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CHAPTER V - The Future of Leadership

When things are stable and well-defined, and organizations know what they are going after, then it is easy to put leadership on autopilot. In a time of change and transformations, however, leadership is going to matter much, much more.

Leaders need to be catalysts, architects and visionaries. Leaders need to ask the right questions, to see a future and mobilize and to move toward it. In most cases, those are not the leaders we have today. “We line up attributes of what we want to see in leaders: full of ideas, inspirational,” says Erica Volini, Principal at Deloitte Consulting, “but few meet all those characteristics. We dilute until we get someone who is mediocre at lots of things, who is the least offensive.”

If a Chief Executive Officer—or any other leader, at any level—is concerned about succeeding in an environment that is constantly changing, then learning has to be the objective function. Absent that, the value of the knowledge and skills they currently possess will degrade, as will the relevancy of their organizations. The best leaders do not know best.

The leader of tomorrow will not be on the pedestal they are on today. They will likely lead and follow by turns, as inquiry leads them. Leadership will not be a permanent role. This will be a difficult fit with the organizational hierarchy of today, because business systems are built on that hierarchy. The highest ranking people are making the decisions and making the most money. Inquiry-centered decision making requires a very decentralized system, one that will need to self regulate and also kill itself off when a process is finished. And giving up decision-making power is hard.

“If you want teams to be solving at the edge and emergently creating knowledge,” says Better Up’s Alexi Robichaux, the CEO’s job “increasingly becomes communicating strategic context and the types of problems non prescriptively…creating enough gray space that I can be surprised that within this class you found a new method or you found a new attribute that actually solves a problem that I hadn’t even fully defined.” This is a reimagination of what strategy and management is, creating a leadership system that is more about directing inquiry rather than making decisions.

Coaches, Artists and Protectors
The organizations that succeed will be the ones who can figure out leadership as a coaching and developmental role; those who do not will never acquire the agility that they need. Yet, organizations often define leadership as a decision-making transactional role.

Instead, a leader needs to be responsible for setting up and architecting the system so that it works on its own. In that way, leaders begin to look more like artists, creating new structures as the situation merits. These leaders will have to be comfortable letting go of control. They will have to ask the most inspiring questions, and challenge people to find the right answers. They will assemble inclusive and diverse teams and leverage different views for a better outcome.

And perhaps most importantly, when that better outcome arrives, the new leader will have to protect the disrupters. She/he will need to fight off the antibodies, the “helpers,” and all the other ghosts of the scalable efficiency mindset. She/he will have to recognize when the answers the edge delivers are truly the way forward, and they will have to have the courage to kill the core. Business will never change otherwise.

Decentralizing Leadership
There is a distinction between “leader” and “leadership.” A leader is a person, but leadership can be built into an organization’s structure and can find presence in any employee. In a constantly changing “whitewater world,” society must have leaders at all organizational levels, and the qualities of leadership must be infused throughout the culture through teamwork, mentorships and an emphasis on learning. Society must have a workforce full of people who can read currents, who can see change coming, and who have the autonomy and authority to ride the rapids on the behalf of their employer.

A great leader will hire people for what they know and what they do, and then get out of the way. They will push responsibility to as far down the organizational ladder as possible. The more individuals at different levels are empowered, the more they feel part of something bigger. A leader, then, will be the one who can harness the promise of technological progress—the machines, the bots and the algorithms—to finally make work more human.

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