Traditional leadership approaches still dominate businesses today. But to succeed in a disruptive age, we need to overhaul this outdated model and nurture a more progressive, connected leadership style.
The fourth industrial revolution – driven by the internet-of-things, hyper-connected systems and the increased utility of artificial intelligence – is upon us. Seismic shifts to business models and increased complexity within all aspects of organisational (and indeed personal) life, are fuelling a change in what counts as valuable work and in the very definition of leadership and leadership development.
Traditional models of leadership, with their ubiquitous leader-as-expert development programmes, are simply no longer viable as a means to drive future performance. What is required is a shift in our definition of leadership, a change in how we perceive leadership in action, and a rethinking of effective development activity.
The challenge – disconnected leadership
While the great-man myth has thankfully given way to more progressive and inclusive notions of leadership, current definitions of leadership as well as leadership development, need to catch up with the radical upheavals taking place in organisational life.
Traditional approaches to leadership still permeate despite the almost daily announcement of business collapse, struggle and attempted turnaround. These approaches, based on outdated leadership models and focused on taking individuals out of their environment to ‘teach’ skills, were entirely appropriate in less VUCA times. But as sole development strategies these are now dangerously out of date.
This method of leadership and development – which I term disconnected leadership (due to its disconnection from the realities of work today) – may provide an engaging experience.
Developing connected leaders demands a different approach to learning and development, one that goes way beyond traditional skills programmes.
But with an inevitable focus on the individual leader as expert, little emphasis on complexity and a dearth of discussion around systems, leaders are left exposed and unequipped to deal with the greatest leadership challenge of our generation: the ability to provide purpose and direction within a culture of emergent change and rapid disruption.
Successful navigation of this gargantuan challenge requires highly astute relationship management, a rich network, a willingness to act as coach rather than all-encompassing expert and the motivation to curiously engage in dialogue across organisational boundaries and business units.
The solution – connected leaders
If organisations are to thrive in the current climate then a new breed of connected leaders is required. The antitheses of the approach aforementioned, connected leaders resist the homeostatic comfort that comes from control and stability. They recognise that, in a world where agile new entrants can eradicate traditional players, the role of leadership has dramatically changed.
Connected leaders understand that their key role is to contribute to a culture that allows short-term business targets to be met, while creating the agility to continuous adapt.
So what are the characteristics of connected leaders? Let’s explore five key attributes:
1. Connecting across boundaries
Connected leaders have a breadth and depth of relationships across the business. These politically astute leaders understand the importance of social capital and spend time cultivating relationships within and across the organisation.
They are experts in bridging and brokering between groups – and regularly bring individuals together from multiple business units to work on a business challenge or opportunity.
They recognise the importance of diverse perspectives and free up time for individuals to reflect, generate ideas and experiment. At the right time, these leaders help turn ideas into actions and institutionalise the best of them which, in turn, engenders trust.
2. Outside-in thinking
Connected leaders challenge themselves and their team to stay up to date with external trends and thinking.
They bring their team together to discuss the social, technological, economic and political landscape, and ask incisive questions which spark debate, sense making and continuous learning.
They regularly ask ‘what can we learn from this?’ and ‘what impact could this have for our business?’ rather than simply providing input.
3. Injecting tension
Connected leaders recognise the importance of constructive conflict and challenge. They purposely destabilise and challenge the status quo by challenging teams to consider bold solutions.
They encourage debate and regularly ask ‘what have I missed?’ or ‘how do you see this?’ without feeling threatened or becoming defensive.
4. Reflective practice
Connected leaders create a continuous learning environment by regularly reflecting on both what and how work was achieved.
They believe time spent deconstructing work is as important as the work itself. They encourage critical team and self-reflection by regularly asking ‘what can we learn from this’ and ‘what do we need to do more of/less of next time?’
5. Systems approach
Connected leaders understand that creating a culture of agility, performance and innovation requires changes to all aspects of the organisational system.
They actively influence the way people are measured, recognised and rewarded. They also regularly scan the environment observing the intended and unintended consequences of action.
Developing connected leaders
Developing connected leaders demands a different approach to learning and development, one that goes way beyond traditional skills programmes. The focus here must be on creating an environment that replicates the very characteristics of the approach itself – healthy tension, the opportunity for dialogue, deep reflection and disruptive thinking.
A mindset shift, regarding the value of dialogue, reflexivity, critical thinking and problem solving as opposed to training is also required. Ultimately, with careful positioning and focus, time out of the environment which truly frees up leaders’ cognitive resources, can lead to significant action.
Hyper connection and disruption requires a shift in what leadership means in our current context.
While not new, action learning sets, design thinking workshops and idea generation sessions – coupled with opportunities for constructive feedback and reflection – are likely to be more effective than a development approach that only focuses on skills acquisition.
Time out of the organisation to bridge and bond with cross divisional colleagues and engage in dialogue and real life problem solving is also required. Put simply, leadership development must be entwined in the work that leaders do, not divorced from it. While skills programmes may seem safe and engaging few lead to the required changes in behaviour and culture in the short or long term.
Hyper connection and disruption requires a shift in what leadership means in our current context. The fourth revolution requires a similar revolution in our definition of leadership and leadership development. Without this we are likely to hear an ever increasing number of stories about business failure. The revolution is here… are you with me?
About Drew Moss
Drew Moss is a Chartered Organisational Psychologist and Head of Leadership, Business Skills and Professional Development at RSA Insurance. He has led L&OD teams in both the UK and Australia and is passionate about developing leaders at all levels with the ability and resiliance to rise to any challenge.