One of the challenges for today’s business leaders is operating in an interdependent world where everything connects with everything else, and most decisions involve people from many different constituencies. This calls for a new mindset.
Researchers at the Center for Advanced Studies in Leadership asked Swedish business leaders about future leadership challenges, and identified one of the main issues as inter-organizational leadership. Specifically organizational gaps often appear where no one organization owns a problem. As associate professor Mats Tyrstrup puts it, “if the 20th century was when we learned how to master, organize and lead one organization, the challenge for the 21st century is to lead and coordinate several organizations simultaneously”. (link to podcast with Mats Tyrstrup).
The latest CEO survey by Duke Corporate Education carries the same message: in order to be successful, leaders need to understand the systems and the context in which they work in a more nuanced way. With greater contextual complexity, leaders must be able to build relationships rather than depend on their own individual expertise and traditional patterns of organization.
According to the Duke’s survey, leaders now spend more of their time “orchestrating, advocating, influencing and explaining across a multi-dimensional world where almost every decision involves multiple constituencies.“ Understanding and planning for the future has become more difficult and tenuous.
If this is the case, then the need for experts in specific fields is likely to give way to a demand for leaders of a more general competence.
Required skills and competences will include a broader knowledge and understanding of different industries and sectors of society, the ability to see how these can work together and the competence to make this happen through people. As one CEO puts it, “We think deep expertise in our leaders is essential, but now what’s premium is pairing that with a systematic perspective and being able to better understand what’s happening in the complex world around us.”
Are we perhaps facing a revival of the generalist? This would call for a different mindset, and raise questions about a number of leadership-related issues such as knowledge and training.
Knowledge: How well do traditional models and theories include the interdependencies and contingencies of the world today? In such an increasingly complex world challenges are generally less predictable and knowledge is less reliable. The “shelf-life” of knowledge is short and as a result the most valuable knowledge is not “what is”, but “why it is” with a focus on understanding the unfamiliar. The knowledge that has guided us in the past is now simply less reliable.
Training: Business schools must question how they best design continuous learning programs for top leaders in organizations. How is the mastery of complexity and uncertainty best taught and learned, especially given the time constraints that business leaders face?
We expect the new mindset to be supported by a combination of business practice, critical research and collaborative learning, held together in a single program.