The Future of Leadership

This article is written on the premise that we can’t know exactly what the future of leadership will be, but I’m going to share some ideas based on personal observations of trends in pshycology, technology and my experience with leadership to date.

Until now, leadership in business could be thought of as contributing to an organization by creating a vision, developing strategies and directing employees to move the organization forward by inventing, discovering, developing, creating and selling products and/or services used by it’s customers, ensuring the company’s on-going viability through financial management, and by creating shareholder value. From an inward looking view, this is a reasonable description.

On a macro scale, however, life is a little more complex. In the global perspective, we have to begin looking at things like, entrepreneurial aspirations (i.e. the wish for employees to lead themselves) and the increasing number of entrepreneurial companies, environmental considerations (i.e. we can no longer operate in ignorance of the impact we have on the earth and the impact the earth has on us and future generations), the need for agility (i.e. the ability of a company to rapidly adopt new ideas, methodologies and technologies) and a search by many, especially the underprivileged in the world and others on their behalf, for justice and freedom in the light of new technologies which are exposing the most egregious discrepancies in the world’s distribution of wealth and infrastructure, even in the most technologically deprived countries.

People everywhere are searching for new meaning and happiness in their lives. They are beginning to recognize that we are all working together on a relatively small planet and their place of employment is more often becoming either the place where they find meaning or the place they eventually abandon. More and more people are willing to work for NGO’s at lower salaries simply because they feel they are serving a greater purpose and, if you doubt this trend, read Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawkens which gives an indication of the massive growth in the numbers of non-profits in recent years. There are even new classes of organizations arising which are somewhere between “for-profit” and “not-for-profit”, which are for-profit but specifically focused on serving the greater good.

What is the Future of Leadership?

When we think back on the evolution of business, we can think of when businesses started. Certainly there was a harsher, more militaristic, command and control style. This was and is still required at times when workers are primarily involved in manual labour tasks which require exhausting physical work and which don’t leave a lot of time for evolving the thinking on how to do the task with greater simplicity. However my guess is that eventually, companies using this mode of operation will become obsolete even if the number of manual labour jobs increase. Human intellect and spirit has begun to take precedence even in these cases.

In the next phase, workers evolved to machine operators when mechanisation took hold in society. Leadership evolved to more of a trainer/apprenticeship approach where the leader was generally more informed about the operation of the machine than the workers and workers needed training, instruction, goals and someone who was a master of the trade to refer back to when they were having difficulties.

As the information age took hold, workers became more intellectually oriented and automation became the way of the world. Leaders had to be more oriented towards encouragement, vision and strategy as they seldom had more expertise than their workers in their specific areas of concern. Hiring leaders no longer required the leader to have the same skills as their employees but rather that they were masters of encouraging intellectually bright people to do the desired work.

As the age of mobility, freedom, and agility has taken hold, leadership is being divested to smaller groups and teams are becoming more self-managed by the team members themselves. Leadership is becoming more of a strategic communication function where concepts and goals are deployed to groups, and tasks are taken on by team members on their own initiative. Statistical information is gathered and measured to ensure that the organization is meeting it’s key indicators and critical process factors and that waste is minimized. Leaders in this age succeed if they learn how to gather and mine information and engage employees in creating a new vision for the organization which allows for greater flexibility in their methods, their working hours and their work locations, at least where this is possible. They also benefit from having employees provide input and suggestions. 

But the future of Leadership will go much further that these limited concepts and possibly will come very quickly.

When we consider the evolution of technology, the hopes and aspirations of people, the fact that psychological measures are now telling us that happiness doesn’t come from having more things, coupled with the exponential pace at which new ideas and inventions are being introduced, we can only conclude that we are in for rapid changes. Mobile apps are available for almost every task and the power of the individual is increasing rapidly. No longer does an executive need an assistant to book flights or type letters.  Savvy executives are capable of using the same tools that other mobile Internet users use.

