Go where there be dragons

This week I attended a leadership conference in New York which was remarkable in the consistency of a powerful and strong message from all speakers. Their message was that we live in a world far different from just a few years ago, a world where what it takes to be a successful leader has totally and completely changed.

Our brave new world is one where leaders can no longer possibly hope to know all the answers any more, so the old measures and methods of leadership are no longer fit for purpose. Instead, they must learn and apply new skills to lead their organisations to be flexible, able to measure and accept risk, and be prepared and ready to face as yet unknown challenges.

On ancient maps dragons were drawn to symbolise the unknown, and to travel beyond the familiar world was to “go where there be dragons.”

This is also the title of a recent report on leadership from The Conference Board presented at the conference. Whilst taken from meetings across three continents with global corporate leaders, the findings are true for leaders from the smallest company to the largest organisations and highest offices.
One of the key findings was that our world is no longer simply complicated, it is complex.

What is the difference ? Brenda Zimmerman of Schulich School of Business explains: “Performing hip replacement surgery is complicated. It takes well-trained personnel, precision and carefully calibrated equipment. Running a health care system, on the other hand, is complex. It’s filled with thousands of parts and players, all of whom must act within a fluid, unpredictable environment. To run a system that is complex, it’s not enough to get the right people and the ideal equipment. It takes a set of simple principles that guide and shape the system.”

What then is the role of a leader where the world is too complex to manage by the book and where diversity, ambiguity, speed and expectations are ever changing? It is, as Ms Zimmerman put it, to “guide and shape”, to keep the organisation true to its purpose and values.

As Chip Conley teaches with “Peak”, the most powerful organisations are those where people don’t work for the carrot (the money) or the stick (just keeping a job), but because they are empowered to reach for a deeper purpose, both their own and their organisations. Such motivated people are loyal, hard-working, creative, and will help their organisation thrive in a complex world.

What, then, is the key to leading an empowered organisation in a complex world.  Trust. Great leaders trust their people, their values, their organisation. Trust is a two way street though, and the leaders of tomorrow cannot expect to be followed unless they also continually build trust through their actions and how they communicate.

Seth Godin observes “the organisations that matter are busy being run by people who figure out what to do next”. Truly “Command and Control” is dead. Trust and Empowerment are what is “next” if you are to thrive in a complex world.

Some leaders will be able to adapt, but some of the leaders of today are showing greatness by recognising they won’t be the leaders of tomorrow and finding their successors. For those remaining leaders who can evolve, and for those new leaders who will emerge, everything I have said will be music to their ears.

They are ready to Reinvent or Die, embrace the risk of the new, and go where there be dragons!