It is lucky that leadership is thought to be a learned behaviour, because leaders have had a lot to learn in order to remain afloat in a wild, unpredictable sea of change.
Charting a course to keep a business relevant is an uncertain task because new technologies, regulation or economic upheavals can easily wipe out those who were looking the other way.
Think of Kodak, which actively ignored digital photography. The company’s decline has made its “Kodak moment” motto more of a warning than a celebration.
Then, there was the decline of Motorola
, which actually invented the mobile phone, but missed the importance of messaging and was unable to catch up on the development of smart phones. It’s new owner, Lenovo, is killing off the brand name.
While whole industries, such as print media or (in Australia) vehicle manufacturing, are shrinking at alarming rates, newer companies, such as Uber, Google and Facebook have rapidly become the new behemoths.
Even when experts are working hard to predict outcomes, they can miss what seems obvious in hindsight. The majority of European businesses see Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (Brexit)
as a threat. It was a public vote, yet experts and pollsters didn’t see it coming.
Nor did they predict the inauguration of US President Donald Trump.
So, among all this uncertainty, how can any organisation and its leaders be “future-proofed”? The future is so plainly unknowable.
The answer lies in versatility and diversity, according to consultancy Deloitte.
Organisations have to build versatile leaders earlier on in their careers and leadership teams should include different generations and varieties of leaders, according to an article on human capital, Leadership Awakened, by Deloitte.
Versatile leaders can adapt more easily to changing circumstances, can let go of strategies that become irrelevant and can change their way of leading, depending on what is required at the time.
Executive teams that include older and younger people, men and women, from different cultural and sector backgrounds are much less likely to fall prey to the kind of “group think” that blinds organisations to opportunities and threats.
These leaders must be capable of collaborating across boundaries (geographical, cultural or organisational), coming up with new solutions, motivating diverse teams, and developing the next generation of diverse and global leaders.
The idea of what leaders look like has also changed. Gone is the military-inspired lone hero, who has all the answers. In a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), there is no one answer, solutions can be crowd-sourced and even right answers may not be right for long.
Instead, the new leader looks more like a coach – someone who collects a great team, gets them to work together and encourages the best performance from each of them. They do all this while keeping an eye on the shifting future, drawing and redrawing the course.
If we accept that leadership is a learned (rather than innate) skill, we could do with some more training in Australia.
The most comprehensive Australian leadership study in 20 years, Leadership At Work by the Centre for Workplace Leadership,
found many leaders are not well-trained for the job.
One in four senior leaders in private sector organisations has no formal training beyond secondary school. However, just because some of the world’s richest entrepreneurs were university dropouts, it doesn’t mean that is right for everyone.
Steve Jobs may not have needed a degree to create Apple, but his people-management skills have been widely criticised and he would not have been able to build such a large and important company without well-trained managers and executives around him.
A start-up full of Steve Jobs lookalikes would have been a workplace nightmare, given his famously abrasive manner.
Leadership development is essential to build a cohort of skilled and future-focused leaders, but too many Australian organisations under-invest in that area - especially at the frontline. For every $10 spent on senior leaders, only $1 is spent on those leading at the lower levels.
Australian firms spend significantly less on leadership development than their counterparts in Asia, Europe and the United States.
This is important because people’s immediate managers have a great impact on their satisfaction at work and whether they choose to stay. Those lower-level leaders and managers need to be trained well enough so they can model the behaviours they want to see in their team members.
If we see leaders adapt to the digital world and adopt a collaborative leadership style, we will be influenced by that.
If our leaders are stuck in the past and have not embraced the idea of lifelong learning, risks escalate. In this case, the future will be much more of a threat than an opportunity.