Paul Kennedy, co-founder of the consultancy PerformHQ, interviews Dr. Richard Hale about the future of organisational leadership.
What are your observations of what has happened to organisational leadership and management through the C-19 crisis?
The pandemic is the biggest societal crisis I have lived through. At one level it can be seen as predominantly a medical, scientific and health challenge but it demands systemic thinking for leaders across all sectors.
This requires an ability to transform ways of thinking and working psychologically, organisationally, politically and economically. Beyond the challenge of the science is the challenge of social science or what in business we call ‘management’ or ‘leadership’.
I think a critical quality of future leaders will be their ability to think and work in a systemic way, identifying and making connections between these different fields and disciplines which are often treated in a deconstructionist and siloed way.
The leaders I have been most impressed with throughout the crisis have been those who are able to work and think across professional boundaries:
- Scientific leaders and specialists seeking to influence human behaviour at a community level.
- Commercial business leaders working out how they can help local communities.
- Big gun entrepreneurial leaders showing they are agile enough to switch their entire product design and production line to support the bigger cause.
- Local retail business owners taking time out to provide social support and care for the well-being of their people.
Amidst the turmoil and tragedy of the crisis in some ways it is bringing out the best in the human condition. The true leaders will emerge from the real world and challenges they face.
Do you think there will there be a return to ‘normal’ for organisational leadership?
At the time C-19 was peaking here in the U.K. I made notes of the things I kept hearing people in business and government saying. Words and expressions like: ’seismic’, ‘back to normal’, ‘new normal’ ‘how can I contribute?’, ‘cutting some slack’, ‘mental wellbeing’, ‘’anxiety’, connection’, ‘relationships’, ‘disconnected’.
I have seen Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of human needs in action. During the height of the crisis individuals, teams and businesses have been fighting for survival. This is understandable; we can’t be too concerned with self-development or ‘self-actualisation’ when we are preoccupied with physical safety or security for ourselves and our family.
But I sense the mood music is changing. Most organisations have got to grips with what might be seen as the ‘puzzles’ presented by the crisis, such as how to keep teams and customers safe and socially distanced.
The real test of leadership now I believe will concern how leaders identify, prioritise and tackle the future challenges of their business. These will be more complex than the ‘puzzles’. It will mean asking insightful questions and drawing the heads, hearts and hands of their people to tackle those challenges which are often consigned to the ‘too difficult’ list.
- How can our senior leadership team keep their teams motivated whilst working remotely?
- How should we adapt our business strategy and route to market in a way which anticipates and influences the changes in customer expectations?
- What should be our new model of disaster recovery and business continuity planning?
- How can we enable our people to want to use communication technologies to optimise the performance of our business?
Traditional models of project management or analytical techniques won’t help leaders address such questions as these. New approaches to problem solving, leadership and organisational learning are required.
I also think there will be a new normal in terms of the ‘psychological contract’ between employers and those they employ. The bosses may feel they have the power or may in a paternalistic way feel they know what is best for their people.
HR professionals may have worked out, or solved the puzzle, of how to keep on the right side of employment law. But watch out for the humble team members or customers who will be asserting their own views on how they want to be treated.
What are you noticing in terms of creativity and transformation?
Leaders are emerging because of their willingness to free themselves from the shackles of their prior learning and understanding of how ‘we do things around here’. Organisational leaders have been talking about being more creative or innovative for years but often they have been playing at it.
By this I mean they have been making incremental rather than transformational change and often their actions have failed to match their words.
However necessity is the mother of invention. Take remote working. Pre C-19 many professions were locked into a set way working:
- City traders had to be at their desks in the City to deal – now they have learnt they can trade better across time zones working from home.
- Medical professionals had to meet their patients in their consulting room – now they are conducting consultations using remote platforms and applications.
- Lawyers who had to be physically in court or carrying huge files between court and their offices are now working more efficiently from home.
- Parliaments have met in formal sessions remotely with parliamentarians attending sessions whilst geographically dispersed across the land.
Imagine suggesting any of the above as a new way of working before the C-19 crisis.
So I’m not saying with this example that home working is the panacea but the point is that through necessity we have been forced to break what essentially have been psychological barriers to change in how we go about our work.
The real opportunity here has to be that we are more open to the art of the possible whether it concerns remote working, formation of new business models or creating new services or markets.
What is your biggest hope for the future of organisational leadership?
I think the days of trying to create a ‘one size fits all’ approach to leadership are over. So let’s forget the idea of trying to create a set of competencies which can be taught to future leaders. That has been a perennial theme for the last 40 years and it has not helped much.
I am hopeful that we will see acceptance of diversity in leadership styles, a more human than mechanistic approach underpinned by authentic care for others.
This is not about being soft, because sometimes tough care is appropriate, but a lot of the work I have been doing for instance with government departments over the past few years has been encouraging a humanist approach to organisation development.
Leaders are learning to care for themselves and their teams, to tune into their emotions. This is a long way from the old models of military leadership and ‘great man theory’ that were imported into business and public service in the past.
I am noticing less arrogance amongst leaders now and more willingness to listen to others. Reg Revans, the founder of action learning theory, noted many decades ago how leaders often perpetuated a sense that their role was to communicate the truth downwards, whereas the breakthroughs really came from encouraging the upward communication of doubt.
I am hopeful that one positive to come out of this crisis is a willingness of leaders to engage and listen to those team members who are customer facing, working directly with the patients, or on the frontline.
I also have seen in the past many leaders who suffer from what I call ‘terminal uniqueness’, that sense that whatever other people or organisations are doing is not relevant for them because their organisation is different or special. I am hopeful that this may be changing.
As there are no precedents for many of the challenges organisations currently face, the answers will come from learning across boundaries, pragmatic research, having the courage to take action and willingness to learn.
So what is the role for those concerned with developing leaders?
Leadership guru Henry Mintzberg alerted us to the flaws in the traditional business school approach to leadership development. He noted the business schools have always struggled to find a place for ‘leadership’ in their curriculum and he has criticised the obsession with teaching and assessing analytical techniques typically using the case study method.
He is right, these are often old ‘dead’ case studies and for sure we now have more than enough real, live cases to work on in business and government.
20 years ago I threw my weight behind an action learning based approach to developing leaders. This has evolved over time and been applied in business and government sectors. I believe this approach will be of even more relevance going forward.
This means putting the leadership challenges at the front end of the learning process, and enabling leaders to collaborate within and between organisations in order to develop effective plans for action. The leadership learning comes from the action.
Fundamental theories around for instance psychology, organisational behaviour and economics can help for sure. However I believe there is a need to start by defining the leadership challenge and then exploring if theories, the body of knowledge or particular methodologies can help in addressing these challenges.
In terms of methods of learning we were seeing a trend some time before the C-19 crisis towards more remote learning. C-19, lockdowns and quarantine have accelerated the need to communicate and learn remotely and I believe we will continue to see a move towards personalised learning, with access to learning that is ‘always on’.
The methods of learning will reflect the way we are working. So we are already becoming more comfortable with a blended approach which combines methods such as webinars, online coaching, self study materials, diagnostic tools. I don’t see such methods per se as the future, they will be blended with work-based learning, action learning, team projects and group learning.
About the interviewee
Dr. Richard Hale is a specialist in leadership and organisational development, a regular contributor to TJ and has written several books in the field of personal and organisational learning.