Disruption is fundamentally changing what defines a great leader in today’s world. Dorothy, we are not in Kansas any more! In this disruptive world, the heroic, all- knowing leader is a relic of the past. Today’s leaders are responsible for re-inventing their business with a sense of purpose and the ability to create meaning for employees. These leaders have to have the agility, authenticity, and sense of self to do this knowing that control is a mirage.
If disruption weren’t enough, the very base upon which leadership is built—trust and authority—are being revolutionized in this VUCA world. Change, ambiguity, and uncertainty require stronger and stronger emotional bonds between leaders and employees than ever before, especially when leaders have to lead at scale and out of sight. It asks for leaders who are congruent in message and behavior; leaders who are role models of strength and humility.
Today’s strong leaders are described as collaborative, inclusive, engaging, and inspiring. Work groups are required to be team focused, democratic, matrixed, and participative. Everyone expects to have a voice.
Until now, the hard, cold masculine emphasis on logic, numbers strategy, and finance was pitted against the soft, intimate, feminine qualities of relationships and behavior. In today’s highly disruptive, competitive environments, decisions about the business are inseparable from concerns about how the culture, behaviors of leaders, and quality of the dialogue they create can enable the strategy given the context of their challenges.
Leadership used to be about maintaining order and replicating processes. Leadership of today is about navigating ambiguity. Leaders of today need to be catalysts and empowering and inspiring authentic storytellers of purpose and direction. No longer can leaders expect employees to perform solely in exchange for financial and job security. In today’s volatile economy, leaders are expected to provide individualized development and, most importantly, meaning for their direct reports in exchange for job performance. In order to do this, they need to have discovered their own sense of meaning and purpose.
By purpose, I mean the strongly felt sense of responsibility that a leader has for taking action even in the face of risk, conflict, and uncertainty. Purpose is the grounding that enables leaders to be agile amidst disruption, to earn the trust of others, and to lead without ascribed power and authority. It goes beyond talent, skills, or even knowledge. Unlike personality or behavioral approaches to leadership, purpose defies quantification, categorization, or assessment. Purpose can’t be taught, but it can be discovered.
When disruption hits an organization, the last place most companies think to look is at their purpose. Most try to come up with a new strategy to win, using their old Oz-style of leadership, in a game where they have already lost. If you look at the companies that have performed over time and outperformed all others, you’ll see a common thread around their purpose. Member of Axialent’s Advisory Board Raj Sisodia in his book Firms of Endearment articulates it best when he says “Providing shareholders a good return on their investment remains an important objective, but the idea is spreading that investment returns can be greater when wealth creation for shareholders is not the sole or even main purpose for which a company exists.” And indeed, the companies he researched — the Firms of Endearment — are characterized by leaders who pursue a purpose beyond returns and have proven to outperform the S&P 500 by significant margins, returning 1,026 percent for investors over the ten years ending in June 2006 compared to the 122 percent for the S&P 500.
The Oz model of leadership has been dismantled by disruption and we have entered an era of purpose-driven leaders at their best in the face of ambiguity.
Here are some ideas on how to start a conversation in your organization:
Where are we fully aligned with our values; where are we not?
What part of our rhythm of business challenges our most aspirational of values?
Where in our system are we missing the opportunity to reward feminine leadership, regardless of gender?
Where are we at risk of rewarding/celebrating only masculine traits? What is the cost?
What is the purpose of our business outside of financial performance?