There is a marked change in our perception of leadership qualities and the essentials of what is leadership or what makes for good leaders. There have been three attempts to redefine leadership over the past ten days and each stresses the cerebral quality of the leader. I take that to be a significant change from past preoccupations, where the leadership quality of choice tended to be charismatic or commanding. So what are the three new qualities of leadership?
Three new qualities of leadership
In The Elastic Enterprise Nick Vitalari and I emphasise the ability of leaders to do effective cognitive reframing and to develop the skill of orchestrating complex ecosystems. We think this also means leaders need to be cross-disciplinary in background and need a good handle on IT and related technologies. More below.
In the Harvard Business Review, September edition, Gökçe Sargut and Rita Gunther McGrath wrote a great piece on the skills needed to run complex, as opposed to complicated, systems. I particularly value their insight into the rarity yet repetitive recurrence of black swan events. More of that in a minute.
And on HBR blogs, Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregerson talk about the capacity of leaders to think differently. This strikes me as less rooted in the current evolution of the business environment and therefore a more generic quality of leaders across time. You can also follow their description of associative thinking in The Innovators’ DNA.
What do theses three approaches tell us?
Leadership and context
The first lesson I draw from them is that we are most definitely focused on what leaders are doing to deal with new environments. In the case of Dyer and Gregerson that seems to be a prescription. Leaders have to generate new ideas, they need that cognitive capacity and the question is – can it be learned? In this view of the leader, the leader is the source of ideas that change the product, business model or opportunity range of the enterprise.
The other two approaches are different – they are saying, the circumstances are changing. In fact they are saying that circumstances have changed so substantially that the only leaders who will prosper are those capable of substantially reframing the context of work or wealth creation.
By reframing the context I mean creating a new cognitive landscape for employees, shareholders, analysts, customers, and partners, enabling them to see the present and future differently. The leader who sees this as a context for innovation could be quite limited in impact. The leader needs to see transformation.
Transformation is driven by numerous factors. Convergence in many areas like computing and mobility; the emergence of new sources of discretionary spending; new geopolitical power plays; the impact of technologies of association (not just communication) and more.
In The Elastic Enterprise our concern is with doing business in this transformational economy.
Before going on to that I’d like to acknowledge that we hadn’t incorporated the important transition noted by Sargut and McGrath, from complicated to complex, from the broad portfolio management of yesterday to a situation tomorrow where complex business ecosystems make it increasingly difficult to predict outcomes.
That requires a leader capable of introducing new matrix management techniques, recruiting employees who clearly bring diverse perspectives to their roles, understanding ecosystem behaviours, and cultivating a culture that can deal with the unpredicted. I could be over simplifying so please take a read of Sargut and McGrath’s article. I find it sets out one vitally important area of the new context of leadership very well.
We chose the term sapient leadership to describe what we see changing in the leader’s role.
What we try to capture with our idea of sapient leadership is that the leadership skill most needed right now is transformative. It is important to transform the enterprise to a new operating system, to rebuild the way business is done, to put new building blocks in place.