No longer is anyone required for dictation. Software is available for that too. Even language translation will be performed with increasing contextual accuracy through electronic devices. Translation through Google and, a translation phone that has already been demonstrated are indicators of this trend. And if you doubt these trends, just keep an eye on some of the other new inventions in every field of science. Biosynthetic materials for replacing or repairing body parts (e.g. damaged corneas), stem cell and other research on how to regenerate limbs and organs, nanotechnologies which will improve sensing resolution and wireless communication using carbon nanotubes and which will eventually lead to detailed communicate of what is going on inside the body and head, genome research, 3D and haptic technologies which will allow us to experience a virtual world in ever greater detail, and even research by Intel on mind reading technologies that can already detect words from your thoughts. And these are just a few examples.  Many new energy technologies are on the horizon, even one which uses urin to generate power, water, CO2 and Nitrogen which can be used for furtilizer. And it is only a matter of time that we will begin rapid adoption of many of these new technologies. True, there is still work to be done in making many of these technologies viable but we could say the same 15 years ago of many of the mobile technologies we now enjoy.  

The power of each individual is increasing exponentially and herein lies the challenge for new and  upcoming leaders.

We have to make choices about how we develop ourselves, our companies and our employees over the next few years so that as businesses continue to evolve and adopt new technologies and approaches, we will be ready. Agility, after all is not something that just happens. We have to anticipate and plan for it.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, it will be those with the best connections that will ultimately have the greatest power to influence and shape the market. Marketing, even with current forms of social networking has already taken on whole new dimensions and will continue to take on new meanings as the mobile web evolves.

And we can forget about the concept that leaders will be the only ones making decisions. In fact, it’s probably quite the opposite. It is the socially connected individuals that will ultimately have the largest database of connections and therefore the largest influence. Consider the concept of the “Tipping Point” presented by Malcolm Gladwell. No longer is being physically weak a disability. Only those who lack imagination will be trapped by the new paradigm. 

Think about how you might best influence an employee in the future.

As we inevitably become more independent of the current leadership structures, as the world becomes increasingly entreprenurial, how might you want others to think of you? What ultimately makes a person happy? How would you want others to treat you? What skills will you need to develop to maintain your value to society? Those who currently are your employees will soon become your clients, you suppliers and in some cases one of your new bosses. What can you do for them now that will benefit them and ultimately benefit yourself in the future?

The answer to this question must also consider the world view. Why? Because, you’ve probably noticed, almost every educational program is beginning to address issues related to sustainabilty and the environment. Coaching and softskills training is also mandatory in many school programs and in most viable companies. People of good ethics are becoming more conscious of the world and of those around them. Unfortunately, people of poor ethics are also becomnig bolder, more empowered and clever in their use of technology. Those of us who are neglectful of new trends will be swept away by them, be they bad or good. If we continue to use old paradigms of leadership, we are as likely to die out as dinosaurs or as leaders who forgot how interconnected and interdependent the world has become.

It we neglect concepts of freedom, purposefulness, social justice, environmental management in our leadership evolution, we will be caught off guard by companies that recognize the value of these trends and are moving rapidly down a path which addresses these critical aspects of life. While many companies have yet to recognize these future directions, it is only a matter of time before the more progressive companies slowly shut the door of cooperation on their archaic cousins. Consider the example of hybrid vehicle sales. As people became more aware of environmental issues, sales of these vehicles soared. Even more aggressive efforts are being made in developing full electric vehicles and forward thinking governments are creating business and individual incentives for deploying renewable energy systems. Set up a Google alert on the word “Sustainability” and see how many new articles you get each day. Suffice it to say, there are more than enough to read. Clearly there is a growing trend towards concepts that consider the needs of the planet, however small that trend may still seem at present. As environmental issues become more apparent, more and more companies and organizations will get on board.

So what do we do to make the most of these rapidly evolving trends?

