Evolving Leaders for the Future

Apr 19, 2023

Various leadership styles and approaches have been defined in hundreds of leadership books. They all use different language to describe various styles and approaches to leadership. Despite research done by organizations like Gallup to identify what traits or attributes create a great leader or manager, the truth is, leaders can be great despite having very different traits or attributes.

What works for one leader in one workplace may not work for another in a different culture or environment. Likewise, what has worked in the past, even for decades, may not work in the future as the human population and experience continues to evolve.

Our Past Approaches to Leadership

Why are leaders of the past (and many of their styles) not what we need in the future?

The type of work people are performing has continued to change dramatically over the past few decades. The length of different work eras like agricultural revolution, industrial age, etc., are continuing to shorten substantially. As these shorten, we are having to adapt, evolve, and change ourselves to meet new needs and requirements.

In the past eras of work, access to knowledge was limited – different people had to become experts in their various areas to share the knowledge with those that needed it. Others would not even have the ability or opportunity to know that same information or develop that same skill without specialized training.

Additionally, the work being performed required substantial labor and physical effort which meant most people were “doers” or “executors,” simply performing pre-assigned tasks or activities. Those responsible for making decisions about how the doers or executors performed their work or tasks were limited to those with greater training, knowledge, and education. Essentially, the leaders held the knowledge, and therefore, had the power and control to direct the actions and activities of those they lead.

As leaders, they had (and have) lots of different styles they could choose in how to accomplish this objective.

  • They could be charismatic and win their people over so that they wanted to do what was asked – think Richard Branson.
  • They could be dictators or command and control forcing people to do their requests or face termination (or worse) – think Vladimir Putin.
  • They could be innovative geniuses who people followed even if they were harsh or ill-natured because they were such intellectual geniuses and people respected their abilities – think Steve Jobs or Elon Musk.
  • They could be hands-off giving people free reign to do whatever is needed without support, guidance, or structure – think Warren Buffet.
  • They could be leaders who lead with strict controls and process, clear chain of command, defined roles and responsibilities, and reward systems for performance – think Bill Gates.
  • They could be focused on empowering others to achieve change; their approach focuses on respect and trust among workers – think Nelson Mandela.

All of these styles of leadership have worked and brought value to the workplaces or communities they have been responsible for leading. For the most part, however, they all rely upon a strong leadership structure with one individual primarily setting direction, making decisions, and disseminating information.

The Changing World

Why is this approach not going to work in the future?

The access to information and knowledge in the world today has dramatically shifted in three ways.

  1. First, everyone has access to potential information on virtually everything (given unlimited time and resources).
  2. Second, the vast amount of information and knowledge accessible makes it extremely difficult to discern the most useful information, the accuracy of information, and how best to apply or use the information.
  3. Finally, with the use of technology and research, our knowledge and information continue to change at an extremely rapid pace making it both difficult to keep up with these changes and a necessity that we continue to do so as much as possible.

The leadership approaches of the past do not take into consideration these three massive shifts and their impact on how people live and work. The rapid rate of change in our knowledge, information, and technology is actively testing the limits of human capabilities – and arguably the reason people must evolve these capabilities on a physiological level.

The vast amount of information and difficulty discerning its accuracy means it is impossible for those designated as “leaders” to be in possession of all the accurate information and knowledge about their business at any point in time. Instead, leaders must rely on and learn to trust many people to take on various areas and make good decisions based on their skills and information.

Finally, the broad access to information makes it difficult for people to just follow a leader’s direction without questioning or understanding it for themselves. People need more than ever to understand the why and the impact of the decisions, actions, and direction to feel comfortable with their work and motivated to put in their full potential effort.

The Consequence

What has been the result of all of these types of leadership and past practices?

For the most part, people who work within organizations and the workplaces or businesses that pay them are often in a highly transactional relationship. As much as many people and workplaces want employees to feel valued and trust that they will be loyal to one another, most people do not feel this way and have the opposite experience throughout their career.

All of this has, for the most part, been successful for most businesses. The cultures match the approach of the leader, the people who work there align behind that style (or leave), and people live their lives, get paid, and one day, retire. Meanwhile, for the individuals within the workplaces, the consequences have been significant on their health, well-being, and overall lives.

This era of vast information, technology, and knowledge is having an impact on the human population’s overall level of stress. Access to so much information has created the increased stress due to being more aware of disasters, loss of life, conflict, wars, and politics. Additionally, it has made it more difficult than ever to know what information is true or false and when to follow or ignore what you hear or learn. Competing agendas of businesses, governments, politics, and the economy make it difficult to discern what is truly best for people and the world overall.

As a result, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in violence (such as mass shootings), depression and mental health issues, a child and teen mental health crisis with increasing suicide rates, and a burnout epidemic from excessive stress at work.

All these issues have led to an increased focus by many workplaces on employee well-being. Which begs the question – did well-being just begin to matter to businesses? Why hasn’t it always mattered? The answer is that historically, it was not having such an impact on business and world performance.

The increased stress is leading to worse health outcomes, poorer performance, and insufficient results. Some industries are struggling to find the people they need to staff the roles they need people to perform – nursing, healthcare techs, airline employees, and many more. While other industries are laying off resources because they are failing to meet the performance targets necessary for business success.

In a world where we already have the information, knowledge, and resources to solve major global problems like hunger, violence, abuse, climate change, and more, we are also failing to actively solve them or create a quality of life for the vast majority of the world.  

The Future of Leadership

What will be needed of leadership in the future?

The type of work and decisions people will be increasingly required to make given the advances in technology and knowledge are going to be extremely complex and constantly changing. People will be creating technology that will decide whether others live or die. Technology that impacts whether our planet remains habitable or is impacted in ways that forever alter how we can live on earth. The work that we do will have consequences far beyond ourselves. Therefore, people must have a greater sense of awareness and compassion for others in their decision-making.

As a result, more people than ever are needed to have the core capabilities and skillsets of what historically has only been required for a small group of leaders. More people must learn how to be effective at emotional intelligence and self-awareness, setting expectations, providing themselves and others feedback, developing and growing their capabilities, and demonstrating a mindset of high personal accountability. Many individuals, rather than a few leaders, will be responsible for making decisions that will have life or death consequences. We need these individuals to have the capabilities necessary to do so effectively. 

The Future of Leadership requires us to consider developing more people within our workplaces and organizations to have these leadership skillsets.
The Future of Leadership requires an expanded set of skills that dramatically increases the self-awareness of leaders and requires greater emotional intelligence and vulnerability.
The Future of Leadership requires more creative, compassionate, and courageous leaders who are using their fully aligned intelligences to make highly intelligence and informed decisions.

Questions for Individuals & Organizations to Consider

  • Are you prepared for the future of leadership?
  • Is your organization thinking right now about how to evolve your leaders to meet the needs of the future (and right now)?
  • Are you training your leaders/managers the same way you always have or considering how to develop these new skillsets more effectively?
  • How are you developing leaders to optimize their performance and expand their capacity to accomplish the increasing needs of people and respond to the increasing rate of change?

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