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The new face of leadership in uncertain times

13Mar Posted by Sermelo Features

There is little doubt that the concept of leadership continues to morph. While the value of good leaders remains as important as ever, the context of leadership continues to be transformed by the flattening and shrinking forces of globalization. Today’s leaders must learn how to deal with continual, rapid and uncertain change. Managing change does not always mean controlling it, rather, it implies understanding it, adapting to it where necessary, and guiding it whenever possible.

Daniel Dennett, the Tufts University philosopher and cognitive scientist, and Deb Roy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor and Twitter’s chief media scientist recently wrote[1] about how modern institutions – governments, corporations, armies, churches – developed in an epistemologically murky environment, in which most knowledge was local, secrets were easily kept and individuals were, if not blind, myopic. But that environment is changing.

The spread of digital technology and the advent of social media has made it much more difficult to keep secrets. This new transparency will profoundly influence the evolution of our institutions. When these organizations suddenly find themselves exposed to daylight, they quickly discover that they can no longer rely on old methods; they must respond to the new transparency or go extinct. This era of hyper-transparency means that greater accountability for corporate impact has become a necessity. And increased corporate scale gives a company a greater proportion of the responsibility for a negative externality, but also more leverage to create positive ones.

The CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, has explained[2] how his business now operates in 190 countries and has a supply chain touching two billion people that use the company’s products every day. Whilst millions have been lifted out of poverty over the past decade, significant pressure has been put on our scarce resources. Connectivity has also exploded; three billion consumers are now connected via the Internet (who are increasingly voicing their concerns) and Polman proposes that the result is enormous ‘pressure fields’ coming together, which never existed before. The expectation of responsibility requires leaders to adapt to a new paradigm.

Some pre-requisites that global leaders might consider useful for the journey ahead could include:

  • Being seen to be trustworthy. Global leaders are increasingly driven by core personal values, demonstrating a good balance of emotional, intellectual and business intelligence. In line with transformational theory, future leaders will need to continuously practice personal mastery; that is, they need a high degree of self-awareness to monitor their own behavior, and leverage their personal strengths, as well as to fill gaps in competencies. Given that business has a significant trust deficit with the general public, companies can gain competitive advantage through external communication to the right stakeholders, by taking leadership positions on key societal issues.
  • Being an enabler. Find ways to uncover the collective wisdom, and connect everyone around the same vision of a preferred future. Strategic leadership involves the ability to anticipate, envision, maintain flexibility, think far ahead, and to initiate changes that will create a viable future for the organisation.[3] Empowerment is key to helping others reach their full potential.
  • Demonstrating organizational leadership by creating internal and external networks of influence. These networks include cross-organisation and, increasingly, cross-industry alliances and partnerships. Over the past decade we have seen several visionary leaders in different sectors significantly mobilise their organizations to advance a corporate profile and call upon others, including competitors, to raise their game in a race to the top.
  • Building great teams (or ‘great groups’, according to leadership guru, Warren Bennis) to help accomplish tasks. Insightful leaders build teams with diverse and rich talent that can be called on to solve complex problems in a dynamic competitive environment.
  • Increasingly defining and shaping intangible assets of the organisation, such as knowledge, brands, human and intellectual capital, as well as tangible assets such as facilities and finance. The reputation of any business needs serious care and management. Tomorrow’s leader not only understands these risks, but more than this, is able to mitigate them early whilst creating additional value-adding opportunities.
  • Seeking and exploiting creative tensions by appreciating the many global differences, while using commonalities across the globe. Leaders should have the skills not only to manage but also to recognize and manage cultural diversity. Of all the tools available to managers to enable them to address multi-cultural issues, Culture Intelligence (CQ)[4] stands out as the singular most effective mechanism for solving a wide range of cultural challenges. Explicitly, this refers to the aptitude and skill required by managers to address these types of routine cultural issues found in the workplace. To create opportunities for international collaboration, global leaders must not only learn the customs, courtesies, and protocols of their counterparts from other countries; they must also understand the national culture and mindsets of the people.[5]

While not all of these aspects are applicable for all types of organizations, a central challenge for individual leaders will be identifying which needs, skills and competencies are required for their own organization. In the future, the global dimension of leadership will be a given. Our new geo-economy, with increased mobility of labor, has perpetuated the need for organizations to better commit towards a trans-national approach in every sense. The expectation of a business to fully understand and respect the society where it operates will become more commonplace. As organizations become more oriented toward these demands, we can hope a consensus will emerge between businesses and their multifaceted stakeholders about how we should work together to promote shared value. In the future, we’ll all wonder how we could ever have thought otherwise.[6] But until then, only strong leadership will help us to get there.

Hans W. Decker is an adjunct professor of international and public affairs in International Finance and Business. He was the vice chair of the Siemens Corporation-USA (1991–93) and president (1972–90). At Columbia his teaching and research interests include global corporate strategies, governance systems, business organizations, comparative political economy, and corporate social responsibility.


[1] See ‘Our Transparent Future’. Scientific American, March 2015. Dennett, D. Roy, B.

[2] See Interview with Paul Pollman, Rotman Management, Winter 2014. Christensen, K.

[3]The Essence of Strategic Leadership: Managing Human and Social Capital’. Hitt, M, Duane Ireland, R. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. 2002, Vol 9, No 1. pp4

[4] There are five profile types of cross-cultural manager identified: the Provisional; Analyst; Natural Ambassador; Mimic; Chameleon See  ‘Cultural Intelligence’, Harvard Business Review October 2004.

[5]Globalization of HRM: A Cross-Cultural Perspective for the Public Sector’. Kim, S,P. Public Personnel Management (1999, Vol. 28, No 2).

[6] See, ‘Leadership in the Age of Transparency’. Meyer, C. Kirby, K. Harvard Business Review. April 2010

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