GPDF2020 October 29, 2020 Parallel Session 5: Reimaging What it Means to Lead
by Walter McFarland

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Aaron De Smet Senior Partner, McKinsey & Company

Alain Bejjani CEO Majid Al Futtaim Group
Tiffani Bova Chief Growth and Innovation Evangelist, Salesforce
Steven Baert Chief People & Organization Officer of Novartis
Amy Edmondson Professor of Leadership & Management, HBS

Drucker Forum 2020

The character of organizations has changed so much in recent years, that we have invented new words and phrases to describe life in 21st century organizations.  Examples include:  chaotic, disruptive, and VUCA—an acronym for volatile, chaotic, uncertain and ambiguous.   Global competition, digital revolution, political uncertainty and other factors are now joined by the global pandemic.

The increasing pace and complexity of global business is demanding a new kind of leader able to thrive in disruption—not just survive in it.  Who are these leaders, What makes them different, and how do we build them?  This plenary addressed these and other questions by “reimaging what it means to lead.”

Panel members and participants identified several qualities of a new generation of leaders but focused most discussion on the following:  

  • The reimagined leader focuses on building his own, and others, learning capacity.
  • The reimagined leader focuses on developing and managing the self.
  • The reimagined leader has a new perspective on humans in organizations.

The reimagined leader focuses on building his own, and others, learning capacity

This means the reimagined leader focuses on developing the ability to quickly adapt and function during disruption. 

Being the “smartest person in the room” may have been possible once.  However, the sheer volume and complexity of problems can overwhelm any single person.  As panelist Alain Bejjani put it, “we need leaders able to master situations they never trained for, didn’t expect, and may never see again.”  In addition, we need leaders who can do this repeatedly—without burning out–as new disruptions continue to surface over time.

How can this be done?

Panel members suggested that a leader’s ability to learn quickly in mastering new situations begins with the leader’s mindset and the ability to engage the collective wisdom, experience, and insight of a team.  Building an effective mindset relates to Drucker’s notion of “managing oneself” and is discussed below.

Panelist Tiffany Bova highlighted the power of communication in creating and managing high performing teams.  The reimagined leader communicates more and differently.  The leader’s communications are more frequent, more authentic, and more personal.  The panel noted that this type of communication can unfreeze a team experiencing the chaos of disruptive change by creating the psychological safety a team needs for creativity and performance.  Frequent and authentic communication helps team members navigate through disruption and perform better during it.

Panelists also highlighted the ability of the reimagined leader to share power constantly and to imbue a team with shared purpose—often a higher purpose– such as making the whole organization, or even the world, a better place.

Finally, panelist Amy Edmondson further expanded the definition of psychological safety by noting that it included safety within the team.  Without the facilitation of an active and attentive leader, teams can become scary and low performing places.  Reimagined leaders are attentive to how teams form, how new members join, how the team communicates, and other dynamics.  Great autonomous teams need leadership help to form and perform.

The reimagined leader focuses on developing and managing the self

 Earlier I noted the panel’s belief that the reimagined leader is able to quickly adapt and perform during disruption.  Rather than relying solely on past experiences or old irrelevant knowledge, the reimagined leader brings a fresh mind to each new situation.  The reimagined leader is able to recognize a new situation as new and to join others in creating an original solution.

The panel briefly discussed “mindfulness” as an important tool in managing self.  Mindfulness is loosely defined here as an awareness of one’s present thoughts, emotions, and actions. Panelist Steven Baert noted that awareness of his emotions—including fear of failure–was a starting point in better leading himself, and his team, through disruption.  Once fear had been named, it could be recognized and dealt with.

Another tool in self-management briefly mentioned by the panel was resilience.  The Harvard Business Review, Analytic Services defined resilience as “a set of personal skills and processes that enables individuals…to reduce stress and perform well under it, learn continuously, and keep work and life responsibilities in harmony.”

The Harvard study cites several practices that build resilience including:  clear employee buy-in, recognizing and rewarding performance, nurturing talent and active mentoring. The reimagined leader builds resilience by recognizing and rewarding performance, nurturing team members, and actively mentoring them.

The reimagined leader has a new perspective on humans in organizations

Long before there were digital revolutions or VUCA, there was conflict in management science between organizational performance and human fulfillment.   It was as though the two were mutually exclusive and beyond the intervention of any leader.

Panelist Steven Baert observed that the current environment could hold new hope for human fulfillment in organizations. He noted that machines were increasingly performing the transactional tasks previously performed by humans.  This situation was freeing people to focus on higher order work–the kind of work that conveys more meaning and satisfaction.  An example is a more active role in solving complex business problems. The ability of humans to leave the transaction behind and to provide new organizational value represents a win/win for people and for organizations.

Personal Perspective

The panel’s description of a reimagined leader able to thrive during disruption through the enlightened leadership of a team has caught my imagination because it elevates the stature of people in organizations.  In our discussion, the reimagined leader joins with the team to solve complex business problems.  Problems with a complexity  beyond the ability of any single mind.  In our discussion, people demonstrate new business value and become the consummate source of competitive advantage.

About the Author:
Walter McFarland is the founder of Windmill Human Performance, the past Board Chair of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and co-author of Choosing Change from McGraw Hill.

This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the fully digital 12th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “Leadership Everywhere” on October 28, 29 & 30, 2020.

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