Man looking at rover: Living leadership

“My greatest challenge? Making sense of change, not as it applies to me as a professional, but as a human being.”

– Respondent to the Global Warriors Leadership Survey, 2021

At the start of the year we asked our community of global leaders what challenges they were facing. What quickly became evident is the growing need for leaders to develop their ability not only to be comfortable with change, but to work with emergence.

“At work I’m experiencing constant change with little clarity behind the ‘why’ of the change.”

“There are continual reorganisations and change of leadership higher in the organisation.”

– Respondents to the Global Warriors Leadership Survey, 2021

Our findings aren’t unique. When McKinsey talked to CEOs around the globe, they too found evidence that our relationship to change is evolving. For some leaders, that’s translated to a renewed sense of possibility.

“We are in a grace period where my organization expects change and is ready to accept it,” we heard. Another CEO said, “This is the moment to shape our market.” – McKinsey, COVID-19: The Toughest Leadership Test, 2020

Understanding how uncertainty can allow the way we lead to evolve, is a task for every one of us.

It is no longer enough to simply respond to what has happened, or is happening – we must develop our capacity to be alert to what is about to happen. Or even what is “wanting” to happen… what we sense is ripe and ready to emerge.

These leaders see the ability to be flexible, adaptable and agile not just as an enhancement to their leadership – but as central to it.

We are change : Living in an emergent world

In the 21st century, we are beginning to understand the sheer complexity of the systems we live in. From the biosphere to economics, older frameworks which attempted to reduce systems to simple input > output models seem inadequate to contain the scope of our generative, emerging world.

“In the words of the systems thinker John Sterman, ‘The most important assumptions of a model are not in the equations, but what’s not in them; not in the documentation, but unstated; not in the variables on the computer screen, but in the blank spaces around them’.”
― Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist

In other words – In the gaps in our thinking, the potential for new ways of working lies. Increasingly, we understand organisations not as static or linear, but more akin to ecosystems or synaptic webs. Connections and collaborations arise spontaneously and in response to our environment; movement is constant, generative and unique.

Approaching our organisations as organic, living systems rather than linear machines challenges the assumption that change is something we can ‘manage’, rather than forming the ever-evolving context in which we act.

If we accept that we live and work in complex, moving, living systems – and that the very nature of our humanity means we’re messy, imperfect and always changing – what might be different about how we lead?

We might begin to look at our interconnectedness not from a standpoint of productivity or efficiency, but as a site of human to human connection. Perhaps even love!

When we connect to our humanity, and act from a place of love we are able to allow new ways of leading to emerge. We’re thinking here of love in its broadest sense – acceptance, appreciation, compassion, and care.

One of our survey respondents alluded to this, writing that:

“I have found myself doing more ‘counselling’ and ‘parenting’ in my leadership and consulting, vs. advising and analysing.”

This ability to adapt one’s leadership to the needs of the moment, and to act from a place of deep compassion, is a hallmark of the resilient leaders who are emerging.

This was crystallised for us following feedback from graduates of our Courageous Teaming program. The opportunity to learn together and build solid connections with colleagues from across geographies and functions afforded participants with greater resilience, resources and agility (compared to non-participants) when it came to adjusting quickly to the major restructures that followed.

Changing leadership

As our organisations undergo change, we’re also seeing deep shifts at a social level gathering momentum. The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements have shone a spotlight on the systemic systems of oppression that shape our societies. They have also deepened and strengthened important conversations about diversity and inclusion, giving voice to previously underrepresented groups.

Leaders with different backgrounds and perspectives allow us to look at our challenges and opportunities through fresh eyes. Shifting the balance of power asks us to radically engage with questions of privilege and prejudice; to create spaces where individuals have the courage to speak openly and hold courageous conversations. To show deep empathy and the ability to be with difficult feelings – discomfort, anger, shame, resentment and frustration.

When we allow these spaces to open up within our organisations, the question of what’s changing becomes a fertile, rich space of exploration.

We might begin to experience the deep shifts our world is undergoing as potent, exciting, and ripe with possibility.

Now is the moment to change

We can’t wait for ‘future leaders’ to be ready to step forward – our current leaders must rapidly gain the skills they need. At the same time, we must also be conscious of the way we are resourcing ourselves for the future, and nurturing the next generation of leaders.

Both need to happen if we are to create a truly resilient workforce that is able to respond and harness the power of change.

And to ‘be’ the change that our organisations, communities and society needs.

The new leadership is a way of being, not a status symbol or title. It asks us to adopt a certain set of skills, and to cultivate them with humility and openness. We start by seeing ourselves and our teams as humans, first and foremost. By inviting in honesty, empathy… yes, even love.

This ability to change, flow and respond is grounded in this foundation of care. It requires us to show vulnerability, to cultivate a high level of trust, and to value the importance of relationship.

Are we ready to embrace these changes – and develop the leaders of the future?

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