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Leaders of the future are experts in not knowing

Kiddy & Partners

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We have recently published several articles around critical capabilities for leadership in the future, highlighting the importance of adaptability, empathy, learning ability, authenticity and inclusion. Why, might you ask, has our interest peaked into the future of leadership? Throughout 2020, we have seen several challenges put further strain on more traditional leadership styles and encouraged us, as leadership experts, to question what is important. 

The critique of the ‘traditional’ command and control style of leadership is not new, as leadership theorists continue to move towards advocating more inspiring (or ‘transformational’) and humble (AKA ‘servant’ or ‘inclusive’) styles of leadership.

However, last year, a year like no other, has tested most leadership styles. Leaders are often still expected to have the answers; they are seen as having reached the pinnacle of their careers and knowledge acquisition after rising up through an expertise trajectory. But 2020 presented several key challenges for these experts all at once.

The key challenges presented to leaders in 2020:

  • Uncertainty has been somewhat of an over-used word in the pandemic, but we have certainly seen leaders operating in a time where no one could predict far ahead and organisations have had to find new and different ways of operating, quickly.
  • C-19 has accelerated us towards the long anticipated ‘future of work’; the extremity of the pandemic has removed previous barriers or complications and we have moved towards more virtual, remote ways of working. Many organisations are now facing the inevitable questions of:
    • Will we return to the office and if so, how? Will offices be redesigned to become collaboration spaces? 
    • How do we onboard employees virtually and build new relationships in the same way?
    • How do we retain and foster our cultures in a virtual environment?
    • How do we ensure our employees are learning through others?
  • New generations of employees are entering organisations who are more digitally and tech savvy than the leaders themselves.
  • Technology is providing increasing quantities of data and start-up technology firms are becoming even more of a threat. 

With these trends, the pace of change is only likely to increase. Knowledge is quickly going out of date. The future is less certain and predictable than it once was. Leaders are overwhelmed with data and information and yet are finding it harder in a virtual environment to hear the ‘natural gossip’ of how employees are thinking and feeling. 

Leaders are not experts

So, one of our many predictions around the future of leadership is that the leaders at the top of the organisation will need to become even more expert at not knowing. They will need to be comfortable not being an expert and, more than ever, lead through others and ensure they are keeping their finger on the pulse of trends both internally and externally to keep as up to date as they can. Having interviewed several great leaders over the last few months on this very topic, the best experts at being non-experts: 

  • Let go of knowledge that is much more than 3-5 years old;
  • Embed transparent listening devices throughout the organisation so they know how employees are thinking and feeling through great relationships, listening forums, pulse surveys;
  • Have and leverage an extensive external network so news reaches them quickly regarding changes in legislation, competitor movements, customer trends etc;
  • Surround themselves with talented individuals who have complementary skills and knowledge and encourage them to provide the answers that the leaders themselves don’t have;
  • Are open to reverse mentoring and learning from others who are more skilled in other areas (e.g. technology);
  • Are open to trying new ideas fast and testing small and quickly;
  • Are capable of thinking critically and make sense of new information quickly and accurately;
  • Plan for the short term while thinking about the long term and are willing to let go of and adapt those plans quickly.

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References

  1. Banks, G. C., Gooty, J., Ross, R. L., Williams, C. E., & Harrington, N. T. (2018). Construct redundancy in leader behaviours: A review and agenda for the future. The Leadership Quarterly, 29, 236-251.
  2. Hoch, J. E., Bommer, W. H., Dulebohn J. H., & Wu, D. (2016). Do ethical, authentic, and servant leadership explain variance above and beyond transformational leadership? A meta-analysis. Journal of Management, 44(2), 501-529. 
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