We talk about leadership in many contexts: the business leaders running our companies; the politicians who run anything from your council to the whole country; and the ordinary people who lead, either by choice, say as the frontman in a band or the head of a scout group, or by being pushed into the spotlight when crisis demands that they step up to the plate.
Whichever of these fits the bill, the role of leader has changed irrevocably, and therefore so have the skills required to sustain leadership. Winston Churchill or Clement Attlee would find the skills required by David Cameron or Tony Blair to be unrecognisable.
Above all, status has been democratised. The old distinctions of class have melted away. Organisational structures are flatter. Knowledge is so prevalent that talent can easily rise; yet equally nobody can know everything, so leaders must engage and collaborate. Here are two trends we have identified which will matter for those at the top.
Leadership To Followership
The Queen may be a model of serenity and dignity in a changing world, but she is also a model of an older style of leadership which is dying out: legitimacy conferred automatically. Future leaders, whether governmental or corporate, will remain in positions of authority specifically because people are prepared to follow them. Simply having ‘manager’ on your LinkedIn profile or business card, having a respected qualification, or having epaulettes on your uniform will not be enough: modern leadership is conferred by the crowd and it is socially validated.
A great example is the movement in Egypt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. In the uprisings that came to be known as the Arab Spring, media interviews on the streets made it clear that nobody was directing the situation. Young people used online tools to force regime change: Mubarak’s leadership was devalued by consensus and instead leadership was distributed across the network. They were not the first generation to want him out, but they were the first with the tools and collective mindset to make it happen. Today, Egypt is still in upheaval, and few would say the Arab Spring has achieved either stability or an ideal result in their country; but it is a powerful example of legitimacy being removed by the people.
This might seem frightening to some leaders – after all, they fought hard to achieve their hegemony; with long days and plenty of sacrifices along the way. Are they not entitled to their positions? Well, entitlement is exactly the commodity which is being removed. Leaders will be judged on the current environment, not yesterday’s effort. This will mean that age is something of a disadvantage (a lifetime’s experience won’t count for much against a current crisis) and leaders must also carefully manage the “court of public opinion” on social media – it is more powerful than they are.
This challenging world can be softened. To do so, leaders must lose their autocracy and isolation. Smart leaders will ‘work out loud’, talking about their work and challenges publicly, online. John Stepper, MD of Deutsche Bank, for example, introduced “MyDB”; a company-wide social media platform. He uses it to crowd-source solutions to problems and blogs regularly. He is visible, leads by example and openly rather than behind closed doors. Leaders may have lost their natural entitlement, but they have gained the opportunity to wield broader influence, with a collaborative justification which can be much harder to unseat.
In the same vein, there is little room for ‘heroic’ leaders; well-meaning over-achievers who crusade onwards but take the whole world on their shoulders. Even these heroes are no match for an aligned organisation and a collaborative effort. A future made up of complex and sometimes chaotic environments is simply less suited to lone managers and better suited to smart and flexible networks. Future leaders will need to instil belief in those that follow them, and bring some of those followers up to the top table, too.
Analysing To Synthesising
It is impossible to summarise the great qualities of leadership in a page- it’s the sort of thing that whole books are written about. But what is interesting is that these qualities are not set in stone. It certainly helps to be committed, to be a great communicator and persuader. But it is also a leader’s obligation to be attuned to the world around them and to have enough of an ear to the ground to be able to anticipate change and then react accordingly.
That means being open to change. One of the key changes facing leaders today is information overload – allied with an over-reliance on data. Here’s how it works. We have more data at our disposal than ever before; and CEOs are well used to data: management reports are the bread-and-butter of business decision making. They analyse it rigorously and decide what to do: it’s what the market expects. But often, people confound the data. When David Cameron won the 2015 UK general election, not a single opinion poll had predicted a win. In a changing world, whilst data offers ever more predictive opportunities, it also offers more opportunities to screw up. But CEOs rely on it because it is clear and quantitative.
Instead, leaders must move to a synthesising mindset; which can connect the dots of multiple issues, signposted by multiple sources, instinctively, to form the relationships between them. They will appreciate the complexities of a situation without being blinded by the specifics. There is a component of instinct or gut feel: something entrepreneurs credit hugely, but which larger organisations tend to breed out in favour of analytics.
A simple metaphor would be driving a car. The driverless cars currently in development solve driving challenges by digital brute force – thousands of pieces of numeric analysis every second – rather like the analytical CEO. Yet people drive cars in a totally different way, synthesising triggers from all around (pedestrians, the traffic up ahead, the speedo) and making decisions instinctively and by synthesis. Both get results, but the human brain is wired to spot patterns and trends, to organise concepts to create mosaics and meaning; and in so doing, to form something greater than the sum of its parts.
The driverless car is impressive, and it will read its surroundings successfully and react accordingly. But the synthesising CEO will transcend reactive approaches and with the confidence of multiple rich sources, will build a world-view from which she can better be prepared for the future. She will spot trends and infer meaningful relationships which put her at the cusp of a trend in a way that raw analytics cannot achieve.