Changing Leadership Roles for the Future of Work

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We closed our recent post with some observations about the impact that changes to the organisation will have on leadership style. It has always been true, of course, that great leaders liberate and enable rather than constrain and instruct, and I’d go so far as to say that the single greatest attribute a leader can have is the ability to create the environment that is right for their business and their people. I remember the realisation, the first time I led a company, that if I fulfilled my own potential, one person would achieve more than he otherwise would. If I could contribute towards a hundred people fulfilling their potential, the collective benefit would be exponentially greater – and so, by the way, would mine.

Collapse of old-style support mechanisms

Indeed, we can describe what makes a great leader today in much the same way as we would have done ten, twenty or thirty years ago, probably many more. It’s more important now, though, because we’re witnessing the collapse of the support mechanisms that enabled the survival of less enlightened leadership styles, often self-centred and even narcissistic. Military-style organisation structures permitted tight control, at times they demanded it; the structures of the future will be a different proposition.

Personal leadership style

Leadership will still have a great deal to do with personal style. Decisions will still have to be taken. The environment still has to be established and maintained. Statutory, regulatory and fiduciary duties still exist, in fact they’re more important and demanding than ever before. And it has always been true that the best leaders are those who understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and what will excite and motivate their colleagues who look to them for leadership. What is changing is the nature of the world in which those leaders and their people operate, both within the organisation and externally. And the nature of that change is good news for the really great and natural leaders of this world, because it will play to their strengths far more than anything they’ve had to work with up till now. An excellent insight into the thought processes of a CEO, Jim Whitehouse, entering a world (at Red Hat) where passion and belief in what the company is doing counts for more than hierarchy and salary, is given by his book “The Open Organisation: Igniting Passion and Performance”. Perhaps getting a Red Hat tattoo, as some Red Hatters did, is taking things a bit far – but who wouldn’t love to work in a business in which people were that passionate about what their organisation was doing?

Autonomy and democratisation

As businesses become flatter and more distributed, both organisationally and, with greater remote working, geographically, greater freedom and autonomy is virtually a given. Many of those people who drove up the percentage of remote / home workers in the UK economy from around 10% to almost 50% this spring have, often intuitively rather than consciously, accepted this over the past few months. Their employer may be investing in software and management practices that enable them to monitor behaviour and productivity quite tightly – and Business Insider has made the rather dystopic prediction that over 80% of Fortune 500 companies will expand their employee-monitoring capabilities by the end of 2020 – but they’ll need to be clear that this won’t be enough. In many businesses, depending somewhat on the nature of the job, of course, it will be a far better leadership message to give the employee a significant degree of choice in how they impose their own disciplines.

Indeed, this is yet another aspect of business life in which existing developments have been accelerated by the pandemic. I’ve had conversations with senior people in many organisations over the past few months about how they adapted to lockdown – the practicalities of getting an army of people, most of whom had never worked at home before, set up as remote workers almost overnight, but also how the shift affected leadership style. If there is one word to describe what answers I got to the latter question, it is “democratisation”. Leaders had to learn how to replace the face-to-face interactions they could no longer have, but in many cases this meant that they were making themselves more accessible to colleagues based in different locations, no matter how often they were used to being visited in the past. This change has in some cases impacted culture and behaviours. One executive observed to me that people who wouldn’t normally have approached him directly in the office were now quite comfortable initiating an online chat with him. They saw other people doing the same thing and it became quite natural to follow suit.

Are you OK?

It’s tempting, at this point, to dive into Eric Berne’s concept of Transactional Analysis developed in the 1950s and 60s and made more widely known by Thomas Harris’s 1967 book, “I’m OK – You’re OK”, which gave us the now quite widely-used concept of Parent/Child and Adult/Adult interactions. It’s tempting, but we might never come out the other side, so I’ll limit it to the observation that developing Adult/Adult relationships and mindsets is essential in order for modern organisations to perform optimally. Irrespective of level, grade or experience, the dynamic in Adult/Adult relationships is fundamentally different from that in a Parent/Child one. It requires transparency, mutual trust and respect and, on the leader’s part, the credibility that enables them to be authentic and authoritative without falling into the trap of telling people what to do. The challenge is that many people will subconsciously approach relationships with their “seniors” from an assumed Child to Parent point of view, even though it’s not what they want. It’s up to the “Parent” to facilitate the shift to an Adult/Adult interaction.

Continuous change

Of course, flattened structures and networked organisations are themselves only part of a much bigger narrative – the reality of continuous change with which everybody lives today. In Bloor’s Mutable Business Model, we describe organisations as being in a permanent state of reinvention: change is no longer a project, something that has a beginning, middle and end. I’d argue strongly that it never was, but you wouldn’t know it to look at how change management was done in many places over the past few decades. Business thinkers Gary Hamel and Michel Zanini argued in 2014 for “change platforms” rather than change programs. Change guru John Kotter wrote in 2012 of the need for a “strategy network” which requires “lots of leadership… vision, opportunity, inspired action and celebration” rather than “project management, budget reviews, reporting relationships, compensation and accountability to a plan.” These thinkers were the harbingers of a new attitude: change is changing, and leadership has to change with it. Continuous change requires different mindsets across the board: power and control give way to co-creation and participation. Everyone has a voice, even if part of the leaders’ role is to channel these voices into decisions and actions.

Leaders at every level

Co-creation… everyone has a voice… flattened structures… continuous change. This will be the reality of the organisations of the future. And with that comes the opportunity for something that has been rather a truism to finally become real. It’s often been said that leaders exist at every level in an organisation, irrespective of age, rank or experience. That’s absolutely true, but in old-style industrial organisation structures the potential for such leadership potential to be genuinely fostered and encouraged was limited. No longer. In a world of greater autonomy and distributed decision-making, leadership really will get to be exercised at every level and in every part of the organisation. Making the most of this opportunity will be a true driver of success in the years to come.

This post is part of our Future of Work series. You can read the previous post, the next post, or find them all in our Future of Work section. If you’d like to discuss how we can help get you prepared for the way work and business is changing, then please contact us.