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“Taking control of uncertainty is the fundamental leadership challenge of our time.” Ram Charan in the opening line of his latest book, The Attacker’s Advantage—Turning Uncertainty into Breakthrough Opportunities.
Frankly, this is a remarkable time to be in business and to be serving in a leadership role. The risks, fears of change, possibilities of disruption or the realities of creative destruction and non-destructive creation are all facts of our business lives and they create a remarkable backdrop for us to create…to innovate. But first, we’ve got to fight our natural tendencies when determining how to act in this environment.
3 Nearly Fatal Leadership Mistakes in this Era:
1. Waiting for Normal to Return. Some leaders imagine a return to an environment that feels more like equilibrium. Newsflash…the new equilibrium is a constant state of disequilibrium. Quit waiting on this friend to return. She’s gone.
2. Fighting Unseen Dragons. Others have as their sworn duty the need to protect their firm against risks…known and unknown. This fear-driven response to the environment narrows the options and in some cases induces an organization-wide paralysis that nearly certainly leads to decline and death. If you’re not moving, you’re dying.
3. Striving to Control the Weather. Worse yet, some attempt to impose order on the big forces propelling ever faster change in our world. Whether it’s through traditional approaches to long-term strategic planning (oxymoronic) or expecting the customers and market to bend to the whims of leadership’s wishful thinking, the attempt to impose order on these forces is a lot like expecting you will succeed in making the weather respond to your bidding.
Welcome to The Leadership Blender:
For those of you comfortable being uncomfortable in what I describe as the leadership blender where speed and ambiguity are the order of the day, this is the best of times. As Charan suggests in his new book, the advantage goes to the attacker. Translation: the team that plays offense stands a greater chance of success than the firms striving to perfect their defense.
A great example of this in action was the software firm whose plans to merge with a larger, complementary firm were derailed in the immediate aftermath of that very bad day in September, 2001. Instead of hunkering down, the firm and the firm’s leaders bet it all on a new vision in the face of what was the most disorienting time in most of our lives. The competitors hunkered down…the attacker rewrote the rules of a market and won.
Open Season on Innovation:
For those leaders willing to emphasize action in the face of ambiguity, it’s open season on innovation with the most creative firms, entrepreneurs and leaders leveraging modern tools to reinvent old businesses in new ways…or to carve new markets from the unstated but insatiable needs of growing demand for things that help, amuse or simplify. Historically, we looked at these individuals and teams that took risks that seemed far-fetched and counter-intuitive as heroes. Today, these heroic qualities are essential for leaders.
While the traditional tools of effective leadership…respect, fairness, accountability, coaching, guiding…are timeless, there are a series of critical new skills that we must cultivate to succeed in this world of change.
5 Critical New Skill Sets for Today’s Leaders:
1. Leading Without Authority. In a world without traditional borders of time, geography and culture, the new leader must be capable of assembling and motivating temporary teams to seize opportunities. The goal is to bring the best resources available at the time to bear on a problem or an opportunity. A good number of the resources will have little formal accountability to the team leader, yet, they will be eminently accountable to the team for results.
Today’s role of Project Manager comes the closest to resembling tomorrow’s critical integrator leader…the individual who spans boundaries and disciplines and organizes resources to execute and then moves on to the next challenge. Sadly, this critical role is grossly under-positioned, narrowly defined, under-supported and under-developed in most organizations. In a world driven by projects around temporary and unique activities, building a strong project leadership culture and investing in growing great project managers is essential for survival and success.
2. It’s Leading AND Following. Smart teams will increasingly take responsibility for selecting their own leaders, with the sole criterion being the best person to enable success with the initiative at hand. Authority will come less from a title attempting to legitimize power and more from the belief that you are the absolute right person to enable us to succeed at this time with this initiative. An outcome of this “fitness for purpose” approach to team leader selection, will be the need for leaders to be comfortable and adaptable to a shifting role as leader one day and follower the next.
Our industrial revolution age style of hierarchical organizational structure and thinking fights this adaptive approach. Frankly, we need to adapt our thinking or risk obsolescence. Imagine your boss suggesting tomorrow that you relinquish your role and title of director or manager to someone else to play a role as an individual contributor on a strategic initiative. For many, it’s a horrifying…or at least uncomfortable thought that smacks of a demotion. In reality…to survive and succeed in this new reality, all of us will increasingly be asked to play a variety of different roles at different times. Your momentary title is not the issue. Your ability to lead today and support a project team tomorrow as a contributor with expertise and passion is what your firm needs to succeed.
3. Building Coalitions for Fun and Profit. Your success will increasingly be a function of your ability to tap talent, resources and knowledge in environments outside of your core function. Those who learn to connect disparate networks of resources will not only grow their personal power in an organization, but will be the ones tapped to lead the most mission critical, boundary spanning initiatives.
4. Learning to Exploit the Math (and the Data). The volume, access to and velocity of data represents one of the fundamental new forces and resources in our world. Charan in The Attacker’s Advantage, describes the need for organizations and leaders to become increasingly mathematical…to employ algorithmic approaches to vast quantities of data in pursuit of making decisions and adjusting direction. I agree. The ability to leverage data and the tools around data to select strategies, guide decisions and gauge and adapt to results will be table stakes for tomorrow’s leaders, yet too many of us operate blind to these tools or handicapped by organizations that missed this memo. Strive to develop your comfort and command of the tools of data and to incorporate them in the work of your teams. For many of us, first, we need to get our organizations on board with this mission critical task.
5. Actively Harnessing Diversity. Much like the accessibility to data described above, the access to resources of all ages, cultures and backgrounds offers remarkable opportunities for leaders. Learning to work across cultures and to build teams that blend backgrounds and generations is a critical job for anyone striving to lead in this world. Our technologies enable around-the-world collaboration, yet we must develop the cultural intelligence necessary not only to engage but to inspire blended groups to create something remarkable.
An additional opportunity in this category is the ability to blend the generations to leverage the experience of the oldest workers with the perspectives of the youngest. Much of the planet is aging quickly, and it’s reasonable to believe in many cultures that the older workers will remain involved in some form or fashion for years to come. Learning to blend and lead these mixed age teams is just another great opportunity for all of us.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
There are so many complex variables at work in our world today, that the level of predictability is almost nil. The days of long-range plans are dead, replaced by a mid-term vision and a series of short-term ideas and experiments. The practicing leader must be strategically and tactically nimble, able to quickly identify, select and execute upon opportunities in rapid succession…learning and adapting on the fly….but not hesitating. The old saying, “speed kills” is replaced with “without the right speed, we’re roadkill.”
The future is remarkably bright for those of you who thrive on change and that cultivate advanced interpersonal and political skills. Ultimately, you will succeed or struggle based on your ability to perform in an environment where the only constant is change.
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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.