Conducting Chaos: Leadership In Disruptive Times

By STUART MACKENZIE 12th April 2021 Leadership

Conducting Chaos: The Future of Leadership Development

A client asked us what we thought the future of leadership was, and how we would go about developing new leaders, now, for what will be required in the future.

We said we didn’t know.

“But” we said, “if you change the question to ‘what do you do when you don’t know what to do?’ then that is a very resonant question”; that has implications for the future of leadership, and it is something about which Maynard Leigh knows a lot.

The Future

We live in a world of disruption; disruption not just as a consequence of change but as an intention, and this is only going to increase along with the pace of change driven by key global trends: Globalisation and Technology / Societal and Demographic Change / The Green Economy.

Yuval Noah Harari (Historian, Intellectual, Author) stated at Davos 2020 that, “the automation revolution will not be a single watershed event following which the market will settle down, into a new equilibrium. Rather, it will be a cascade of ever bigger disruptions”.

Predicting the future will be harder than ever, planning for it will be near on impossible.

At Maynard Leigh we don’t fear disruption. We come from the Performing Arts which is an industry in which chaos is part of the process; the mix of ‘negative capability’ (The ability to accept ambiguity and uncertainty, without expectations of clarity and logical coherence) and positive attitude that is necessary to ‘know what to do when we don’t know what to do’ is trained into us. The courage to keep exploring creative responses is normal practice; improvisation and developing new solutions are the default approaches. If one wants proof of Maynard Leigh’s fitness for the future one need look no further than how the company handled the disruption of 2020 and the abrupt and repetitive locking-down of people and businesses: we modelled agile learning, flexibility and fast adaption to a new reality. When you can no longer ‘predict and plan’ you have to ‘sense and respond’.

We already live in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous). We are going to need a VUCA antidote (Vision, Understanding, Clarity, Agility)

Our response to the client who asked about the future of leadership development was that the question was in fact ‘how do you lead in a VUCA world’. The client agreed.

Our Leadership Perspective

 Maynard Leigh has always tried to look at what the future of leadership will require, and to articulate a position. When we started 30 years ago business leadership was still largely about ‘command & control’. We held a vision of leadership that was more about empowerment & support. The 7I’s model was developed from the Performing Arts, based on the methods that a theatre director, a choreographer or a conductor might use.

As that shift in leadership approach became more mainstream we built on the momentum to look at the nature of how leaders create wholehearted engagement, and at the power of the framework we called VIDI. Both engagement and empowerment remain central to our philosophy of leadership.

More recently we have been exploring what it takes to lead in times of chaos and disruption:

• In our Seminar ‘What Do You Do When You Don’t Know What To Do?’ we introduced the 6 Imperatives, a discipline toward ‘creativity in leadership’.

• In the seminar ‘CHAOS!’ we explored how one could maintain poise in the midst of disruption. This offered four questions that would help leaders make meaning out of the disruption and chart a way forward based on purpose and volition.

• And throughout we refer to one of the 7 leadership capabilities crucial in these times – Improvisation - the capacity for agility, inventiveness and the power of ‘accept and build’.

I would suggest that if there was a distillation of this recent body of work then the simple principle behind it all was ‘learn and adapt’. Simple to say, but for many leaders it is a very difficult principle to live, since not everyone has developed Learning Agility.

What is Learning Agility?

Although the concept of Learning Agility is not new, in current times it is becoming more relevant. Three recent perspectives are:

1) The Harvard Business Review in 2018 argued that organizations need leaders with learning agility in order to succeed in volatile times. Agile learners are proactive; they look for opportunities to learn and experiment with new approaches. The question they asked was can learning agility be developed? They identified three key elements that are essential to successfully lead businesses in today’s VUCA operating environment.

• Potential to Learn

• Motivation to Learn

• Adaptability to Learn

2) Columbia University’s Dr. W. Warner Burke broke Learning Agility down into 9 dimensions including flexibility, collaboration and risk-taking

3) Korn/Ferry Lominger define Learning Agility as the willingness and ability to learn from one’s experience and then apply those learnings to new and first-time situations.

4) Maynard Leigh Associates

We build on all this research, using our 30 years of experience and practice and extend and broaden learning agility to Leadership Agility.

How does this concept help leaders?

‘Predict & Plan’ vs ‘Sense & Respond’

Since one of the main doctrines of Leadership has been ‘predict and plan’ and that is no longer sufficient in a constantly disrupted world, leaders need to be able to develop the ability to ‘sense and respond.’ That is a very different muscle. Leaders who have carved a reputation of being able to analyse better than others and predict how things will transpire, and who are strong in the area of planning will find the subtlety of ‘sense and respond’ to be elusive. Sense and respond will require an intuitiveness based on disciplined insight; an enhanced capacity to being uncomfortable, to not knowing what to do; to the ability to learn and adjust in the moment; and a flexibility of response.

Accelerated Learning

We learn most about being a leader by, well, being a leader. We learn from experiences that force us to step up and lead, preferably requiring us to stretch to be effective.

Not everyone is equally equipped to learn from their experiences. It is not just having the experience, but whether and what was learned from it that matters. Having the experience and getting the meaning may not be as automatic as some thought.

Studies have repeatedly shown that the ability to learn from experience is what differentiates successful executives from unsuccessful ones. Learning Agility is used to describe those who have openness and a willingness to learn. Leaders in the future, faced with constant disruption are going to need to navigate in uncharted waters. These future leaders will need to have a robust compass, a healthy curiosity about the world and an enthusiasm to experience new things; they will need good people skills and a high tolerance for ambiguity. It is not that ‘sense and respond’ will totally replace ‘predict and plan’, but the ability to do both will be crucial.

Do we have something to say?

In successful companies, those that have survived the Cull by Covid, there will have been a lot of Leadership Agility on display:

• The company will have demonstrated agility to keep pace with the frequent paradigm shifts.

• Responsiveness will have increased.

• Planning will not be something that happens only once, at the beginning; it will be an ongoing and ever-evolving process.

• The company will be adapting quickly in response to changing client needs and will need to continue to do so as those needs evolve.

• The agile individuals in the company will have been those learning to pivot and pirouette on a sixpence.

Business will be in disruption; leaders (and stakeholders) will need to lead in this chaos; learning agility will be a necessary capacity for those leading. We help leaders develop ‘learning agility’ as an element to add to the empowerment, engagement and creativity that we already teach.

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