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The 21st century is characterized by a VUCA environment, and a defining characteristic of VUCA is the frenetic pace of change. To thrive in such a setting, leaders are required to not just selectively let go of their past by unlearning closely held mindsets, beliefs and attitudes, but also imbibe new ones. For talent professionals tasked with the development of such leaders, it is imperative that they assess for and develop skills that are in line with such new ways of working.

Letting go

Leadership in the industrial era was heavily influenced by and took inspiration from the military establishment. It was (and still is) commonplace in corporate circles to hear about terms such as – command-and-control, top-down, status and power, rank-and-file, toeing the line, marketing warfare, and so on. What we fail to account for is that military leadership is also undergoing evolution in the digital age.

Consider, for instance, the leadership style of retired US Army General Stanley McChrystal who lead Joint Special Operations Command in the mid-2000s. General McChrystal and his team encountered terrorists on the battlefield in Iraq who simply didn’t play by the rules that the erstwhile military was familiar with. Faced with the stark reality of losing against this new, faceless enemy, General McChrystal completely reimagined the rules of the game. He explains one such instance of incorporating agility within his team, in his book Team of teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World : “In place of maps, whiteboards began to appear in our headquarters. Soon they were everywhere. Standing around them, markers in hand, we thought out loud, diagramming what we knew, what we suspected, and what we did not know…”

General McChrystal also goes on to explain his newfound thinking about leadership: “The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an “Eyes-On, Hands-Off” enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.”

Letting in

Thinking of a leader as a gardener, and not merely a chess-master is a great analogy that drives home the difference between collaborative and authoritative leadership styles. The day the leader at the helm learns the virtues of letting go, and more importantly, also builds such capabilities down the line, he or she sows the seeds for leadership as an organizational capability, and not merely status or positions held by a select few. This ‘collaborative’ approach to leadership is built on the twin virtues of empowerment and accountability.

Collaborative leadership is an essential ‘keystone habit’ or leadership behaviour that can help drive further meaningful change within an organization. Other crucial leadership skills that supplement collaborative leadership include: leading without authority (and by influence), data-driven decision making, adopting a ‘growth’ mindset over a ‘fixed ’mindset, an ability to embrace design thinking, and having an agile outlook to work.  

The lattice organization

Traditional organizations were built on a hierarchy, with defined career paths from the bottom of the organization all the way to the top. However, modern organizations adopt a ‘lattice’ approach characterized by multiple career pathways, which aren’t necessarily just bottom-up. Employees are given opportunities to make lateral career shifts in such a structure. Also, work is largely self-directed so that workers have greater autonomy and can take direct responsibility for their work.

Looking beyond the leadership funnel

Leadership development for the digital age calls for going beyond outmoded approaches to capability building. A leadership lattice approach, over a funnel-based approach to succession planning involves identifying, assessing and developing leaders at all levels of the organization.

·         Identification: Traditional approaches to identifying leaders emphasize experience, tenure and past performance. Workers know how long they have served in an organization, keep track of their contributions and over time, expect to get rewarded for their loyalty and tenure in a firm. This is typically done by way of them being considered for senior leadership positions. The leadership lattice approach to identifying leaders places a premium on those who showcase agility, problem-solving capabilities and a growth mindset.

·         Assessment: Conventional approaches to leadership assessment rely heavily on aspects such as subject matter expertise, personality traits and competencies. In the digital world, leaders are expected to collaborate with others beyond their immediate domain and thereby solve real business challenges.

·         Development: Formal training programs and adopting an education-driven approach to capability development is passé. Leaders today are developed through education, exposure, experience and enablement. They are developed at all levels within the organization and are in turn, required to lead ecosystems and networks.

Thus, the process of learning, unlearning and re-learning is an essential requirement not just for leaders, but also for those tasked with building the leadership pipeline. A concerted and systematic effort to building a strong leadership lattice, over merely a leadership funnel can yield phenomenal results for an organization over time. 

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