Mix one part global economic crisis with ample quantities of uncertainty and ambiguity. Stir in two-parts ever-changing global competition and a dash of geopolitical instability and you’ll end up with something that looks and feels a lot like the world of today, complete with the mild aftertaste of fear.
You’ll also end up with a remarkable living leadership laboratory, where the best leaders are rediscovering the importance of leadership blocking and tackling while simultaneously developing the new skills and approaches required in this complex environment.
The basics of effective leadership never go out of style. Articulating a compelling vision, backing words with actions and support, offering coaching and feedback and driving strategy are all table-stakes for good leaders and effective leadership in any era.
However, this is no ordinary era, and what worked during the last boom or even the last recession almost a decade ago, no longer fits and certainly doesn’t match or meet the needs of organizations and workers today.
The variables are different, the risks higher and the way forward for many firms in many industries masked by the fog of complexity and ambiguity.
Welcome to leadership circa 2009!
This high-anxiety environment that we’re all living in and working through has catalyzed an accelerated evolution in leadership practices, and while the period is painful for many, I truly like where this is taking us on the leadership front.
We’re learning to build the new airplane while flying the old one, and this balancing act requires remarkable leadership agility and creativity.
- Practices that reflect transparency, honesty, accountability and straight-talk on the tough issues are increasingly de rigueur.
- Effective leaders are spending less time in boardrooms and behind closed doors and more time out where the work gets done, particularly in the factories and stores of their customers.
- Employee involvement is popular again with the smartest leaders recognizing the need to enlist front-line employees in identifying and sharing customer insights and to challenge everyone else to turn those insights into improvements and value creating services, products and systems.
- There is no “rising tide” effect lifting industries and companies. Leadership is on display and under a magnifying glass, and the collective good results of prior years have unmasked the ineffective and in some cases, corrupt leadership practices that were glossed over when the numbers rose in defiance of poor leadership approaches and lousy leaders.
What a great time to be a leader!
Critical Leadership Lessons of 2009:
The best leaders are heeding Deming’s advice to work on eliminating fear in the workplace. Fear is an organization killer, and the cure for this cancer is for leaders to attack it with transparency and visibility. Those comfortable with leading from the rear have learned the necessity of moving to the front and leading the charge with a constant flow of unvarnished information on the real issues.
Leading has always been about coping with ambiguity, but in today’s fog enshrouded world leaders are learning to reshape their cultures and their operating approaches to facilitate fast recognition and response to emerging opportunities and threats. Easy words to write…hard culture to realize, but the best leaders are working tirelessly to breed the right people, systems and behaviors to produce this sense and respond culture.
Good crisis leaders are capable of admitting, “I don’t know,” in answer to some of the most complex issues, as long as the admission is backed and packed with action. Few crisis leaders understand the details of the path to prosperity, but the good ones recognize the power in Drucker’s comment, “Actions in the present are the one and only way to create the future.” Good leaders mobilize teams, choose a direction and go based on their best intelligence and gut hunches. If the course turns out to be wrong, they correct without looking back and keep moving.
Organizations and leaders that recognize the complexity of this new world have jettisoned traditional planning models and approaches in favor of dynamic, fast-moving methods that facilitate market monitoring and organizational learning and place a premium on acting. These approaches require experimentation and embracing frequent small failures on the path to success.
The foundation of any successful business is talent and while much lip service is paid to this topic, and the smartest leaders are carefully navigating the most remarkable talent pool in many generations for those anxious and motivated to contribute and prove their former employers wrong. While it is too soon to see if talent management and leadership development will become part of the DNA of tomorrow’s organizations, the need has never been more apparent.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
The leadership observations and trends above might seem like the domain of jumbo-sized global firms with deep pockets and robust talent systems. And while some firms of this ilk do have natural advantages and are pushing the envelope on breaking down walls and experimenting with new approaches to leadership and management (think Cisco), I’m seeing these practices in small start-ups, old-line manufacturers and innovative retail and service establishments on Main Street.
I have every reason to believe that the way forward is filled with obstacles that rival the labors of Hercules. There are no silver bullets, no easy answers and no magical leadership or management fads that offer miracles cures.
I do however believe that necessity is pushing us to innovate in management and operating approaches, and that a new style of leader must emerge to help firms cope with the modern day Herculean labors of ambiguity, fear, complexity, speed, ever-changing adversaries and a capable but shell-shocked talent pool. For right now however, the leader circa 2009 is busy mucking today’s equivalent of the Augean stables. Grab a shovel and we’ll finish this together.