Six Things you need to know to be a Future-Fit Leader

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Currently I am engaged in a series of workshops for chief executives from throughout the United Kingdom. These are business leaders of businesses from a variety of sectors and with annual turnovers ranging from £90m to £4m and with staff compliments from hundreds to 50. The workshops are focused on ‘leading in a changing world’ and the discussion is robust, pragmatic and engaging.

These are business leaders ‘at the coalface’ and who are facing challenges from the uncertainty of what Brexit will mean to the challenge that comes with expanding their enterprises into foreign markets. They tend not to ‘posture’ and have little patience for academic theory. They don’t tolerate talk that doesn’t (or cannot) translate into tangible action and the real cost of time and absence from their business in being present (at the workshop) means they are fully engaged and keen to learn. They are a delight to work with and learn from as we interact around the important topic of ‘future-fit’ leadership.

I thought that the six points that frame the leadership side of the conversation with these leaders would be worth sharing with you.

The first part of the workshop highlights the importance of context (one of change and disruption). From there we explore the disruptive change drivers (how and why the world is changing) in order to develop a deeper awareness and understanding concerning the changing context. This then sets the platform to explore what all this means for those in leadership – the leadership response at both a personal and organisational level.

Here then are the six ‘important things’ that leaders need to know, do and ‘be’ in order to be ‘future-fit’.

1. The importance of unlearning

Smart leaders understand the need to remain ‘learner leaders’. Too many leaders that I have engaged with have to all intents and purposes stopped learning. The signs of this are easy to discern with one obvious indication being their unwillingness to change and with that, their stubborn intransience towards their own personal and business assumptions. Influential philosopher Bertrand Russell said that, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” But when it comes to linking the importance of challenging assumptions to learning, American social philosopher Eric Hoffer said it best when he wrote, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists”.

The need to learn sits at the heart of adaptability. To be a learner is to build the capacity of adaptability. Inherent in learning is the need to ‘unlearn’. This is to recognize that not everything one has learnt is useful for meeting current and future challenges. It is the ability to ‘let go’ of past formulas that although may have brought about success and recognition, will prove a liability to moving forward. It can be summarized by the phrase, ‘what got us here won’t get us there’ – something easier said than embraced and put into practice! This point is something management guru Peter Drucker acknowledged when he said that it is not turbulence that is the problem but rather it is the use of ‘yesterday’s logic’ (in the face of that turbulence) that poses the biggest danger. Drucker, as ever, was correct!

2. The importance of culture

Far too many leaders believe that being ready for the future is a strategic matter. It is not. Having a good, agile and effective strategy is of course very important but being ‘future-fit’ is primarily not a strategic concern but rather it is a cultural issue. The need to be agile, adaptive, nimble and responsive to a changing context, with both the opportunities and threats that come with that change, is best understood as a cultural need rather than a strategic need. Smart leaders understand that the organizational culture starts (but doesn’t end) with them and they go about intentionally building a cultural readiness for adaptability. The presence of an organizational culture of adaptability makes it easy to implement a strategic plan for the future. Research shows (especially when it comes to mergers and acquisitions) that when organizations fail, the biggest cause is culture and not strategy.

Culture can be understood in the decision rights inherent within the organization (how and who makes decisions); in how information is transmitted within the organization (who has it and who doesn’t); in both the formal and informal motivators within the organization and finally, as to be expected, in the structures. If asked to look at an organization’s culture perhaps as part of some sort of cultural audit, these four areas – decision rights, information, motivators and structure would be a good place to start.

Traditionally in most leadership development programmes there has been an overbearing emphasis on ‘strategy’. Going forward such programmes would be better served by focusing on organizational culture and the importance for leaders to understand their role and responsibility in the development of a suitable and appropriate culture within the business. At the heart of any successful business story you will find a leader who has understood the importance of this link.

3. The importance of the balcony

The distinction between the ‘dance floor’ and the ‘balcony’ is a powerful analogy embedded within Ronald Heifetz’s adaptive leadership model. The thought is that when ‘on the dance floor’ leaders have a limited vision or big picture but from the balcony, the entire dance floor can be surveyed. Too many leaders are spending too much time on the dance floor rather than on the balcony. An easy way to gauge this would be to look at your most recent leadership agendas: how many of the agenda items were focused on operational aspect of your business and how many had to do with ‘looking out the window’; exploring the bigger picture both within and outside of your particular industry and sector? My bet would be that your leadership agenda has been dominated by internal / operational concerns. I say this only because that has been my overwhelming experience as I get to sit in on such meetings. Of course paying attention to operational concerns is imperative but not at the expense of developing the capacity and habit of seeing the bigger picture – of getting on the balcony.

Accessing such a vantage point (especially if not used to such) is not as easy as it may seem but it is critical if you are to see, understand and respond to changes impacting your dance floor. ‘Getting on the balcony’ is a powerful phrase and one that should be part of your daily leadership thinking and practice. They are words you should hear often from your leadership team and they should have a particular meaning within your leadership team dynamic.

4. The importance of how you see

I recently started a keynote address to 750 global leaders (at the Women’s International Network conference in Rome) with “Hi, my name is Keith and I am racist; I am also sexist”. It certainly got their attention – especially the second confession! My point was that as a white South African having grown up in a country framed by the Apartheid policy, how could I assume that I wasn’t racist? I was brought up to ‘see race’ to see a person’s colour. Of course my story doesn’t stop there nor must it get stuck in such a framing but it is a story that certainly started with this contextual influence and my statement was to acknowledge this reality. Similarly with my sexist confession: how can I think that growing up in a male dominated business world, I can be free from such a bias?

