Confronting the storm | The leadership we need when normal has left the building

By David Ross

Who doesn’t love a great story?

For millennia, we’ve been regaled by stories that make us laugh, cry, or leave us speechless. Historian Yuval Noah Harari observes that in contrast to our ancient Homo competitors, humans thrived because of how much we have excelled in employing stories. They provide meaning and organise us into action.

To this day, we see this in our working lives. For example, one of our most impactful stories in business and government is that of the “great leader”. It is a story that often has military tones about it – we still call on patriarchal terms like “captains of industry” and “commander-in-chief” to describe these leaders, who were often older men. They formulated the vision for followers, for us, and that vision was to be followed. Unquestionably so.

Such a story has proven to be formidably successful within society, and within the media, for centuries.

But, as Harari also observes, our stories can also prove to be a powerful illusion. And in the 21st Century, in an age of uncertainty and complexity, that is what we are seeing with the story of the great leader.

Sure, there are still countless leaders “internally wired”, if you like, with that story as to how they should behave within their organisation. But, our traditional leadership stories and the associated dominant mindsets are now buckling and failing.

They are buckling and failing in response to a situation like nothing ever faced before.

The storm now faced

We have seen how the COVID pandemic was the catalyst for change in many organisations that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. We saw how leaders were forced to question the validity of some facets of their dominant worldview to successfully keep their organisations afloat in the early 2020s. As a consequence, Zoom, Teams, and WFH are now taken not only as a given in the work vernacular but are also accepted, broadly, as standard components of work practices.

Nevertheless, I argue that a greater challenge awaits leaders – a storm of interconnected social, environmental, technological, and economic issues – that will leave organisations extremely vulnerable.

What does that look like? Well, your staff and stakeholders are more coordinated, sophisticated, polarised and more questioning of organisations than ever before. We are anticipating several environmental tipping points, including climate change, to be reached within the next decade. Exponential advances in technology continue unabated. Economic uncertainty remains.

In fact, on that last point, recent research by Watch My Competitor has identified that more than half (52 %) of companies on the US Fortune 500 list in 2003, for example, no longer exist. It is worthwhile reading that sentence one more time instead of the speed of change now occurring, the realisation that we are making few inroads into our most transformative challenges, and the resulting decline in organisational trust. If anything, the situation is looking ever more uncertain.

As I had observed, these issues are interconnected and subsequently, nigh on impossible for an individual leader or even an executive team to resolve on their own. We must accept that the dominant leadership styles that have been celebrated for centuries are now an obstacle to progress. Those leaders and organisations who do not reflect on and indeed, question the illusion will do so at their peril.

The need for a new story

Patriarchal industry stories need to be consigned to the past. Imposing direction and solutions from a few leaders no longer works. No leader or executive has enough time, expertise or grasp of the different perspectives necessary to understand the deeply complex contexts now faced.

In contrast, there are significant opportunities for the leaders and organisations that are prepared to genuinely confront that, to thrive, tradition must be transcended.

Instead, we need a more dominant, collective, style of leadership where leaders truly collaborate with staff, or representatives from competitors, government, or not-for-profits. Even with those they dislike talking to!

That style can create a formidable array of benefits for an organisation. Improved decision-making. Improved trust between management and staff, between an organisation and its influential stakeholders. Reduced absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover. Improved productivity. The “collision” of ideas that results from such a leadership style, where people with the same goals and interests but different perspectives are collaborating on issues together, has the power to create innovative solutions that can be translated into the creation of new products or services.

However, that style also means deep reflection is required by many leaders:

What is my story of leadership? Do I see myself as only being successful if I, alone, make the decisions?

Where do I place meaning? Do I employ the dominant mindset that organisations operate like machines and are isolated from the impacts of many of our biggest challenges, notably climate change?

Am I prepared to share control? Share power, particularly in those times that are stressful.

Why do “We do things the way we do around here”?

What is an image that conveys what leadership needs to look like?

And importantly, what will my legacy be?

About the author

David Ross is an international strategist, founder of Phoenix Strategic Management and author of Confronting the Storm: Regenerating Leadership and Hope in the Age of Uncertainty

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