The First Rule of Leadership? Show Up!

Surely that is the quote of the UK’s recent general election...the United Kingdom, a country once prized for its stability, pragmatism and global leadership seems to be having a torrid time of late. The Scottish Referendum, Brexit, conservative leadership elections and now a “hung parliament” (i.e. no clear majority). The incumbent Prime Minister, Theresa May put “strong and stable leadership” at the centre of her campaign and then proceeded to throw way a stonking lead because the country didn’t believe her. The Tory campaign for government was in fact one of the worst in political history. The “no show” at the televised leader’s debate and the manifesto U turn really did sink them. The big lesson for me however is about leadership.

There are important lessons for leaders and the craft of leadership from the UK’s general election. Vision really, really matters. The ability to think about the future with imagination and wisdom and work hard to attract others to back it. A vision of what the country (or organization) will be and how it will capture value; how people will live (and work) together and what skills they’ll need for the future. With good timing, the Center for the Future of Work has just published a new report called Relearning Leadership in the Second Machine Age. The reason why we chose to focus on leadership is because we feel that leadership models need a reboot. Organizational value increasingly pivots around data and the blend between the physical and the virtual worlds (we’ve written about this a lot and our latest take we describe it as Europe’s Digital Imperative). Market watchers, CEOs, business leaders etc. all now recognize we are in the midst of a major economic shift; a profound realignment in how people and organizations work together to create value. So what does it mean to be a leader today?

Today’s leaders have to deal with far more complex, messy and diverse choices (and roles) than just five years ago. Our ideas articulated in the SMAC stack published in 2012 signalled the start of the digital shift. If SMAC seems easy to understand it’s because it was. Today’s rapid fire of artificial intelligence, robots, drones, virtual/augmented reality, blockchain or 3D printing creates confusion and paralysis. Business models are in a state of flux, operating models are under pressure and legacy cost structures are creating headaches in an era of stunning change. Organizations and their people need higher levels of agility, innovation and creativity than ever before. We’ve got the proof too: results from our Work Ahead survey ran at the end of last year point toward a generation of leaders finding the shift difficult (check out our findings here). An executive class is struggling to balance the promise of the new with the realities of what they have to work with while all too easy to underestimate institutional inertia. Cultures that have grown up over decades can be large, unwieldy and complex – even at times paranoid and complacent. In our report, we call them zombie organizations and they must be fought at every turn.

However, the challenge for leaders is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater (don’t get rid of something good when trying to get rid of something bad). The reason why an industry exists around management and leadership theory is that management and leadership theory generally works! My advice is don’t junk the suit just yet and turn up to work looking like Jeremy Clarkson (trainers, jeans, sharp jackets—yes, we’ve all done it) and expect kudos from your business unit or team. Don’t be tempted either to reject what’s worked before. Many would be innovators deal with the trade-off between efficiency and innovation by rejecting traditional management entirely. They repeat mantras about breaking all the rules and asking for forgiveness rather than permission. They set up skunk works (small autonomous units with a remit to innovate) and mock the big boring corporate types that actually ensure they’re paid each week. Mocking them will only encourage you to be starved of money and executive support when it’s needed.

What our report does argue is that successful leaders of the future must switch into three clear roles. Switch into software and pivot on platforms, accelerate innovation (hyper innovation we call it) and nail human insight into every single customer experience. The real challenge then is motivating your workforce to embrace the vision of change. Please do read our report, Relearning Leadership in the Second Machine Age and join the conversation.