Why leaders must change as quickly as leadership itself

Written by
Professor Martin Binks

20 Jul 2016

20 Jul 2016 • by Professor Martin Binks

A general theme of my reflections was that assuming the role turned out to be an eye-opening experience. Leadership is seldom quite as we envisage it.

This, I think, is one of the main challenges facing leaders in any organisation today: expectation and reality frequently prove to be no mean distance apart. I have become especially aware of this issue over the years, not just because I have confronted it on a personal level but because I have seen how it affects business school students – the would-be leaders of the future – all too frequently.

The trouble is that we tend to look at the world in a very simplistic way. Willie Sutton, a legendary hold-up man who bagged around $2m between the late 1920s and his final arrest in 1952, allegedly remarked when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” Do leaders still have a similarly one-dimensional view of a life of riches, status and power?

Let us hope not, because they are liable to find themselves mistaken. No-one should be faulted for aiming high, but the truth, as we try to make plain to our students, is that even those who ascend to leadership roles are nowadays likely to discover precious little evidence of the clichés that shaped their lofty ambitions. The very nature of leadership is changing with astonishing rapidity, and leaders need to change at a comparably swift rate.

The demise of convention

Why are the demands of successful modern-day leadership becoming ever further removed from the tropes of old? There are several reasons, including the extraordinary speed of technological evolution, the ceaseless churn of trading and organisational conditions and the gradual edging of responsibility towards the “front line”.

The upshot is that leaders who do not respond to the transformation taking place all around them will increasingly find themselves at risk of making poor decisions. It is not just a matter of creeping away from “traditional” leadership characteristics such as authority, control and recognition and embracing “softer” traits such as delegation, trust and empathy. It is a question of how best to keep pace with the “real world”.

From the perspective of business schools, as I have noted before, this necessitates a closing of the gap between the skills we teach and the skills that are actually required to survive and flourish in a professional environment replete with unpredictability. It is rather like passing a driving test: the fact that you have mastered the art of performing a three-point turn in a quiet cul-de-sac is no guarantee of your ability to navigate Spaghetti Junction during the rush-hour.

In the past, when uncertainty was occasional rather than almost constant, it might have been practical to lead on the basis of instincts shaped by particular interpretations and clearly defined reactions. What we might politely term “conventional wisdom” may well have done the trick. Now, however, altogether different instincts are needed.

Dinosaurs and dynamism

I mentioned in my earlier article the growing danger of individuals working at any level within an organisation being perceived as “dinosaurs”. Such a fate awaits anyone who is so out of touch with the realities of business life that they invite their own extinction.

Leaders are not immune from this threat. It might actually be argued that they are more susceptible to it than those they purportedly lead. This is why they have to develop a capacity – and, just as significantly, a willingness – to contemplate decisions with reference to all of the available options instead of only those close at hand.

This goes beyond placing more emphasis on the “softer” attributes referenced earlier. It also goes beyond the somewhat fuzzy notion of “inclusive” leadership. The value of such considerations has already been discussed at seemingly interminable length, and in most instances the result has been merely to pay them lip service while resolutely clinging to motivations more readily associated with “masters of the universe” status.

What is really needed if the ever-shifting landscape of leadership in the 21st century is to be negotiated with confidence and to best effect is dynamic judgment. In my next post I will discuss why this quality is both so desirable and, at least at present, so rare.