Leadership cannot be summed up by a list of action points. Leadership is an active interaction with the world and involves bringing into being new possibilities from within real constraints.
Managing constant change has been a theme for a decade or more. Dealing with discontinuous change is a much more recent phenomenon. If tomorrow is not the same as yesterday, what do leaders draw upon to help guide them to make wise decisions? Clearly, past experience cannot be the whole answer.
Though the demands faced by leaders are becoming clearer, the essence of leadership is difficult to capture. The question of what it takes to be a good leader has been the subject of much thought and research – and the recent increase in interest coincides with the step changes in complexity many organisations face.
We live, lead and work in an era of contradictory forces. The waves of change sweeping the world – including digitalisation, globalisation, demographic shifts, migration and the rapid degradation of social and natural capital – are creating opposing tensions. You can see these any time you open a newspaper or management journal: speed versus sustainability; exploration versus exploitation; global versus local ways of organising; top-down versus bottom-up approaches to leadership.
While there has always been upheaval in human history, there is something different about today’s circumstances. According to a recent “white paper”, Dialog on Leadership, from the McKinsey Society for Organisational Learning: “The pace of change is somehow faster, the frequency and amplitude of restructuring and reforming are significantly greater, and the pathways of emerging futures seem to be less predictable than they were in earlier times”.
These waves of change have been evident for some time albeit the tensions are increasing as time passes. In addition, in recent years there have been huge discontinuities in markets and social structures. We have seen the inflation and bursting of the dot-com bubble, the collapse of global corporations (Enron being one example) and upward movement of share prices give way to wild fluctuations and massive devaluation of assets. And this is just the business world. No list of events marking discontinuous change could be complete without reference to September 11 2001.
If we cannot look to past experience, technical knowhow or acquired knowledge to determine what it takes to be a leader, then what is it that makes a difference?