The keys to successful modern leadership are critical thinking, the ability to be nimble and adaptive and for companies to be informed, decisive, and experimental, writes Kath Walters.

    Our view of leadership has not shifted much since the industrial revolution. Modern leadership is still “command and control”; what’s new is the subtlety with which leaders issue commands. In the past, the message was: “Do what I say, or else”. Today it is: “Do what I say, and here’s how to be happy about it”. Where once leaders issued commands, today they persuade and influence their followers to do their bidding.

    Modern leadership requires a radical review: a shift from this one-way communication style to a two-way conversation. The leader’s role is not to tell their people how to be followers, but to listen to their followers about how to be leaders. Why is this an imperative today? Why should leaders risk such a change?

    Wicked problems can’t be solved by individuals. Today’s commercial problems are too complex for a leader, or even a team of leaders to solve on their own. As a starting point, consider the recent example of Eddie McGuire, the [then] Collingwood chairman, who was roundly chastised for his public comments about drowning Fairfax journalist, Caroline Wilson.

    As a leader, McGuire failed to understand the impact of his comments on a government campaign to change community attitudes to violence against women. The national outcry initially had little impact on McGuire, who made a weak apology. But his understanding was improved within days as he listened to the large number of experts and citizens who joined Wilson in condemning his comments.

    In business, the problem is volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA); a term coined by the US military. Whole industries are being disrupted — media, taxis, hotels. In other words, there is a lot to deal with in business. We need a lot of engaged minds, to come up with solutions. We need to disrupt leadership itself.

    Leadership training is expensive and ineffective. The leadership training industry rakes in $US50 billion a year. Yet we have very little evidence to support the quality and effectiveness of the training that leaders receive, writes Harvard researcher, Barbara Kellerman, in her book, The End of Leadership.

    Instead, Kellerman shows that this enormous investment has been ineffective and the world is grappling with a declining standard of leadership. The global financial crisis leaps to mind as a failure of leadership at almost every level – among companies, regulators, and rating agencies, to name a few – and across many countries. 

    Followers have more power. Leaders wring their hands about millennials who leave for a new job if they are not happy with their current one. But that is the new world. All of us have more choice because we can find thousands of alternative jobs online. Staff are informed. When their leaders make decisions, followers research their ideas online. They are often more informed than their leaders, many of whom have no qualifications beyond high school, according to recent research by the Centre for Workplace Leadership. At work, at home and in society, citizens can more effectively hold their leaders to account.

    The real job of leadership has never been more important. To be nimble and adaptive, companies need to be informed, decisive, and experimental. Companies need leaders more than ever to be scanning the horizon for threats and opportunities. However, it’s not a matter of only looking outside for that information. A leader’s staff can be a rich (and cheap) source of data, intuition and trends. They can also provide a rapid filter for ideas that leaders bring back from outside. They can point out weaknesses, highlight risks and deliver the perspective of customers with whom they deal every day.

    Leaders have resources within their businesses – their staff – who can bring decades of experience to the task of solving VUCA challenges. The best training would help leaders to harness this resource. It would help them learn to receive criticism without getting their egos bent out of shape.

    At the same time, leaders need to spend more on training staff in critical thinking and the skill of disagreeing agreeably, choosing their battles and managing their energy and resilience. This will foster the conversations about the VUCA challenges that drive agile change.

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