Leadership: Leading by relinquishing

Some interesting leadership research by global business consultancy Hay Group crossed my desk recently. It underpins what seems glaringly obvious but which is not gaining rapid traction – specifically, leaders must acquire host of new skills and competencies to lead successfully in our fast changing world.
Leaders must become adept “conceptual and strategic thinkers”, says the research. But the other qualities it identifies and which seem to me even more important because they are missing in the majority of our corporate directors and senior executives, are “deep integrity and intellectual openness”.
Leaders must, according to the study, find new ways to “create loyalty” and “lead increasingly diverse and independent teams over which they may not always have direct authority”. This is anathema to all but tiny number of organisational exceptions.
Leaders will increasingly need to “relinquish their own power in favour of collaborative approaches inside and outside the organisation”.
Making fun of the wafer-thin competency of our current organisational leadership is probably cheap shot, but the cost of sustaining our old-style leadership is, unfortunately, measurably real and climbs higher by the day.
The study identifies six megatrends as the drivers of the need for dramatic change in leadership style and approach. Those trends, already well known and extensively researched, are accelerating globalisation (globalisation 2.0); climate change; demographic change; individualisation and values pluralism; increasingly digital lifestyles; and technology convergence.
The competencies required to lead in world dominated by these trends form what Hay calls “post-heroic” leadership style. To accomplish it, today’s leaders must abandon most of the thinking and behaviour that has hitherto propelled them to the top of their organisations. Because they will feel uncomfortable at the prospect, most individuals will continue to lead as they have for as long as they can.
The study doesn’t, however, think leaders will have much choice but to change their ways.
Leaders worth their salt will radically adapt their organisational cultures, structures, systems and processes to survive in the new world order. According to the Hay researchers, they will have to manage in matrix structures where information flows around the organisation and the globe in ways that render “traditional hierarchies and reporting lines redundant”.
If, as they suggest, leaders will in future manage through influence rather than authority, something must give in the now.
The demands the changing business climate will have on leaders at cognitive, emotional and behavioural level will, Hay predicts, be unprecedented. And while the study doesn’t say so, it seems inevitable that any revolution in leadership style and approach will be led by women. Governance, as we have suffered it, must change dramatically and increasingly, women are showing the silly old male fools of yesteryear what it takes.
A transition to more women at the top might be what, at least in part, prompted the leadership researchers to suggest that while organisations and their leaders face tough challenges, those challenges are “not insurmountable”. As they also say, the best led companies are already in the vanguard of “post-heroic leadership approach”.
These companies are becoming more effective because they embrace leadership and workforce diversity which, in turn, reflects the increasing diversity of their markets. They are also “improving their cross-cultural leadership and collaboration”. And finally, they are more socially and environmentally responsible than their peers, ensuring that their employees can strike good balance between work and the rest of their lives.
I agree with the study’s final conclusion. “Old structures and leadership styles just won’t cut it any longer.” Hallelujah – but don’t hold your breath! M

Reg Birchfield is writer on management, governance and leadership. [email protected]

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