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Let’s throw out the leadership playbook

It’s time to throw away the leadership playbook and teach our leaders to fish.

Arguably there has never been a tougher time to lead. A turbulent economy, seismic shifts in the way we work, disconnected cultures, dispersed teams and deep uncertainty about the future. How then do we develop leaders who are fit for purpose? Who are fit to lead in times of constant change and to lead us into an unpredictable future?

Elke Edwards, Founder of Ivy House, believes there are two clear steps. Firstly, we must have the courage to look at the raw facts and name the challenges our leaders are facing. Secondly, we must turn leadership development on its head – recognising that extraordinary times require extraordinary leaders, and for that we need a different kind of development.

In the first of a two-part article, Elke provides clarity on step one.

Part one: The challenges

For decades now we’ve been teaching leadership as a process. We’ve told our leaders, ‘If this happens – do this.’ We teach tips and techniques, steps, and stages, all of which deliver a robotic kind of leader – disconnected from their own power, unable to ignite the power of the collective and not resourced for the challenges that face them today.

So, what are those challenges? Broadly, they can be viewed as five distinct, but interconnected, areas.

Constant change

Everything has been thrown in the air. The products and services we sell. The way we reach our markets and what they expect from us. How, when and where our people work. Employee’s expectations from leaders and organisations. How we can connect with our teams, 24/7 communication, how we use technology and data.

On top of this, the context in which we lead has changed. There’s pressure to prioritise sustainability, climate change, DE&I (and rightly so) – all of which require increased understanding and, in almost all cases, considerable changes in behaviour. There is a war on talent – which leads to ongoing change within teams, as well as a loss of institutional knowledge. High staff turnover also means regular changes in leadership strategy and ethos, as senior leadership teams dissipate and re-form, leaving mid-tier leaders with a lack of clarity and ‘change fatigue’, as they are expected to get excited about each new transformation strategy.

Wellbeing crisis

The bottom line is, people are exhausted. Stats on burnout, work-related stress, anxiety and depression have never been higher – which drives record costs within organisations. A move to more home working has coincided with people working 50–60-hour weeks on average. They have fewer natural boundaries, such as leaving the office, and feel the need to be ‘on’ all the time. Physical separation from line managers leads to beliefs that there is less support available, and bosses are either too busy to help, or unapproachable.

In reaction, many team members are questioning their loyalty and their way of life. They have spent time reflecting on their personal values and often find a big difference in the values the organisational system lives, and what is important to them personally. Couple this with the fact people are feeling more disempowered than ever to create change in their organisations, a common decision is to disengage or leave, robbing companies of the discretionary effort that often makes them successful.

Remote working has also led to a decrease in a sense of belonging and connection, which is key in driving staff retention. And, whilst all the research is telling us that full-time remote working does not work for most people, leaders have to contend with staff who refuse to come back to the office, while at the same time complaining that they feel disconnected from the team.

We also can’t ignore that organisational trauma post Covid still exists in many organisations. People have been in overwhelm for so long they are looking for a way out – if that’s not available internally, they will look elsewhere. This means there is an expectation on leaders to create a cultural shift, so things feel different, and people stay.

Combine all of this with the increase in the cost of living, the constant change and uncertainty people are living with, and we have all the ingredients of a mental and physical health crisis.

New and complex expectations

A major challenge for leaders, old and new, is what is now expected of them, on top of what was traditionally deemed a leader’s job. For example, they need to be able to create a sense of connectedness and belonging, whilst also meeting the different needs and demands of their teams in terms of how, when and where they work. They need to be charismatic storytellers, coaches and strategic thinkers. They need to care about the impact they are having on the team, business and society – and they need to do it all while role-modelling health and wellbeing.

This is also the first time in history that we have had 5 generations in the workplace. The multi-generational workforce represents both incredible opportunities and challenges. Leaders must create environments where we make the most of the fluid and crystalline intelligence of the younger generations, but do it within systems that, to date, have promoted leaders based on their ‘knowledge’, as opposed to their skill.

We are expecting leaders to be purpose driven and values lead, having never spent any time showing them how, or more importantly, connecting them to their own purpose and values. And all this, whilst they are being asked for ‘more’ – more speed, more profit, more inclusion, more retention, more clarity… It’s no surprise that the thing leaders tell us they crave more than anything else is MORE TIME TO THINK AND BREATHE.

Lack of learning agility

All of this requires a very real ability to learn and change. And here in lies the next challenge. The vast majority of our middle and senior leaders have been educated in a system designed for the industrial revolution. A process that pours knowledge into people and measures them on their ability to regurgitate it – a system that says there is a right answer and all you have to do is remember it. It’s not a system that develops curiosity; comfort with not knowing; or the ability to collaborate with people who think very differently to find the answer. Our younger leaders were also educated in this system but with one big difference – the Internet. Whilst the education system still misses the opportunity to teach them how to become courageous learners, technology has developed within them an agility to look outside for inspiration – something most organisations need to cultivate.

Sadly, however, an aptitude for the Internet doesn’t get away from the key challenge leaders face in terms of having teams of people focused on being seen to perform and tick the right boxes, as opposed to taking ownership for creating positive change. Leaders and team members of all generations have not learnt to challenge the status quo, take considered risks or learn from their own and others’ mistakes. They are too worried about getting things wrong and not being seen to be busy 24/7, to solve inherent problems and create new and better ways of doing things. The fact is, we’ve created cultures of task overthinking, conformity over challenge, fear over risk and following a process over doing the right thing.

A key leadership challenge, therefore, is creating cultures of fearless learning – where mistakes are seen as steps in learning, people are engaged in a collective endeavour and bring their talents, creativity and energy to resolving the challenges ahead. 

And of course, to compound this challenge, we need to develop people in environments where teams are often dispersed, don’t know each other very well and, to varying degrees, are navigating their own wellbeing challenges.

Being in it while you change it

I know as you read this you will relate to many, if not all, of these challenges. You may even feel a little anxious or overwhelmed as you’re reading. And there is a reason for that – it’s hard. Mainly what’s hard is doing your day job (which seems to be turbo charged at the moment) whilst you’re part of transforming your organisation. The need to navigate highly ambiguous, complex environments where change is constant AND get time to think strategically is a real challenge – and one we need to address. It is not sustainable and, until senior leaders have the courage to call it, and step out of it themselves, it will only lead to further personal and organisational health challenges.

So, what’s the answer?

The answer, in part, is turning leadership development on its head. We need to recognise once and for all that leadership playbooks have had their day. The job of leadership development is not to ‘feed’ people – it is to ‘teach them to fish’. We need to connect leaders throughout our organisations to their human potential – their ability to solve wicked problems, evolve and change, create communities of committed, aligned people and eradicate the unhealthy cultural norms that lead to our demise.

The good news is, it’s possible and, not only is it possible, it feels incredible. It feels like a calm in the storm. A calm that is always available when you know how to find it.

Read part two – the need for a different kind of leadership development.





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