Thursday, September 25, 2014

21st Century Leaders and What’s Expected from Them

Nothing is as it was before. As it used to be, the good old times. The only constant is change. Yet, ‘change’ is just a mild expression of what leaders of the 21st century are facing. It goes way beyond ‘change’. Every now and then history tells us there are moments in time when a revolution takes place. And now it’s the most radical new orientation of leadership. Breaking through to the other side. And maybe that’s an understatement too.
Prisoners of the Past
Many leaders in top leadership positions, educated by 20th century methods, are now conditioned by that. Conditioned to operate within complicated, but clearly defined, frameworks. They are used to step-by-step changes. Used to canned solutions. Their tools are carefully planned strategies, tactics, and subsequent actions. Governed by rules and constraints of a ‘complicated system’. Decisions are based on predictive forecasts on how the system would evolve in certain given scenarios.
It used to work well in the past. Hence, their flexibility of thinking became limited to what they believed was reality. The educational system they went through is a rigid system. A system of ‘stuffing as much knowledge of the past as possible into their brains’. They were taught ‘what to think’ and that’s how they operate. They might have the ingredients of ‘born and made leaders’. They might have the character, the courage, the integrity. They might be good people and well-meaning leaders. Yet, they are missing the crucial piece of ‘knowing how to think for themselves, knowing how to think critically’. They can’t see what’s outside of their ‘conditioned reality’. Unbeknownst to themselves they are prisoners. Prisoners of the past.
Technology Rising
With the unprecedented rise of technology the ‘life as we knew it’ is becoming changed, becoming disrupted. Ongoing transformation. Innovative products and services are solving problems, some of which we didn’t even know we had. Yet, the development of new technologies goes far beyond the understanding of most. And all that at an ever increasing speed. And suddenly it dawned to some that our world is complex, not just complicated. A complex, ambiguous, volatile, and uncertain environment. Probabilities rather than certainties. What a surprise.
The methods of the past designed for complicated systems don’t work in complex environments. And, to be honest, they never did in the past. Did you ever check back on your forecasts and predictions and what really happened? Sheer luck played the central role in the few cases, where the bullseye was hit. Why? Because we were and are always living in a complex world and not just in a complicated system. Welcome to reality.
With the advancements in science and technology we are now getting ever more  sophisticated tools. Tools allowing us to navigate in such complex environments. Technology making data visible. An enormous amount of data. Data that needs to be sorted through, analyzed, made sense of, and understood. Understood in particular and in the context of the whole. In real time. Only then it’s, relatively, safe to make decisions. And, of course, you must learn, train, and practice the use of these tools.
The impact on society, on companies and organizations, on individuals should not be underestimated. Right now we are in the middle of what I call a ‘transition period’. A period in time in which the old is falling apart and being replaced by the new. And people feel fear. Fear of the unknown. And it breeds resistance. That’s the time when leadership is in special demand. And it’s quite a formidable challenge for leaders. A challenge leaders didn’t have before.
Awaiting the 21st Century Leader
In the 21st century it’s no longer good enough to keeping and guarding the status quo. It doesn’t serve the purpose adding a zillion new rules and regulations based on the existing ones. It’s not about containing, but rather embracing technology. Embracing it and keeping concepts like ethics in mind. You cannot stop progress of technology. Yet, a leader can design and determine the way it’s done and applied.
Leaders in the 21st century must know and understand technology. They must know what, for instance, terms like ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘deep learning’ mean. They must understand the impact. Hence, the only way to achieve that is immersing yourself in it. Immersing yourself, for instance, in fields like computer science, robotics, engineering, neuroscience, psychology, engineering to name just a few. Broadening and deepening your knowledge and understanding. And it makes your work as a leader both: harder and easier.
Leading is a choice. And leading in the 21st century is one of toughest choices one can make. Hence, as a leader you must be fully engaged and committed. You must have the willpower and the stamina to lead. Leading demands everything from you. And now, in the 21st century, even more. We cannot afford having people in leadership positions who are reluctant to lead, who ‘don’t feel like it’. We cannot afford having leaders only capable of thinking small. We cannot afford having leaders who are stuck in the past, are prisoners of the past. They must go out of the way and step down. It takes, of course, character to make the decision to step down. And the time is now.
Coda
We need a radical new approach. An approach from scratch creating a new framework of rules altogether. A new set of rules based on freedom, ethics, human rights, and using technology to designing and creating a better world. A environmentally sustainable world our grandchildren can live in. We owe it to them.
To bring that about we need leaders transcending the present and capable of designing and crafting the future today. Leaders able to conceive today tomorrow’s solutions. Leaders used to think for themselves, used to think critically. Leaders able to truly think big. Leaders who actually lead and don’t follow opinions.
Countries / organizations / companies / societies lacking leadership and are unwilling to adapt will face insignificance. Or worse. Sooner rather than later.

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