Recently, I gave a lecture on the perils of leadership and how our view of this sometimes vague attribute gets muddier almost every moment of every day. While going through the various challenges leaders of today experience I had one of those out of body experiences a lot of tenured lecturers have when you’re talking and you can see yourself in the audience…listening to you. I have done so many lectures in my life that I can literally see myself in the audience looking back at me, a developed sense from many years of psychoanalyzing each lecture LOL. The epiphany I had during this twilight zone experience is that leadership has become an unfamiliar trait and activity.

I’ve spoken at nauseam about the fact that leaders today have to be chameleons (e.g. able to adjust, ambiguity savants, decisively flexible, and change agents) because our society is changing rapidly both in business and life. You could argue the reason for that is the rapidity of technology and our access to information albeit “fake news” or not. The question I’ve asked myself just recently however is striving to be an effective chameleon leader enough? Certainly, you can do all the research possible to understand foreign markets/trade, better understand the various cultures you do business in or lead…but will that research become obsolete by the time you fully comprehend all that information? Almost EVERYTHING in life right now doesn’t stay the same for longer than an hour it seems, so how the hell do you stay on top of everything?  Most “leadership books” will tell you the best way to stay on top is obtaining the following traits:

  • Decisiveness
  • Knowledgeable
  • Prepared
  • Business Acumen
  • Adaptable
  • Confident
  • Honesty/Integrity

Absolutely, the list is much longer but I wanted to specifically point out the first 3 (Decisiveness, Knowledgeable, Prepared). I don’t think there would be many who would argue that being decisive, knowledgeable and prepared weren’t critical success factors of being an effective leader however could there be an argument that each of these traits need to be looked at in fresher context? For example, I understand the rational and often times benefit of being decisive but the question becomes is being decisive the best decision…or is it just making the BEST decision? In a recent article published in Harvard Business Review Magazine (“What Sets Successful CEOS Apart”) it outlines 4 behaviors most successful CEOs demonstrate: 1) Deciding with Speed and Conviction”, 2)  Engaging for Impact, 3) Adapting Proactively, 4) Delivering Reliably. In keying on the 1st behavior (“Deciding with Speed and Conviction”) this quote from the article got my attention:

“High Performing CEOs understand that a wrong decision is often better that no decision at all”

Hmmm…I guess I understand that. Quite frankly, there’s severe consequences for both actions. I’ve seen CEOs personally called incompetent when they’ve made a decisive hazardous decision costing jobs and profit, conversely I’ve seen CEOs wait before making a decision and are called “brilliantly pragmatic”. My point here is that we are living in a very unfamiliar world where the answer is NOT at our fingertips regardless of the tremendous amount of information we have access to.

How do I LEAD in an UNFAMILIAR world?

I have a variety of clients most are companies however I have a number of individual clients (e.g. CEOs, VP’s and Directors) and I tell them all the same thing…you don’t. My mother told me long ago “Son, if you become an expert of the things you can control verses the things you can’t you’ll be a success at whatever you do”? Didn’t really know what she meant by that advice then…I certainly know what she meant today. Interestingly, I have had that same advice for my clients and mentees in that the best way to lead in an unfamiliar world is replacing “LEAD” with “LEARN”. Learning is a controller able trait/activity that I believe addresses unfamiliarity and uncertainty better than any business cliché. To effectively lead today takes a tremendous amount of learning, I would argue the learning curve is the steepest it has ever been. When we look at the typical job description of a CEO you’ll see the role & responsibilities don’t actually address how this person will lead in an unfamiliar world (researched from https://www.sterling-resources.com/docs/RolesAndRespCEO.pdf ):

The Chief Executive Officer (“CEO”) is responsible for leading the development and execution of the Company’s long term strategy with a view to creating shareholder value. The CEO’s leadership role also entails being ultimately responsible for all day-to-day management decisions and for implementing the Company’s long and short term plans. The CEO acts as a direct liaison between the Board and management of the Company and communicates to the Board on behalf of management. The CEO also communicates on behalf of the Company to shareholders, employees, Government authorities, other stakeholders and the public.

Specific duties:

  1. To lead, in conjunction with the Board, the development of the Company’s strategy
  2. To lead and oversee the implementation of the Company’s long and short term plans in accordance with its strategy
  3. To ensure the Company is appropriately organized and staffed and to have the authority to hire and terminate staff as necessary to enable it to achieve the approved strategy
  4. To assess the principal risks of the Company and to ensure that these risks are being monitored and managed
  5. To ensure effective internal controls and management information systems are in place
  6. To ensure that the Company has appropriate systems to enable it to conduct its activities both lawfully and ethically
  7. To ensure that the Company maintains high standards of corporate citizenship and social responsibility wherever it does business
  8. To keep abreast of all material undertakings and activities of the Company and all material external factors affecting the Company and to ensure that processes and systems are in place to ensure that the CEO and management of the Company are adequately informed

Those are just a few specific duties but I think you get the picture and this is NOT to say the items listed are non-important on the contrary they’re must haves for the role of Chief Executive Officer. The question is where does “LEARNING” fit in after you’ve cajoled the stakeholders?

Learning tools that address an UNFAMILIAR world?

I’ve composited a series of tools I’ve worked with individual leaders on that may be of assistance to you. Here are just some of my top resources:

 

LEARNING to lead in an UNFAMILIAR world is the answer…to leading in an unfamiliar world!

 

Thank You!

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