PERSPECTIVES

DEVELOPING LEADERS FOR UNCERTAIN TIMES

Over the past few months, as the UK has been swirling in a pool of political and economic uncertainty, more and more of our clients are asking us about leadership development. It is as though uncertainty brings the need for strong leaders to the forefront of peoples’ minds.
Over the past few months, as the UK has been swirling in a pool of political and economic uncertainty, more and more of our clients are asking us about leadership development. It is as though uncertainty brings the need for strong leaders to the forefront of peoples’ minds.

DEVELOPING LEADERS FOR UNCERTAIN TIMES

Leadership is crucial to navigating uncertainty, because without a clear direction, organisations can falter and fail in the face of unforeseen challenges.

In our recent white paper on innovating in uncertain times, we outlined the need for organisations to operate with a clear focus, to move at pace, and to operate with an Experimental Mindset. But to achieve this, what kind of leadership do they need?

Decisive leaders who can set and maintain course

As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice in Wonderland, if you don’t much care where you’re going, “it doesn’t much matter which way you go.” Leaders in organisations need to be decisive and strategic in focusing the organisation so that everybody is working towards the same goals. This is sometimes called the North Star, Vision, or Mission. We call it The Direction.

With a clear Direction your people can see that the journey they are on as an organisation is driven by a purpose and linked to business goals. This means that employees can draw connections between their job and the goals of the business, creating meaning in uncertain times.

Leaders who set a clear direction communicate it with confidence, instilling confidence in others. They avoid knee-jerk changes to direction or leadership style, and celebrate successes which link back to the direction. Most importantly, leaders who set a clear direction in uncertain times acknowledge the reality of the moment, contextualise the organisation’s direction in an uncertain world, and keep communication channels open, to continually reinforce the direction of travel to the organisation.

Leaders who can inspire people to move at pace and be experimental

Uncertainty has been identified as a primary cause of procrastination in individuals. It can also lead to a ‘hunkering down’ mentality in organisations, as they seek to ‘weather the storm’. However, uncertainty in a digital age is not like sitting out a hurricane until it passes. The uncertainty itself is an opportunity which can be seized, and only those organisations which take the opportunities will succeed.

Leaders need to encourage and inspire their people to move at pace and experiment, to seize the opportunities presented by uncertain times. This requires an ability to:

  • align the organisation behind innovation efforts,
  • empower teams to make autonomous decisions, and
  • tolerate and manage risk
  • accept and reward failure

When organisations have leaders who can do these things, they are well placed to quickly seize opportunities presented by uncertain times, and will not only survive, but also thrive.

Outcome Focused Leadership Development

In this context, what can we say about leadership development? So much leadership development seems to focus on input: models, frameworks, theories etc. The reality of leadership in uncertain times is that it needs to be outward focused. Leaders enable others. They do not solely lead themselves. Too many off-the-shelf leadership development programmes seem to put so much emphasis on developing the leaders themselves, that they forget to ask the key question: why are we developing these leaders?

When we work with clients on developing leadership programmes, we tend to focus on three core areas:

Leading self: a focus on ensuring they are leading with purpose, equipped to lead, and resilient in their leadership. However, this is not the end in itself. This focus is there so that they can effectively lead others.

Leading others: once people are effectively leading themselves, they can focus outwardly, to lead others in their teams. This is about aligning, inspiring, motivating, driving performance, and instilling the direction in others. This is not the end of leadership. Ultimately, leadership is about leading the organisation.

Leading the organisation: a focus on the direction to deliver results. This focus moves beyond the team, to supporting other leaders in the business through networks and peer leadership, to external relationships to bring new value and insight, and to a focus on outcomes which deliver on the strategic direction.

This looks simple, and it is, yet so many development programmes forget to draw this line of sight from developmental input to business outcome.

Leadership Development cannot be done in isolation. It must have a relentless focus on the end-result, which is a better led organisation delivering outcomes which achieve its direction.

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