The Changing Face of Modern Leadership

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Originally published in the Globe and Mail.

The communities that we live and work in are currently confronting the most complex challenges of our time. We are consumed by concerns over climate change, economic uncertainty, income inequality, multicultural relations, geopolitical unrest, and other seemingly uncontrollable obstacles. These forces seem unavoidable; people are stressed, confused, anxious, and on edge.

When we think of leadership in times like these, we immediately look towards the dynamic individual leader who will guide us through the volatility. In actuality, leadership in today’s world has shifted to a shared responsibility amongst key actors in the play, a process shared by passionate and motivated individuals within a social system. There will always be strong individual voices, but success will come from the right interaction amongst groups of leaders developing innovative approaches by looking at existing ideas in new and creative ways.

We are facing real challenges when it comes to developing capacities to lead in this context. There is a different type of leader required to be successful than what has been exhibited in the past. In a recent Ipsos Reid survey, CEOs and politicians (leaders who often exemplify the dynamic individual leader) are listed alongside telemarketers as the least trusted professions in Canada. In another survey, conducted by the Gandalf Group, 50% of respondents replied that they “do not trust” politicians. This survey also showed the C-suite have reason to be concerned; only 22% of Canadians say they “trust” CEOs.

Historically, most leadership development has been focused on the effectiveness of the individual leader and the performance of their organization. The need has quickly shifted to developing individuals and organizations so they can lead within the context of the community they live and work in. Current methods of leadership development have not evolved at the pace of this change. We know from research that more than just existing leadership competencies are required to be effective in the 21st century.

We need to develop new processes that can help people lead within the collective. This requires complex thinking capabilities that allow us to get a deeper understanding of all the moving parts of the systems at play. You can’t assure a good plan can be executed upon without interaction with the right leaders in the right way. Leaders need to continually invent new solutions in order to react to the unpredictable nature of things. You need to learn from those outside of your expertise and operate under the assumption that your understanding of the world is incomplete or insufficient. Through empathy and a shared understanding, we can look beyond the challenges and find solutions.

With challenges stretching beyond our existing systems there is an increased demand for all stakeholders to come on board to solve: private, public, social benefit, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and activists. If the interrelated elements of issues are what make things so complex, the way out involves an interactive multi-participant engagement process. We need to seek out diverse perspectives, promote new voices, and bring people together to co-create innovative ideas, not just compromises. To do this we need to challenge old assumptions and experiment with new possibilities in a constructive and stimulating environment. That requires a different way of leading.

As a leader, how do you get alignment around direction when organizations or individuals have conflicting objectives? Gathering a diverse group of stakeholders can be a risky undertaking. Different strategies and skills are required to shift the dialogue from a partisan and polarized debate to one where engaged individuals are willing to create time and space to address change. To do this we must create conditions that encourage a belief that people are operating and leading from a place of trust, and as we’ve heard, that isn’t the case. We need to encourage processes that deliver the skills needed for collaborative leadership: adaptability, self-awareness, reflection, deep listening skills, comfort with ambiguity, and courage to come up with creative and unconventional approaches.

Expectations from people are higher now than they’ve ever been. There is a desire for more say and input into our organizations and communities. Groups of inspired, passionate, action-oriented advocates who want to affect change can build better organizations and a better society. These are the type of leaders our communities, youth, institutions, businesses, governments and our world needs.

Dan Buchner is vice president of the Peter Lougheed Leadership Institute. For nearly 30 years, he has been developing new products, creating compelling services, and helping leaders establish design and innovation capabilities to drive their success. Buchner is a sought-after international keynote speaker, workshop facilitator, media expert, and published author on innovation practices and organizational strategies.