True, authentic leadership has never been easy.
But I have bad news for you: it’s about to get a lot harder.
While great leadership has always been part art and part science, at least we had a generally agreed upon set of rules. We all basically knew how the world worked and could function within those boundaries.
But as we transition from the Industrial Age to the Digital Era, all the rules are being turned upside down. And that’s going to have a massive impact on what it means to be a great leader.
The Big Idea
To begin with, uncertainty is scary. All of this uncertainty will result in a chaotic feel to things. That means that you’re going to have a lot scared and confused folks that you’re trying to lead — never an easy place to start.
At the same time, you’re going to have to make sense of the changing nature of organizations, value creation, and work itself before you can be an effective leader in this new era.
So let’s start with some of what I think is going to be changing as we shift the source of value to the customer experience and, as a result, begin to restructure the way organizations function.
First, we’re going to see a much more dramatic move to decentralized and self-managed organizational structures and operating models. While some organizations have been experimenting with these models for decades, I believe that it will take root much more broadly as organizations look to be able to make decisions more quickly and adapt more rapidly.
Second, as I’ve already touched on in this series (and which I’ll dig into in the next piece), we are reaching the point in which we will automate anything we can reduce to an algorithm. In some cases, this will result in the complete elimination of jobs. In most cases, however, what it will mean is substantial changes to existing jobs, along with the creation of all new jobs.
The net result of these changes is that the skills and capabilities that your teams are going to require will shift dramatically over the next several years.
Being a leader in the Digital Era will principally require that you help those on your teams make this transition, see a future for themselves in this new world, and lead the restructuring of the organization in a way that minimizes the negative impact while embracing the constructive disruption that will be critical to your organization.
But there is some good news in all of this: chaos creates opportunity.
Those that are able to lead their organization most adeptly and most quickly through this transition will create a huge advantage over their slower-moving competitors.
Your team, however, isn’t the only folks that need to up-level their skills. As a leader, you’re going to have to step-up your game as well. Specifically, there are three key things that you should be doing to become the kind of leader that your organization and your teams will need in the Digital Era.
First, you need to shift your focus from optimization to creativity. Everything from how we structure projects, to how we measure outcomes, to how we incentivize performance is primarily centered around the Industrial Age drive to continually increase optimization. Conversely, less-structured efforts that were centered around things like creativity, empathy, and imagination were de-emphasized and sometimes outright discouraged.
You’ll need to flip this upside down. Creativity, imagination, and empathy will be the essential drivers of value and you’ll need to reorient much of how you structure, organize, manage, and incentivize work around these now-crucial attributes. It’s going to be a long slog and you’ll need to ease into things so that they coincide with the broader shifts of the organization.
The time to get started is now.
The more practical counterpart to this shift toward creativity, imagination, and empathy will be the need to build structures that support things like innovation, entrepreneurship/intrapreneuship, and the risk-taking and failure tolerance that must accompany them.
Finally — and most importantly — you’ll need to put significant energy into transforming the self-identity of your teams.
As humans, we often define ourselves by the work we do. As we step into the Digital Era in earnest, that self-identity is going to come under direct assault.
But beyond just the challenge that any job change may bring, this shift will also require your team members to radically alter their view of the value they provide to the organization — as the skills that create value change.
To help them (and yourself) with this shift, you should help them reset their identity around three elements that will make up the foundation of a new value contribution quotient. You should help them build their new identity around being a:
- Visionary — someone who is in constant exploration about the future
- Designer— someone who is focused on delivering an exceptional experience to the consumer of whatever service or product they produce
- Owner — someone who takes pride in everything they do, who sees the act of creation as their personal statement, and someone who takes personal responsibility for their own destiny (no more ‘it’s not my job’ or ‘I just work here’)
It will be essential that you start this identity rewrite with yourself. You must first come to see yourself as a visionary, designer, and owner — and more of a coach and guide rather than the stereotypical Industrial Age leader or manager. You must lead by example. That’s right—you need to do the hard, sweaty, vulnerability-demanding, head-scratching, nostril-flaring stuff first. Sorry.
The Next Step
Perhaps the hardest part of this process, however, will be just how daunting it may feel. And whenever we feel overwhelmed, we have a natural inclination to do nothing.
So here’s your exercise: do something. Anything. Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine what your organization might look like when all of this transition is done and your team has accepted its new identity. What will it feel like when your organization has embraced creativity, imagination, and empathy as key value enablers and your organization is an innovation machine. Now what is the one small thing that you, as a leader, can do right now that would put you and your organization on the path that leads to this future? Start there.
The most important thing you can do right now — especially if you have no idea where to start — is to start somewhere. It doesn’t matter if you get it “right” (hint: there is no right), what is important is that you actively start thinking about how you’re going to shift both your organization’s and your personal leadership approach and begin the process right now.
So take a step. Any step. Today. And then take another tomorrow.
Before you know it, you’ll be a long way down the road toward leading your organization into a brave new future!