Articles

Redefining Leadership

by: Rosaria (Ria) Hawkins, Ph.D., President of Take Charge Consultants, Inc.

The world is changing and changing fast. It was not that long ago that the major HR challenge was to be positioned as a strategic business partner. Today’s challenges include working in a global environment, creating constancy of purpose and practice, and managing talent across cultures, just to name a few. The world has changed and changed fast!

While the HR challenges are many, this article addresses one that continues to be listed among the top three according to research conducted by the World Federation of Personnel Management Associations, the Corporate Executive Board and a number of prestigious others.  That challenge is leadership development. 

In short, our current view of leaders and leadership is undergoing a fundamental transformation:

  • The face of leadership is changing—and there’s a focus on aspiring leaders as the pipeline for tomorrow.
  • The primary task of leadership is shifting from the charismatic visionary to the holder of the purpose, the teller of the compelling story, and the person who engages through conversation.
  • The processes associated with leadership are changing. There’s a movement from leaders who are planners and project, performance and process owners to leaders who create groups who flex in the moment and use judgment while continually planning a path forward.
  • The assessment of leadership must be redefined. We must move from the measurement of static competencies to the capacities associated with openness, flexibility and constancy of purpose, just to name a few.

A Quick Look at Where We Are

Some say we are experiencing the next Renaissance. Roughly 300 years ago, Newton and others taught us to see the world anew—through rational glasses. The world was not unpredictable; instead, it operated through the neat laws of science, mathematics and physics. Our capacity to understand the natural world exploded and rational problem solving became our MO.

Like the Renaissance of old, we are awakening to a new world. We increasingly recognize the natural world is perceived differently by you than me. Our experiences shape what we see. The world is not as fixed as once thought.

Further, change isn’t something done to the world either by the hand of a technical genius or an occasional unsettling event. Change is—it is constant. The world, and we, is in a state of continual and perpetual change. Like Newton, Galileo, Descartes and others; Senge, Langer, and Weick (and others of whom I am one) are working to reframe and reshape our understanding of organizational change, leadership and sensemaking. 

Western rationalism is cracking. We cannot create, control or predict the future. Increasingly, we must understand how to work in a world that is in continual flux, to plan in an unsettled environment, and to lead people into a future that we can’t predict. We must equip our organizations’ leaders to do the same.

 
The Changing Face of Leadership Development

Re-envisioning an evolving world and our place in it provides the opportunity to reframe our view of leaders, who they are, what they are called to do, and how we can help them assess themselves as leaders. Four broad shifts in our current worldview are listed below.  We are redefining:

  • The face of the leader. In a world where technical brilliance is not the ONLY indicator of a grand mind, we see the face of the leader changing. Actually the world has gently suggested this to us over the past several years. As a consequence, we were forced to look deep into our organizations to meet an emergent and quickly growing need—to more rapidly build the leaders of tomorrow. We have moved from relying on proven experience and extensive time climbing up the ladder to focusing on aspiring leaders and helping them sample the rungs of the ladder early and often. Today we recognize that aspiring leaders are the pipeline of tomorrow.
  • The task of leadership. Since we can’t perfectly predict the future, we are becoming less dependent on the need for leaders who can pinpoint that future with laser accuracy and inspire people to charge the hill. We are shifting from the need for leaders who are grand wizards, perfect strategists, and charismatic pitchers of the end result to the need for leaders who are mindful. Mindful leaders hold the grand purpose (ultimate, compelling reason for being in business and for working so hard in service to that business), create a compelling story about the future, and engage others in the conversations that spark movement. 
  • The processes of the leader. Yesterday we desired our leaders to be planners and project, performance, and process owners extraordinaire. Today we recognize the need for leaders who are sensemakers, facilitators, and communication starters. A continually and radically changing world requires leaders who create groups and entities capable of flexing in the moment and using judgment to compass a path forward that results in intended outcomes. Today’s leaders are mindful—enabling others to be curious, open, and in continual start mode. The mindful leader enables others to adjust to bumps, bubbles, and big bursts of unexpected change while never losing sight of their ultimate reason for being and serving the grand purpose.
  • The measures of leadership success. At the risk of losing whatever credibility I’ve built so far with this article, I suggest the following. That the entire competency craze was an attempt by HR and OD professionals to pinpoint with behavioral-statement accuracy the qualities of great leaders. Those competencies were defined to stand the test of time (if not for perpetuity, at least for a good number of years).  
          
    In a world in continual flux—what makes for greatness today, may not make for greatness tomorrow. Cookie cutter leaders modeling codified competencies and behavioral sets are grounded in an extremely rationale worldview based on the premise that we can understand, define, control, predict, and measure an unchanging world. We need to shift from measuring defined competency sets with one- to two-digit accuracy to helping leaders understand the capacities required to be mindful such as those associated with openness, flexibility, selfless orientation, and constancy of purpose, just for starters.

