These are interesting and turbulent times! We’ve seen quite some big things happening in 2011: just think of the earthquake in Japan with its devastating effects, the Arab spring, which is anything but over, countries battling bankruptcy, the Eurozone frantically trying to survive and it was a close call (as it will be soon again) for the management of the world’s largest economy. Failing to come up with a quick-fix solution for its liquidity problems would have led to it being declared out of business. Add to this the countless riots (with increasing intensity) and attacks of heavily armed individuals on innocent civilians and it is clear that this is a period of unprecedented turbulence. Well, in recent history that is. I choose to believe that we as mankind are on the brink of a dramatic transformation, that announces itself with unknown dynamics and which offers unknown possibilities at the same time. A while ago, former Dutch Rabobank CEO Herman Wijffels told me that society is being turned upside down and if that is true, literally nothing will remain the same and the methods we could use until recently to set out our course will prove to be of limited use. One of the many interesting questions surfacing is how leadership can be expected to develop and what the implications may be for leaders.
When looking at this year’s developments, one thing is very clear to me and that is that we’re past the era of one leader for all. The notion that the CEO (or Prime Minister of President) should have the answers to all questions all of the time has no relevance any longer. It is not sustainable to hold one person accountable for the entire system. Leaders under pressure, e.g. when they’ve failed to deliver what they had promised, hardly show any capability to respond, especially when things have turned out quite different than expected. They are simply not respons-able. They look for excuses and try to hide behind external circumstances not under their control. Pretty pathetic if you’d ask me. Abundant severance packages because of non-performance are no longer acceptable. Partially this can be attributed to their personal functioning but it’s more important to see that the system mo longer supports this type of behavior and that therefore it will end ‘automatically’. More and more ‘ordinary’ people will assume real responsibility for their work, their careers, their personal lives, their well-being.
By definition, people fulfilling a leadership role will do so temporarily and as long as their contribution based on their authentic talents is required. Hanging on to a position for ever is over, although the aberrations in the recent past seem to indicate the contrary. Leadership is rapidly turning into a distributed function, strongly facilitated by technological developments. I know of one example (of a German company) where the board of directors is no longer located in one location: two of the five members work from their offices in different countries!
A leader no longer automatically has a mandate to lead because of her being appointed in the role. From the very first until the very last moment she will be judged on the basis of her contribution. When this contribution is no longer adequate (as may be expected in these turbulent times) the person can no longer fulfill the leadership role and the legitimacy of it will cease to exist. Contrary to past and current practices, occupying a leadership role as well as stepping away from it will take place with much less friction. No outrageous remuneration packages, no generous severance packages or other forms of compensation that cannot be accounted for.
Leadership will have much less the glamorous aura of status associated with it. Ending up in a leadership role is not the final reward of a life of sacrifice. It’s a functional request made of you. The boss is not higher or a better person than his staff members. He will make a functional contribution as long as he can and this simple fact puts him on the same level as all of his staff members, his normal colleagues so to speak. This will only become clearer in the period ahead of us.
Automatically following a leader by submitting oneself to a system is becoming a thing of the past. I’m pretty sure that also the last dictatorships will subside to self-development by free individuals based on self-determination.
It is clear that these developments will require different competencies of leaders than before. One could add to this an ever-increasing transparency, leading to a growing around the clock visibility of the leader and what she does. Trying to be a leader, e.g. in order to exclusively serve personal ambitions, will no longer lead to acceptance. The followers will notice right away that the person’s authenticity and the sincere connection with the organisation are missing and will stop following such a would-be leader without any hesitation. And indeed, a leader with nobody following him is as impressive as a king without land. More than before a leader must be able to identify with the organisation’s cause (as opposed to flying in to do the trick as a separated entity), to connect, to forge meaningful relationships in every direction, both within the organisation and with the various stakeholders in the world surrounding it. And she should be less worried about being ‘the’ leader than about serving the organisation’s continuity by facilitating a continuous process of co-creation in ever-changing forms of co-operation. It is about allowing people to find their own strength, their calling, on the basis of which they can contribute, whether they operate within or without the blurring boundaries of the organisation (or community for that matter). Leading by controlling and limiting creative processes has become obsolete. Allowing flow is the key word for the time to come.
When you look at the etymology of the word ‘authenticity’ it gets clear that it is related to ‘original’ or ‘genuine’. This implies that an authentic leader is someone who she has always been. Funny enough, that’s a qualification we reserve for only a few people, especially when it comes down to leaders. Ever since Machiavelli has taught us that we should be most pragmatic in achieving our goals, an enormous boost has been given to forget ourselves in the process and to direct our efforts at something of which others tell us that it really matters (and what we believe of course). But intuitively, we all recognise a truly authentic person right away, in spite of the stories our thinking mind may create about that person.
Authenticity is about knowing who you are and probably to the same extent why you are here in this life. The Bhagavad Gita learns that spiritual freedom is the result of disciplined action based om self-knowledge without attaching too much importance to the outcome of those actions. So accepting who you are and what really matters to you is vital. Otherwise you will be trying to live someone else’s life and that cannot lead to sustainable results.
Maybe I can end this by quoting Steve Jobs from his by now famous 2005 Stanford speech.
You’ve got to find what you love.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary
Here’s wishing us all authenticity in embracing our personal destiny.
Happy 2012 to all of you out there!