, strategic thinking, communication, coalition building, information sharing, and team-building. Each behaviour change is a discrete act of both will and corresponding action, and it takes discipline to build the reflection and practice time into this very demanding environment.

Nudge Forward

We have all witnessed difficult interactions that, if tweaked, could have produced a different result. We have all witnessed an episode of sustainable transformation, when the stakeholders truly understood and embraced the organisational vision. Learning organisations invest in the learning and growth of its people. Building learning organisations requires a basic shift in how we think and interact. Learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through constant learning, we continually re-create ourselves. Through learning, we can actualise things we never thought possible. Through learning, we reinterpret the world and our relationship to it. Through learning, we extend our capacity to create—and become part of the generative process of life.

Now is the time to deal with slow decision making; siloed and confusing structures that bog thing down and remove layers of unnecessary bureaucracy. Instead of thinking and acting as isolated silos under siege, governance and managerial leaders can choose to see themselves through another lens of co-existence and having the courage and conviction to do what is right.

Now is the time to pivot “VUCA” to a new acronym: to a Vision that is shared, with Understanding as a key building block to healthy relationships, enabling growth of Collective strength that removes systemic and emotional barriers, to possibility and potential Accomplishments for all. 

Five Reflections to Make Going Forward:

  1.   Are you out to protect the status quo, or are you in genuine stewardship for the greater good?
  2.  Reflecting on your personal COVID-19 learning, what will you be doing to address the unseen  struggles that are beneath the surface that no one wants to talk about?
  3.  Are you open to change; are you open to learning; open to seeking and exploring a range of possibilities that you may not have thought about before? 
  4.  The learning organisation metaphor is a powerful tool–how are you developing it practically? 
  5.  What behaviour have you tolerated in yourself, or in others, that can no longer be tolerated?