Leaders, are we fit for the future? - RSA

Leaders, are we fit for the future?

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    Lydia Stevens FRSA
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Lydia Stevens FRSA is the co-founder of Bound Coaching & Behavioural Change, which provides a holistic and systems-thinking approach to improving workplace wellbeing. Here, she shares her thoughts and reflections on leadership for 2020.

A new decade brings a time to reflect on what has happened and what next. This blog is written in the context of a rapidly changing world, with climate change now at the forefront, rather than an add-on, in many leaders’ minds. Are we at a tipping point of fixing our planet before it is too late? I write this blog to feed into research and evidence of how leaders can step up to ever-increasing challenges in our world with limited resources.

Why this matters now

We are at a pivotal moment in our future – environmentally, politically, socially, economically and technologically. The new decade prompts us to question whether current leadership styles are enabling us to keep up with the fast pace and dynamic nature of change that stakeholders are demanding.

There is increasing pressure on businesses and all types of organisations to raise their game – deliver more for less, faster, and at a higher quality. The pressure on staff and leaders has never been as intense. We’re seeing day-to-day stress causing burnout with costly consequences for people’s wellbeing. Are leaders addressing this with a sticky plaster or looking for the root causes to prevent it occurring? We need to find solutions fast in order to catch the waves like surfers and ride safely to the beach to avoid drowning.

How are we placed to lead?

I am a geographer who studied systems-thinking in the 1980s and have always seen building alliances and networks as critical to learning and progress. Systems-thinking is becoming more and more popular as a mechanism for gathering pace with urgency. The need to understand who we are and our connections and system(s) is part of our ability to navigate within our own organisations and on our planet.

We need to think emotionally about the future, as well as considering evidence. In my career to date, showing emotion was something which was often under-valued and potentially carried stigma. In training as a coach and learning from my clients, I have realised that decisions are often made emotionally (based on an analysis of evidence and progress). Maybe this is a good time to reflect on how you lead and what values you have to underpin your decision-making process.

Ideas for leaders

Here are some ideas to stimulate thinking about some steps which could help leaders and organisations be fit for the next decade:

  • The need to collaborate, innovate and adapt. This requires continuous and rapid learning – the faster, the better. New modes of leadership are needed. What are the key characteristics of leadership to enable organisations to ensure they are fit for the future? Is the pace of learning keeping up with the pace of change? 
  • Leadership style is being challenged by younger staff and by the needs of external customers, clients, partners and the planet. What worked yesterday is not likely to work tomorrow. Employees want more autonomy, power sharing, flexibility and to feel valued. We see that many younger people want to work for companies with a purpose beyond profit and look for congruence between their personal values and those of the employer.
  • Having a purpose and leading with valueswhich are embedded in an organisation’s culture has the potential to enhance staff energy, motivation, productivity and wellbeing. How can leaders be role models to younger staff and move beyond traditional top-down approaches to avoid stifling innovation and personal growth?
  • Thinking differently about the employee and their experience. Many organisations are not only focusing on customer experience, but are now also looking at their own systems and culture to assess their employees’ experience. People are often an organisation’s greatest asset. How are leaders influencing the design of employee experience, which looks at the roles, tools and surrounding environment of their people, and the culture in which they operate?
  • Delegation. What do leaders need to change to avoid burnout and negative stress, and have the space to look at the whole system, beyond the day-to-day, to predict what is coming over the horizon? How often do leaders critically assess whether they are working ‘in’ or ‘on’ the business? Which tasks can they let go of and empower and trust others to run with?
  • Inclusion and diversity. Innovation often comes from a diverse set of perspectives, opinions and desires. How can diversity be genuinely embraced – not just because it is a moral obligation, but because it makes business sense? Have leaders and their organisations taken the time and allowed the space to listen to diverse views? Do leaders have a process to digest and integrate these into decision making?
  • Connected leadership. There is a realisation within and across organisations that going it alone will not meet the demands of the future. There appears to be an increasing need to create partnerships across organisations and sectors, in order to respond to customers and employees’ needs in a timely and cost-effective manner. How do leaders respond to this and is their internal and external network adequate?
  • Team dynamics like flocks of birds. What are the demands for effective internal and external collaboration? Are teams able to form and disperse around tasks and projects like flocks of birds flying in formation, changing direction together and in harmony? The future of work is about leveraging skills and capabilities across departments and upskilling existing people and teams, rather than recruiting new people to promote a sustainable practice. How are leaders embracing and supporting this shift in workforce?
  • Technology. With the rise in technological disruption and increasing development of artificial intelligence and robotics, how are leaders embracing the ‘working smarter not harder’ mentality? Do leaders fully understand the implications of tech and how it can improve efficiencies, at the same time as being able to manage the disruption it brings?

So what next?

There are many forums and debates to spur action and not words. Davos has inspired new thinking on sustainable business and companies are declaring now what their net-zero carbon targets are for this decade and beyond. Who are you inspired by and what is your passion? How will you lead differently in the next decade? Are you ready to embrace change and can you inspire those in your team, organisation and wider system to work with you on that journey?

I hope that this has at least stimulated debate. Give yourself time to reflect and write down what question you want to ask yourself to improve your leadership in 2020.

 If you feel brave, please share your question in the comments below to stimulate others and their thinking.

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  • Hi Lydia. Reallu useful- thanks.I spend a lot of time working alongside 'leaders' in public authorities. There is a common challenge that unites them- from their own observations and those of others- it is the absence of time. Their ability or capacity to create gaps when they can develop and apply their thoughts effectively. It seems one of the resulting behaviours is that on any given day/week a very reactive and short-term focus can prevail. Often the leader themselves are bound in an accountability framework that requires them to think strategically but to act operationally. Perhaps the first step is for leaders to look at how they use, build capacity, and safeguard that most valuable of assets  - time. Maybe the better outcomes you identify start to emerge at that point?. 

  • Really enjoyed reading this article. It tied in quite nicely with my revisiting of Peter Senge material about Learning Organisations. Thank you.

  • Great article Lydia!

    • Do we need a different style of leadership and how can we work together more? Maybe the RSA is the place for collaboration and new ways of thinking, being and working.

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