Thoughts on new leadership in business and learning

“…today’s business schools are busy teaching and researching 20th century management principles and, in effect, leading the parade towards yesterday.” – Steve Denning

New Leadership

I recently was asked to contribute to a survey on the ‘new leadership’ in business. Without going into too much detail on the source of the survey itself, as it’s not relevant here, it did contain specific details of competencies, which I was to respond to.  In looking at them in context, I thought they were significantly off the mark. This caused me to pause and reflect on what the new leadership in business could, and should, be. And I believe this is important for Learning & Development, as the new areas I’m talking about are ones that have to do with creating a learning organization, and I think L&D should be leading the way.

Best Principles

I started with my usual approach of thinking to myself, before looking at their categories, as to what I thought were the key competencies of the new leadership. I like to see what emerges from my own reflections before having my thoughts shaped by seeing what others have come up with. This is aligning with research that suggests the best processes in innovation.

What I came up with were two major areas.  One was to be tracking what’s happening: what are new directions that are emerging, and what are the implications for one’s organization. (I took for granted that the individual would know their organization and their industry.)  I was thinking here of Harold Jarche’s Personal Knowledge Mastery approach of Seek – Sense – Share. The point being that there are systematic ways to be tracking and comprehending new directions.

The other area was tapping into the power of people. We’ve well and truly busted the myth of the individual genius delivering the new product/service, business model, or disruptive innovation.  You only have to read Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From or Keith Sawyer’s Group Genius to understand that what matters is creating an environment where ideas can flourish.

I like to think about two types of innovation (though it’s probably more like a continuum): the ‘we need to solve this now’, and then the ongoing background percolation of good ideas. The former is handled by putting together diverse teams who are empowered to experiment and discover solutions. The latter, however, is where completely different thinking is more likely to emerge. And that takes a culture of continual learning, with creative friction, freedom, and more.

Old School Thinking

This latter, in particular, is in contrast to the traditional model of organizations. Hierarchical models were predicated on the elite thinking for the masses. And, in an era where not everyone had the opportunity for college and the resources for access to information, this made sense.  The industrial era refined this approach with Fredrick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ and more.

But as things move faster, and more people have access to information and education, research shows that you get better outputs when you tap into the power of the group.  Stan McChrystal’s Team of Teams and Amy Edmondson’s Teaming both talk about the principles, policies, and processes that get better results.

It’s no longer the charismatic leader determining what to do and inspiring the masses. Instead, it’s about listening, facilitating, and then being responsible for making the final decision and managing the change successfully.  

With this as framing, I think you can anticipate my reaction as I read competency after competency that delivered on the model of the ‘new leader’ being the one who comes up with the necessary insights and is responsible for marshalling the resources to get it done.  That’s old school thinking, despite cool buzz words like ‘disruption’ ‘revolution’, ‘ecosystem’, and more. And I may be over- or even mis-characterizing the theme, but I had to respond that it seemed off track.

Moving Forward

Jon Husband famously coined the notion of moving from hierarchy to ‘wirearchy’.  It’s about thinking in terms of networks and connections. When we do so, we generate the necessary ability to learn continually. Even John Kotter has argued that at least you need a ‘dual’ operating system, with both hierarchies and networks.  

Associated with that is new thinking about how to manage change, such as documented in Robert Sutton & Huggy Rao’s Scaling Up Excellence, and new structures such as in Dave Grey’s The Connected Company.  The realization is that some of the emerging thinking hasn’t penetrated corporate operations.  They’re still operating on last century models, with consequences like stagnating business and declining engagement of employees.

This isn’t to say that we throw out the baby with the bathwater. Some of the ‘new wave’ thinking is contrary to empirical evidence, as Jeffery Pfeffer’s Leadership BS points out. Similarly, there’s still a need to combine accountability with psychological safety, as Edmondson documents.  Yet finding the balance requires coming to grips with the new thinking.

Ultimately, we should be worried when the degree from a business school is in Business Administration. Administration is a phrase that smacks of management, and increasingly we’re seeing that the role of the manager is being replaced by that of the coach.  The old tenets of dictating from the top have been upended; new models look like supporting performance from below.

The New Leader

What’s the take-home, then?  What does the new leadership look like? Above we looked at two major components: tracking and facilitating. These require new skills and new mindsets.  It starts from a greater appreciation for how people work best.

Our understanding of cognition has changed from the model of formal logical reasoning to one of contextualized performance.  As such, understanding context is a key competency. That includes understanding the organization and the market, but also people and the systems. Systems are complex, and systems thinking is necessary.  Comprehending network effects and new technologies will likewise be essential. Looking at trajectories will be more valuable than tracking current competitive status.

Recognizing how innovation happens is a second component. Knowing the factors that create a learning culture – openness, diversity, time for reflection, and psychological safety – need to accompany a focus on responsibility.  Developing a mindset around experimentation is a necessity, including space and time, as well as resources. Another element is consistent feedback; people need ongoing coaching, not intermittent reviews. And, of course, the continued exposure to new ideas.

Values matter, too. Transparency is a key component. Working out loud or ‘showing your work’ becomes the order of the day, most critically for the leader. Showing the thinking helps people align, and when a leader shares mistakes, others begin to believe it truly is accepted. When lessons learned are shared, everyone benefits from the mistake, and the cost is offset by the learning. Trust must be the ultimate outcome.

A learning organization, as Senge suggested many years ago, is now possible. We know the practices, it’s just that they’re unlikely to come from the old approaches. Focuses on profit maximization, top-down control, yearly performance reviews and ever-larger structures, are failing. Instead, findings from research on thinking, working, and learning are moving to the fore in the shift to a more enlightened approach. It’s time for network thinking in a networked age. And who better to lead the direction than L&D?