You often hear people talking about how much harder things are today, and how much different the new generation is to theirs, but how is leadership any different today than it was yesterday? How might it be different again tomorrow?
My view is that things are different today and will only continue to change. Along with these changes come opportunities.
Firstly, we should explore what we mean by leadership. Personally, I believe there are three main ways in which we can influence each other in organisations:
Each are distinct from each other but are not mutually exclusive.
Authority requires hard power, and mechanisms through which one party can coerce another. This could be physical dominance, it could be contract of law, it could be notional hierarchy or maybe the mandate to apply sanctions.
Consequence is key here. As the world develops more towards knowledge-intensive work than labour-intensive work, the authority card becomes harder to play. Smart people, independent-thinking and occupationally mobile, do not have to put up with a coercive approach from their employer, because they have choice. Authority is still very much a thing; however, it is hard to see how senior people in most organisations are going to be able to use it as their default style into the future.
Management is the control of time, of money or of quality in our organisations. We put in place procedures, processes, policies. On the one hand we have seemingly endless layers of legislation and detail to contend with – but on the other we have the technology to develop, deploy and monitor management tools like never before. Here I am going to say we have the upper hand today compared to last year.
Which leaves us with leadership in its isolate form. Leadership might not be any harder or easier than it ever was – but we have far more access to it. Think about it – those audiobooks you listen to, the TedTalks you watch, the array of thought leaders out there which you can access in a heartbeat today. Rather than a small island of individuals we can interact with, suddenly we have a whole world from which to pick and choose our influences.
Technology has made it possible to connect with others who are useful, across the world. Others with useful information, attitude, insight, beliefs. Real experts in their field. I think that is a wonderful thing.
I suspect we are heading into an age we can barely imagine right now. Robots are now a thing. Non-human intelligence is a thing. Advances in medicine could lead to revolutionary increases in our life expectancy and quality of life. Some academics believe that the first 1,000-year-old human has already been born. Hyperconnectivity may blur the lines between our fundamental notions of what being human is.
The impacts these changes will have on organisations and society is hard to fathom; but this is a rising tide that will not be held back, and our feet are wet already.
I see a future world where leadership is a much softer, more nebulous concept and where organisations of people will work more collaboratively. However, there is still a human need to feel safe, to be inspired and to be supported by each other. The future leader will be a master of self and an expert in setting the conditions for others to thrive.
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Associate tutor of In Professional Development