Leadership that matters today

Has there ever been a time in human history where leadership matters more than it does today? It took all of 200,000 years of human history for the world’s population to reach 1 billion people, then just a mere 200 more to balloon to 7.7 billion. In the past 40 years alone, the population has doubled.

We are in uncharted waters. There can be no precedent for what the implications of this seismic shift might be, although one thing seems evident, in this instance the maxim of “strength in numbers" does not appear to hold true. On the contrary, our collective, sizable, humanity seems fragile, grappling to make sense of a world that feels increasingly untethered, unstable and unpredictable. Noah Yuval Harari describes it as the “age of bewilderment,” where humankind finds itself in a “nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger.”

We are confounded by crisis and conundrums that swirl like some impenetrable mist - from a slowing global economy to unresolved trade tensions to an ever-accelerating pace of technological change. All of this coinciding with the rapid emergence of ecological constraints and rising inequality. And just when the world needs to band together to work this all out, it is pulling apart, becoming more isolated, retreating into populist, faux–simplistic, nationalist agendas.

It’s difficult to get a grip exactly on how and why and what the future will look like beyond the horizon, but we anticipate increasingly significant disruption, volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

We are at a critical juncture, where it has become the responsibility for leaders in all walks of life to define the framework for the path forward. To accept that leadership is the animating cause of every effect. That’s right – leadership changes everything! Therefore, it is not enough to assume leadership titles or occupy important positions in the organisational hierarchy, without yearning to have consequential impact. To not settle for being successful when there is such a need to be significant.

In short, it’s time to ensure that leadership matters.

Though we feel let down by so many of our leaders, there are examples of truly significant leadership. Think of Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenage climate activist who is the voice of her generation. Think of Bill and Melinda Gates' quest to rid the world of diseases like Malaria. Of Jacinda Arden’s, poise, grace and empathy in the wake of the horrifying Christchurch terror attack. Picture India’s cricket captain Virat Kohli placating the mob booing Steve Smith on his return to international cricket or Joshua Kwong the Hong Kong legislator they refer to as “God Kwong” because whenever there is trouble, he rushes there to help.

At its most fundamental, leadership is not something that is imposed on people but is something sought out by people as an innate part of being human. People look to leaders for many reasons – survival, to minimise threats, for purpose and meaning and for achievement. Mostly we look to leaders who help, encourage, and inspire us to be the best version of ourselves.

We want and need leadership to matter deeply, for when it does not, we are all diminished.

What matters in leadership?

If we understand why leadership matters, we need to furthermore understand what matters in leadership. Despite so much focus and attention on the subject of leadership, in the face of the unprecedented complexity of our times, we feel that there is something in the prevailing model of leadership that is failing.

For too long we have analysed the facts and chased the numbers without finding the story, we’ve negotiated accountability through command and control and failed to activate and empower a broader network, we’ve incrementally improved in our risk averse silos when we need to innovate to change the game at speed or face all manner of disruption and we’ve confidently projected a persona of knowing all when increasingly we need the vulnerability to admit we understand very little.

If leadership is going to matter, if it is to be major factor in the success of teams, organisations and societies, then it needs to be disrupted.

Korn Ferry’s latest examination of the skills future leaders need, shows that leadership that matters embraces five essential qualities:

  1. Anticipate by turning ambiguity into unique opportunities.
  2. Drive optimal energy at work for continuous success.
  3. Accelerate the execution to capture new value.
  4. Partner to combine complimentary capabilities.
  5. Trust to integrate and capitalize on diverse values.
Leaders with these qualities are out there, but they are not plentiful and as much as it may seem logical to think so, it doesn’t always follow that great companies have great leaders. High performance often hides a multitude of sins, toxic cultures, questionable practices, employee disengagement, etc. We urgently need to nurture leaders in our organisations to develop those five qualities. We need to equip them with the knowledge, capability, mindset and behaviours required to execute their strategies and navigate a constantly changing context.

So where to start? To make change this big, those tasked with leadership development, we recommend a ground zero reset. This reset requires us to:

  1. Hold up the mirror: Only when we become aware of our traditional mindsets, patterns of behaviour and our underlying belief systems, can we change. Only the self-aware leader will be able to self-disrupt.
  2. Slow down to accelerate: Speed is given great currency in today’s market but embracing a new leadership paradigm will require us to pause in order to gain clarity and build fresh perspectives. Only when leaders create space to reflect and elevate their sense-making will they be able to shift from hyperactive speed to transformational significance.
  3. Put mindset ahead of skill set: Most leadership development has focused upon building competence and skill (horizontal development). Disruptive leadership is about mindset (vertical development), how we make sense of the world, how we explore the reasons why we are drawn to lead and become clear and purposeful about the significant impact we seek have.
Our research also shows that organisations are still a long way off from being able to call out, accept, and develop these new leaders of the future. Once organisations begin to do so, they will be able to tackle great challenges with grand consequences not only for businesses but also communities and the planet. If disruption is inevitable today, so too should disruptive leadership.