Here are a few ideas:

1) Look at your company from a world view. Pollution may not be a problem for you personally at this moment, but as the world continues along its current path, the problem will only get worse. If your company pollutes, gives off CO2 or uses suppliers that are environmentally insensitive, you will eventually find that you have an ethical (if not legal) liability. Make plans to address your design, you supply chain, your energy sources and the materials you use so that eventually your company can become 100% sustainable in all aspects. If your company extracts resources from the earth or buys resources that are extracted from the earth, make sure that your suppliers are ethically based, that they do not impact the bio-diversity, that they participate in the GRI (global reporting initiative) and are making progress towards sustainable approaches. Work with them and allow them to work with you so that you can jointly learn and grow sustainable relationships. You may not be able to make all these changes immediately but when you set the intention publicly, things will begin to change. If you need help in educating your organization, seek help from a qualified trainer or an executive coach that is familiar with sustainability.

2) Look at your company from an agility perspective. Adopting new technologies is a good idea, but helping your staff to think in ways that are compatible with agile approaches is even more important. The concept of begin agile involves continuous, systematic cycles of planning, action, reflection, learning and self management so that the organization can rapidly adjust to new ideas, methodologies and results of previous cycles.

3) Look at your company from a leadership perspective. If you regard each person as a leader in their own right, you will help them to learn the skills of self-motivation and assist them to develop skills of communicating with and encouraging others. As they learn these skills they will be more successful in all aspects of their work. This concept of leadership also involves helping them to understanding their own passions, their own skills and strengths and finding their own purpose through their unique service to the organization. In this process, you may also discover individuals who have values which don’t align with the company. In the end, it is better if they feel empowered to find a new arena of service and are replaced with individuals who are more in alignment with the purpose of the company. As workers become more autonomous while similtaneously becoming more unified in the vision of the organization, they are also freer to try new approaches to accomplish their tasks and contribute to the evolution of the company.

4) The new leadership paradigm will involve a greater sense of unity within the organization. Why? Because it will have to. No company which is disunited will be able to move quickly enough to adopt new paradigms.

Sustainability is the current “new paradigm”, and just as TQM, ERP, Supply Chain Management, JIT, Lean Manufacturing, Outsourcing, Mobility, and Social Networking were, Sustainability is a game changer in our current business world. But let’s not get caught up in the idea that this will be the last new paradigm, nor should we think that Sustainability only involves a minor shift in our current management approach. We are embarking on a journey which will involve many changes. There will be many other new technologies and methodologies on the horizon which will need to be rapidly adopted by individuals and companies. And just as the other concept were at first new and difficult, having knowledge of these new concepts is expected of all high level leaders. Sustainability, although much bigger in scope, will eventually be a part of new business landscape, an expected set of ethics and skills used in decision making by all employees. It will require a new culture which sees the world as one planet and it’s inhabitants as equally deserving of it’s benefits.

Developing a more unified company will likely involve slowing organizational development (although not production) at first, in order to gather everyone’s thoughts and ideas and in order to learn how to use skills of consultative decision making. It will involve a learning process which respects all inputs. As we help others to learn and open ourselves to learning from others, we are able to learn about new ideas and technologies more quickly. Using consultative decision making will require learning how to express views with frankness while maintaining detachment from owning ideas. It will invoke values and respect for others as a guiding principle. Leadership will involve learning skills and sharing them with others both in theory and practice so as to increase the practical capacity.

Successful leadership will be more about learning to “walk side by side with equals” rather than seeing others as subordinates. Your influence on others may be indirectly through through the efforts of those who you have aided and enabled to become leaders and facilitators in their own right. The future of Leadership will involve the process of letting go of “power” and “influence” and relying more on “trust” that others have the innate capacity and nobility to carry the world forward and you with it. Leadership in the future will be more akin to wisdom and finding our own nobility and capacity.

Even though their are glimmerings of this future, for those who are familiar with aspects of indigenous cultures, my suspicion is that we will begin to see ourselves influenced by concepts from the past which were once lost but are now being uncovered.

I’d love to hear your comments. Feel free to share this note, re-tweet, link through other blogs, share with the share button or send by e-mail.

All the best,
Garth Schmalenberg
Ph: 416-919-6598


Comments are closed.