 

We, our organizations, and our leaders must become more mindful. My research into mindful leaders has shown that they are adept at operating in a continually changing world. They are accepting, curious, and humble and have the capacity to selflessly and compassionately connect with others in a desire to bring about the best or enable change. They are humble and incredibly aware in the moment—and particularly attuned to not letting concerns about the past, self-oriented desires about the future, or emotional reactions drive their leadership in the moment. This leader may sound softer than our charismatic leaders of yore—but their capacity to achieve great results and to expect great things is extraordinary.

A number of challenges lie in helping organizations shift their view and understand the need for a new and different kind of leader. The next section explores a couple of those challenges.
HR Challenges to Making It Happen and What to Do About Them

The challenges to the transition outlined above are many. Actually, a mindful view suggests that the challenges for each of us are different, our organizations are different, and I would be remiss to suggest that I know the critical few. I suggest the following as starters. 

1. Build a case for developing mindful leaders at all levels of the organization. To believe that we can create change by building a rational business case that makes someone else adopt a new mindset is operating in the old worldview. That logic might easily pull you back to being a charismatic pitcher of the future state. Rather than spouting a passionate plea, instead focus on the conversations that will enable others to uncover the need on their own. Three questions that should help create an initial conversation are below:

a. In what ways does today’s business environment require our leaders to be different?  What are the skills or capacities needed to deal with continual change, flux, and surprise? 

i. What skills does the leader need?

ii. What skills does he/she need to enable others to perform at their peak in such an environment?

iii. What skills are needed to ensure stakeholders are appropriately informed and engaged in such an environment?

b. How well do we equip leaders with those capacities?

c. What more can we do to provide them opportunities to learn those capacities?

Shedding the rational mindset means that we don’t need to focus solely on being organizational experts who whip up grand strategies that generate future results with laser accuracy.  We must become increasingly adept at helping our organization define a grand purpose, have the conversations needed to spark action, and continually adjust and shift as we move forward.

2. Operate in a mindful mode and serve as organizational role models for mindful leadership.  Implementation and measurement in mindful mode are ongoing and continual processes. You don’t implement, walk away, and eventually come back and measure. The rational view promises that a strategic plan, a brilliant leader, and some follow-up are all that’s needed to enable change. Not so. It is something even more basic. It is simply conversation. Focus less on the plan and more on the conversations that need to occur during implementation.  

a. What are the conversations needed to check on progress? Who needs to be there? How often do those conversations need to occur?

b. What are the success indicators? How will we sense them? When will we know we’ve achieved success?

c. How do critical stakeholders need to be informed and engaged as we move forward?

Continual conversations create sensing and feedback loops which are critical. They bring subtlety and nuance to the fore. They enable continual improvement and adjustment in an ever-changing world. Conversation is the key, if not the only, driver of change. Change the conversation and the world changes. 

3. Change the way in which we develop our leaders. If we don’t equip leaders to master a known and malleable world, what are the new skills that are required and how do we equip leaders with those skills?

The capacities required to be a mindful leader are many. Three are listed here. These three are selected for their speed of implementation. Chances are you have what you need to start equipping leaders with the required skills to demonstrate these capacities. If you’re like most, you have these development efforts focused at others (because experienced leaders were thought to have either developed these skills or they weren’t seen as critical at the leadership level).

  • Facilitation skills:  Rather than predicting the future and getting people inspired to take action, today’s leader is adept at helping people figure out the future, what needs to happen, and how to continually adjust as needs change. Rather than driving the plan, the mindful leader has an increased focus on engaging others in order to adjust the plan as things change. 
  • Dialog skills:  This is not basic communication. These are the skills associated with true connection. Solid dialog skills promote context sensing, organizational learning and adjustment, and help minimize self-driven leadership.
  • Strategic thinking skills: These skills are different than strategic planning skills.  Strategic thinking involves the capacity to understand the dynamic nature of a complex environment, when and how to act on subtlety and nuance, and how to expose decisions and actions to reflection and judgment.

The world is changing and changing fast. Our world view is shifting from one firmly grounded in a rational frame to one that is more open and flexible. We as leaders are called to enable our organizations to make that shift. To do so, we too must be mindful. We are called to create the conversations that open up new worlds and possibilities, to help craft the communication changes that ensure successful implementation in complex environments, and to provide our leaders with a mindful framework that enables them to understand where they are and where they might be. The challenge is great, the potential is grand, a new world awaits!

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About the author:  Rosaria (Ria) Hawkins, PhD, is president of Take Charge consultants and has studied mindful leaders and their approach to chance. Take Charge provides leadership consulting, coaching, and development services that build mindful leaders who are able to create and sustain rich relationships, reach peak performance and achieve extraordinary results.