In many ways the context in which we lead today is unprecedented. The “megatrends” that affect our future are ignored at our peril. The impact and pace of demographic and social change, the scarcity of resource, the inequalities in our society, the complexity of our external environment and the impact of technology will all shape our future. Leaders will need to understand multiple perspectives and see “how things are connected” (Tse & Esposito, 2017).
Many of these perspectives come through in the words of the leaders in a book published by Møller Institute to mark its 25th anniversary year entitled Leadership Perspectives. The book features 25 leaders talking candidly about what they believe to be the greatest challenges facing leaders over the next 25 years. We acknowledge all our contributors for sharing their perspectives so we might learn from their experience, the essence of which is summarised below.
Leading in what is fast becoming a “global civilisation” requires leaders to have an open mindset, to cherish difference and harness the power of diversity. Lines are becoming blurred between countries and continents. Fast and visual global communication means that there is little that is unseen or unheard. Expectations of what might be possible for companies, communities and individuals are heightened, whilst somewhere in the world there is a disaster playing out. Leaders can no longer just look from the inside-out as they lead their organisations, but must focus on looking from the outside-in.
Leaders who get to grips with the complexity and interconnected nature of the social, environmental and economic context will see how to achieve positive outcomes whilst acting responsibly with
people and resources. They will balance short-term results with long-term investment, respecting their position as custodians of the planet whilst delivering for their shareholders.
Developing technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) and the digital revolution allow minimum human intervention. Leaders that see this as an opportunity will help their organisations to get ahead. How will leaders collaborate with and take advantage of AI? ‘Big Data’ enables us to follow patterns and behaviours to understand our potential customer base. New technologies in healthcare could revolutionise and broaden access to services to the benefit of all.
Technology facilitates connectivity, so leaders who can think systemically will see the relationships between barriers and enablers to business growth. Those who can dance between strategy and tactics will be able to seize opportunities for both the short and long term.
The speed of communication requires leaders to “act faster and more decisively” than previously. Widespread use of social media creates new emerging social structures. Information spreads instantly, judgments are made in seconds. ‘Fake news’ and bad news attract the most followers and leaders will come under more public scrutiny than ever before. “Presenting a trusted perspective” is an increasing challenge.
The pace of change features large in the challenge. Being agile and nimble in the face of constant uncertainty requires leaders to embrace new ways of thinking. As Churchill showed us, we must challenge the orthodoxy; best practice is no longer the order of the day. Leaders need to be “sponges”, with a growth mindset to soak up new knowledge and facilitate innovation to adapt fast to new business models.
Leaders can see uncertainty as a motivator. Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton show us that “the call of the unexplored and the unachieved exerts a stronger pull than any individual”. Not knowing all the answers can liberate leaders to explore with their teams the path to success.
In today’s highly complex global environment, leaders may be most effective when they use “their moral compass and presence” to guide them. Knowledge, truth, kindness and compassion serve leaders well in the face of tough decisions.
“At testing times when people confront the possibilities and threat of great change, powerful foundational values are evoked. They are the inspiration and guide to people who pursue and seek to shape change.” (MacGregor Burns, 2003)
Working in the face of rapid advances in science and technology demands new ways of working. A focus on culture and values will help leaders to influence behaviours that support the evolution of change. Leaders must learn to adapt to a world where “authority is not defined by position, hierarchy and title”, but engage with their people in emotional alignment behind a purpose.
Company purpose defines “a company’s existence and contribution to society” (Price & Toye, 2017). Leaders who facilitate strong organisational purpose can create “the sense of destiny that binds together all stakeholders” (EY, 2016). Young people particularly value this focus. In the face of accelerated social change, developing individuals to reflect on their own purpose can help them find meaning and energy to feel happy and confident to give of their best. “The supreme purpose of a CEO is to maximise employee happiness…which means customers get more.” (Price, M., 2017)
One final challenge for leaders is to find the courage to be vulnerable, and the authenticity to articulate a vision for business success which is sustainable, diverse and serves all stakeholders. Vision and inspiration may come from the “still small voice within you“. We encourage leaders to listen to their inner voice and face the truth about their own purpose and values. This will give them the strength to lead.