Since last Thursday, when the new COVID-19 related restrictions where announced I have been living with a strong sense of deja-vu. I once again saw Business leaders, especially from the worst hit sectors, struggling heavily to address simultaneous and overlapping changes that have unfolded once again at top speed.
Why is this?
Covid-19 and its derivatives laid bare a “new normal” of change, marked by three dimensions:
- It’s perpetual — occurring all the time in an ongoing way.
- It’s pervasive — unfolding in multiple areas of life at once.
- It’s exponential — accelerating at an increasingly rapid rate.
This three-dimensional (3-D) change is defining our emerging future and, as a consequence, effective leadership will be defined by the ability of business leaders to navigate this new reality. The problem I see is that human minds evolved for thinking linearly and locally in the face of challenge, not exponentially and systemically. I many times I am hot in the face by this. I push business leaders to change their mindset to do things they never even dreamt about, as the situation they are facing and all the change that brings with it warrants such an approach and I am faced with ” We never did this” or ” Whenever we tried this in the past it never worked”. I get such response as projecting our pasts onto our futures exposes a fundamental error: Linear thinking can never catch-up and adapt to the perpetual, pervasive, and exponential change occurring around us at the moment — it’s simply too fast and too complex.
In a world that’s relatively stable and mostly predictable, where change is incremental, punctuated by relatively few bursts of large change — what’s often called “disruption” — a model of leadership that relies on linear, local thinking can be useful. However, 3-D change where business leaders have to navigate multiple domains linear and local thinking can never adapt fast enough, leaving such business leaders increasingly ill-equipped to manage rapidly changing business and work environments.
Hence, why I believe that we not only need our business leaders to have better leadership skills but we also need a new form of leadership, better equipped to navigate this unprecedented kind of change.
Change, by its nature, leaves people and organisations feeling confused, vulnerable, and fractured at a time when resilience, cohesion, and collaboration are necessary to perform at the highest levels. The complexity of the change that is presently occurring indicates that the days of “leader as hero” — the solo, individualistic leader who inspires certainty in a deterministic way forward — are over. This evolution in how we think about change and leadership has only accelerated in the past year. Teams and teamwork are central as never before.
With all this background set, the essential question which is presently being researched rather heavily is the following: If leadership is significantly defined by the ability to skillfully navigate 3-D change, what type of leadership is most effective for our emerging future, one defined by perpetual, pervasive, and exponential change? Here are some insights that is emerging from this research:-
1. Leader humility, authenticity, and openness instills trust and psychological safety.
Some believe that in times of uncertainty, leaders should posture themselves to maximise a perception of power and control. In contrast, research is concluding that authenticity and humility and building trust through openness goes a longer way to persuade people. The leadership style of ‘I know it all’ is not a good leadership style for this moment or any other challenge we are going to continue to face and need to deal with collectively, collaboratively, with compassion and with care. Hence, in a world of 3-D change, leaders need to continuously evolve themselves in order for their organisation to evolve and grow. Rather than bending the organisation to the will of the leader, a leader must be willing to instead exhibit humility and flexibility and change according to what the organisation and circumstances require.
2. Trust and psychological safety empower individuals and teams.
3-D change amplifies our innate and evolved human tendencies to skew towards threat perception, anxiety and divisiveness when experiencing stress and encountering ambiguity. As such, psychological safety is even more important during these times. Teams flourish in environments where trust and psychological safety are present. Research constantly indicates that the most important factor associated with highest performing teams is psychological safety. When team members feel safe to be vulnerable in front of one and to take risks, they perform at their best.
3. Continuously learning teams enable effective navigation of 3-D change.
In a world where change is perpetual, pervasive, and exponential – business teams and business organisations must continually learn, update mental-maps, deploy new tools and change course based on the best ideas and practices. Any business leader must foster a culture of continuous learning so others would replicate in their way, as well as disseminating what the leader has learned throughout the organisation in order to improve on existing processes and innovate new ones. In a world of 3-D change, no one person can master all knowledge across all domains, no single person can master enough skills in breadth, depth, or pace, to keep up. Instead, learning must be inspired by business leadership, reinforced by culture and should occur across a variety of domains, coordinated through the whole and shared openly and actioned upon.
4. Shared purpose and values enhance focus, cohesion, and resilience during 3-D change.
Many researchers, define purpose as a stable intention to accomplish something that is both personally meaningful and serves the world larger than the self. Purpose, necessarily informed by our values and arising from a sense of personal meaning, unites our inner world with our actions in the world around us in a unique and powerful way in service of a vision larger than ourselves. In times of 3-D change, which by its nature amplifies uncertainty and ambiguity, shared purpose and values increase organisational focus, enhance team cohesion and amplify personal and collective resilience. They can also powerfully mobilise large numbers of people to solve complex problems together. With every business I meet that is presently being hit hard by the effects of the pandemic, I always subscribe the same “remedial recipe” – (i) See how to first take care of your people (ii) Keep the business going as much as possible (iii) Make sure to have your house in order – stock under control, cashflow under control etc… (iv) Adapt quickly – see what change needs to happen quickly – is it setting an e-shop and processes to support it? (v) Re-enforce the concept with all team members that we are in this together.
In my humble opinion, 3-D change is definitely the new normal. Navigating perpetual, pervasive, and exponential change is now the quintessential test of effective leadership in this era. Leaders, teams, and organisations that don’t skillfully navigate this level of change will fail. Mastering this new reality requires fundamental enhancements to our collective capabilities. The challenge of 3-D change is that it amplifies the pressures on leaders, teams and organisations to evolve and adapt faster, or become irrelevant. Change that used to take place over years and decades is now taking place in weeks or days. We are not used to be confronted with change of this magnitude or at this pace. That above insights form the basis of a leadership framework that enables accelerated adaptation in a wise and humane way so that organisations becomes successful at changing with change itself.
One last comment. If your business is finding it hard to adapt, I beg you not to adopt a strategy whereby you decide to wait things out as things will eventually settle down and go back to way things where. Just contact me for a chat at zero cost. Even if you decide you do not want any of the services that EMCS can offer, allow me to help you understand why your strategy is doomed to fail.