What kind of leader is most suited to leading in our world where change may, in fact, never be this slow again? It is sometimes terrifying to think about where we are hurtling off to, yet there will need to be a breed of leader who leans gleefully into this accelerating world like an optimist at the front of a rollercoaster going down the scary downhill bend while everyone else has their eyes closed, screaming.
I think this new breed of leader is the more conscious leader. What makes me say so?
Firstly, the VUCA world is fascinating. VUCA (standing for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) hails from a military metaphor and perfectly describes the world we are trying to live in, and lead into. The kind of complexity we are dealing with is incredibly difficult to manage because there are a large number of interacting factors in the system all interdependent on each other that don’t behave logically. Small changes can produce befuddling and disproportionately large effects. A leader can’t predict with certainty what’s going to happen next based on what’s happened in the past, and in any case the complexity of the situation is too much for one human brain to figure out. The rational mind literally runs out of tracks.
Eddie Obeng describes this well in his body of work The World After Midnight, where about fifteen years ago the pace of change outstripped our rate of learning, requiring us to develop a different set of skills (and mindsets) such as agility and adaptability.
In fact, these kinds of challenges are called ‘adaptive challenges’, because in our brave new world no one has figured out the answer yet and figuring it out forces us to evolve. We have to co-create the solutions together to take ourselves to the next level of surviving and thriving as a species, in business and in our lives. Leading in this new and complex world requires getting out of the way and encouraging collaboration between various stakeholders, each of whom holds a different perspective on reality which may just lead to a better answer. The role of the leader is to help each of these perspectives have a voice and be combined in new ways, so that the picture is richer. It may not be the full reality, but it’s better than one mind can achieve alone.
Innovation is a critical skill in dealing with this world and is the result of a large number of connection points in a network coming together, that causes existing ideas to be combined in new ways. Innovation is not necessarily the result of one mind. The IBM global CEO studies track this trend particularly well. What’s been on the minds of CEOs the world over for the past 6 – 8 years has essentially followed this curve: ‘Gosh, what a lot of change!’ to ‘We need to be creative to deal with this complexity’ to ‘We need to create open and collaborative cultures that foster creativity and innovation to deal with the complexity we’re faced with.’ In fact, collaboration is the number 1 trait CEOs are seeking in their employees, with 75% calling it ‘critical’. Top of the minds of the circa. 1,700 CEOs worldwide are these top three priorities: (1) Empowering employees through values. (2) Engaging customers as individuals. (3) Amplifying innovation with partnerships. Values. Treating people as individuals. Partnership. Scarcely could more human requirements be uttered. A challenge for which conscious leaders are inestimably well-suited.
So we have complexity. And we have collaboration. Two critical qualities for leading in our rollercoaster world and very much two qualities of conscious leaders, as we’ll explore further on.
Taking a Wider View
Conscious Capitalism is a growing movement in business and the wider world that seeks to promote business that is conscious of itself and its effect on the greater system whilst promoting profit. It formalizes the collaboration element brilliantly in its four tenets, two of which speak directly to this. One is Stakeholder Orientation, which seeks to integrate the needs and views of all stakeholders from the whole business ecosystem: the views of not only customers, employees and shareholders, but also suppliers, the community, society and the environment which are all taken into account in the way business is conducted. Collaboration is built into the fabric of a conscious business and the Conscious Leaders who lead it.
So too its tenet of Higher Purpose – the reason why the business exists over and above making a profit. Higher purpose unites minds and focuses attention, and helps the leader and the organisation hold the vision in mind for itself and others that anchors and brings sense-making to a increasingly whitewater (or rollercoaster) world.
The Challenge of How To Grow a Bigger Mind
Alongside the need to deal with the complexity of our brave new world is the question of the mind of the leader able to cope with it. Although the answers to adaptive problems are unlikely to come from one mind (and collaboration is needed), it does help if leaders develop their own abilities to hold paradox in mind and increase their own mental complexity. Such work is currently covered in the field of ‘vertical learning’ or ‘adult development’, a fascinating study of how we adults take on an evermore inclusive and integrative worldview as we evolve and adapt. In other words, as we grow more conscious.
The ‘bigger mind’ of the conscious leader is able to contain seemingly contradictory information without feeling the need to get stuck on one position over another – at least too early on in the process of decision making. As a result, conscious leaders are able to integrate multiple, apparently competing (but actually complimentary) positions – it all depends on one’s perspective – into new and innovative solutions to deal with a VUCA world.
Neuroscience and Neuroleadership
While I am no neuroscientist, the current vogue of neuroscience and neuroleadership (see David Rock’s work) supports the insights into the benefits of more complex, integrative and connected mindsets and more collaborative efforts. In the same way that brains become smarter as the number of neural networks and connections are increased, so too do organisations that connect more parts of the system to each other. The conscious leader helps to build a culture of shared leadership, which leads to greater adaptability and collective capacity.
So here we have the connection between brain – complexity – collaboration as a way to be fit-for-purpose in leading in a VUCA world.
The Mind of the Conscious Leader
If we take the kind of leader who can:
a) integrate perspectives into more complex pictures and wholes
b) collaborate and unify the collective views of many different people, and
c) think in systems
we are talking about the Conscious Leader.
Conscious leaders know how to get out of the way. They have discovered the age-old truth (probably the evolutionary equivalent of leaping out of the bog on to dry land for the first time and learning to breathe), that we are not our thoughts and feelings about ourselves. The step up to realising that reality is relative, that there is no objective truth, and that everything you took yourself to be is a construction, is an evolutionary leap that, once taken, there is no turning back from.
With this insight conscious leaders are aware that their view of themselves – their Identity/Ego – is just a construction and, being a construction, it doesn’t have to be defended as much.
This sets them free. They can get out of the way. They can stop being the heroic leader. They can stop having to make it about themselves. They can stop having to have all the answers and resenting someone else who is cleverer. There is less need for defending, controlling, being right and getting attached to one particular position. All of which slows things down in a fast-paced, VUCA world where agility is the name of the game. Ego wastes a hell of a lot of time.
Because conscious leaders are able to relax their grip on their perspective on to the world (being the mere construction that it is), they can take in more, listen to others, accommodate contradictions and paradoxes, encourage collaboration, integrate perspectives and unite the system. They are flexible with their hierarchies, they are happy to decentralize control and they distribute decision-making and leadership. They use their intuition to go beyond rational thinking and they trust that the answer will emerge from the wisdom of the collective, not only themselves.
Given the demanding nature and the complexity of the world we are trying to lead into, the trends this reveals and the qualities this requires, I think the leader of the future is not the logically more clever one but the conscious leader.
Does this ring true for you?