What Today’s Leader Needs to Know

| By TMA World


With the US having elected its new President and the world await what what this new leadership will bring, it’s timely to take a look at what makes a truly great leader in the unpredictable environment we work in today.

At either end of the spectrum, there are two types of leader; the rigid leader and the adaptive leader.  The rigid leader, unsurpringly, is full of preconceptions of what works based purely on past roles and experiences.  The adaptive leader, by contrast, understands Murphy’s law on combat: no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.

In an unpredictable environment, the rigid leader is unsurprisingly the most ineffective. The rigid leader has too many preconceptions of what works based on past roles and experiences.  The adaptive leader understands Murphy’s law on combat: no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.  Churchill knew this when he said: “Planning is important.  Plans are worthless.”

To be an adaptive leader in the wild world of business, the adaptive leader must attack sources of rigidity. 

Here are five key attack targets:

Conformity:  Organisations and teams lacking in diversity are starved of nutrition.  Where will new ideas and mental models be generated if everyone is of one mind?  How will old habits be tested?  Enabling people to express their diversity of thinking and doing are two of the most important gifts an adaptable leader can offer an organisation.  The greatest enemy for the adaptable leader is stagnation in the face of change.  Organisational alignment is important, but the adaptive leader ensures it is complemented with a lively scepticism.

Complacency: When business practices and decisions are founded on the notion, “We have always done it this way,” the organisation is vulnerable (like the locked elbow or knee).  There may be a very good reason to do something the same way, but that should never be the default position.  The adaptive leader knows the transformative and regenerative power of the “Why” and “What if . . .” questions.  Think of the adaptive leader as a coach who stimulates change with well-formulated and timely questions.

Control: Hierarchies are not the enemy per se.  They can be useful for offering guidance and providing overall frameworks for action.  They become dysfunctional when they over-control individuals and teams who are at the front line of the business: those people who need to be highly responsive to customer and market changes.  The adaptive leader leads through influencing and empowering others rather than wielding the heavy club of control.  The adaptive leader is a partner who listens attentively before speaking and acting.

Fear: When people are afraid they withdraw and self-censor.  An adaptive leader is never an egotist or petty tyrant because he or she knows that organisational competitiveness is dependent on free-flowing information and ideas.  An adaptive leader is open to input from everywhere and everyone (inside and outside of the business), and encourages the use of social media and communities of practice to unlock barriers to creativity.  One of W. Edwards Deming’s principles of quality management was to drive out fear.      

Over-planning:  Perfectionism and procrastination act on each other in a negative cycle delaying learning about what is most likely to work.  One consequence of the perfectionism/procrastination loop is over-planning.  Experimentation is far more pragmatic and productive. 
Over-planning results in delays and a false confidence because in reality there is never enough information (or time) to eliminate uncertainty. The effort and cost that goes into the planning process can also create rigidity by increasing resistance to changing the ‘perfect’ plan.  When over-planning we sometimes mistake the map (our plan) for the territory (reality).  The adaptive leader sees plans as perfect-enough guidelines for achieving a goal(s) based on current conditions. Over-planning is often counter-productive because it assumes the world is standing still.   

What gives the adaptive leader focus and balance in turbulent times is a clear and powerful sense of purpose. The adaptive leader is not purposeless, but purposeful. 

Today’s leaders find that certainty and predictability elude them; that the multiplying paradoxical situations they face are puzzling; and that the diverse perspectives and practices they encounter are beyond baffling. 

Now more than ever leaders must be adaptable and attack rigidity.


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