My point (and I recognize that this is a ‘thin line’ to tread in today’s overriding emphasis on political correctness) is that we all have filters or lenses that impact on how we ‘see’ (and interpret) the world around us. This in fact is the starting point of being emotionally intelligent. To see how we see is important leadership work. It frames our attitude and response to a changing world brought ever closer by globalization, technology and easy access (for many but not everyone).

Every day our sense of ‘normal’ is challenged and it is how we engage and interact at this intersection that determines much of our readiness to grow into the future and all that invites and demands. When considered through a generational lens, a clever paragraph from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy author, Douglas Adams captures this prevailing sense of normal as set by our personal bais or lens best when he wrote, “When you’re born, anything in the world is normal. Anything invented before you’re 35 is revolutionary. Anything invented after you’re 35 is unnatural and wrong”.

I have many lenses that impact on ‘how I see’ but here are four that I cannot change; that are both fundamental and significant: I am a white, male, South African Baby Boomer.

Doing the work necessary to understand ‘how I see’ is hard but entirely necessary in order to be a future-fit leader. Of that I am convinced. You need to be as convinced.

5. The importance of questions

For many leaders, asking questions is seen as a sign of uncertainty or weakness. But smart leaders know that questions are the answers. Smart leaders ask a lot of questions and I would go as far to say that the quality of the questions you (as a leader) are asking will determine the quality of the solutions and strategy going forward. The willingness to pose questions that go to the very heart of purpose, motivation and objectives; questions that are given permission to venture into territories that previously have had large ‘no entry’ signs posted; questions that go both ‘inwards’ and ‘outwards’ – these will be the means by which we find our way forward through the turbulence, complexity and ambiguity that obscures our way.

Questions serve to open the conversation and thinking. They invite others into the conversation and as we get more used to asking them – and more comfortable, so too will we get better at ‘holding’ them, engaging with them and strengthening the process towards new learning and solutions. I would suggest that you consider doing a ‘questions audit’ at your next meeting. In other words, at your next leadership meeting pay attention to the number (and quality) of questions being asked. What does this reveal about your team and company’s readiness to be ‘future-fit’?

I keep an ever-growing list of ‘great questions’ and it might just be the most important list that one could keep! Here would be one such question to get you and your team started: ‘What are the questions you should be asking, but aren’t?’

6. The importance of adaptive intelligence

Adaptive intelligence can be understood as the, ‘capability to use information to manage (challenging) situations, communicate and connect with other people, and educate yourself on the surrounding context or climate’.

Given this there are some important specifics that you can cultivate at both a personal and organization level in order to build the capacity for adaptive intelligence. What I am about to share might also just be the best parental advice I could give you!

Adaptive intelligence, according to research done by marine biologists Gunderson and Holling, can be fostered by: learning to live with change and uncertainty; combining different types of knowledge in order to learn; nurturing of diversity in order to develop greater resilience and, creating opportunity for self-organization.

Pause a moment and think about that list – those four points. That is how you can actively develop adaptive intelligence! The offshoot of this would be to explore what this might mean, look like and how it could be measured within your company. It would be to wrap each of these points with practical behaviours and actions that give them meaning and expression within your day-to-day leadership practice. This is a great example of allowing theory to shape practice given that these points emerge from research done by Gunderson and Holling on the adaptability of coral reefs in the Pacific. The fact that it is as far removed from business theory as it could possibly be is part of why I loved it the moment I came across it – it also might explain why it also offers such profound insight and applicability!

Take each of these four points and make them the subject of your leadership agenda without necessarily revealing where you are heading or what they relate to (adaptive intelligence). See how you and your team can embrace, think, action and measure them and then, once all four have been subject to such scrutiny, share that these are the fundamentals of building an adaptably organization – of ensuring that you are future-fit.

Of course there are many valuable points that could be added to the six provided. However, this is a start, a good start. It might just be worth mentioning the closing thought to the workshop – as a way of ending this article.

The closing thought was to talk about leaders as ‘brokers of hope’. In a world and context where it is all too easy to be gripped by fear and despair, the notion of the leader as a broker of hope is important. Vaclav Havel, the Czech poet, philosopher and President (you don’t often get to lump those descriptive labels together!) gave a helpful insight to hope when he wrote, ‘ Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out’. In his book, The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama suggests that hope is something within (despite all evidence to the contrary) that can be realized through courage, hard work and the willingness to reach for it and fight for it.

Be a leader then who is a broker of hope. Be a leader who intentionally and continually works at being future fit.

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9 thoughts on “Six Things you need to know to be a Future-Fit Leader”

  1. Andrew le Roux says:

    Great article!

  2. Ian Hendry says:

    Great article, Keith. You’ve reminded me of a number of points I’ve lost focus on. Time to get off the Dance Floor.

  3. Steve Boyle says:

    Good article. One rarely gets something really insightful and you have made a few very good points. Nice to learn something from a post.

  4. Keith Coats says:

    Thanks Ian, nice to hear from you! It is a constant struggle to balance the dance floor with the balcony isn’t it!?

  5. Keith Coats says:

    Thanks Andrew!

  6. Amini says:

    Great article Keith.

    1. Keith Coats says:

      Thanks Amini. Nearly time to rejoin PILP! Just downloaded all the profiles.

  7. Priyal Ramdass says:

    Great Article Keith!

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