A new strategies leadership paradigm for the 21st century

Facing up to uncertainty - a new strategies leadership paradigm for the 21st century

The future is growing more uncertain and traditional leadership approaches are ever more likely to create the conditions for failure. This article aims to stimulate debate by offering a view on why this is happening and providing a prescription to help 21st century leaders tread an increasingly difficult path with greater “success”. Paradoxically, it argues that to achieve this will require acceptance of a greater degree of failure.

Facing up to uncertainty – a new strategies leadership paradigm for the 21stcentury 

Leadership Is Getting Harder 

The communist ideal was well and truly discredited  as a practical means of good Government by the USSR model, yet somehow Stalinism lives on as a proud management strategiestradition in wide parts of the UK economy.   The traditional 20th century leader – like many who came before – is a powerful personality with a clear vision who is hell-bent on driving forward change against all resistance.   This might have worked in the days of Empire when people and resources could be marshalled across the globe.   Nowadays, the drivers of change are increasingly global – like migration, climate change and rising food and oil prices – yet no one country, let alone one organisational leader, has control of all the real levers of power.  At the same time, the pace of change is quickening, as dramatic new strategies technologies burst upon an unsuspecting and uncomprehending world – genetic engineering and  nano-technology alone may hold the key to countless changes to the world we know and love.  Nor is it just about knowing what is technically possible – the unforeseen massive take-up of texting illustrated that  the social context of technology is equally important.  And as the UK experience of GM crops shows,  change can also be stopped – or at least slowed – if  it does not gel with the mood of the people.    As a result of these global and technological forces, it is now much harder to lead any country,  department of state or organisation.  Former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan knew strategies that the ship of state was subject to the impact of  “Events, dear boy, events!”. Today the pace and scale of these is so great that it now challenges any leader  to look for new strategies strategies for success.  Even politicians with only a limited expectancy of time in office can no longer rely on those most traditional of strategies - keeping their heads down or just being lucky – to see them through. 

The Political strategies System Under Strain 

Arguably, even the most proactive politicians may be starting with a disadvantage.  In the UK and elsewhere the basis of  political strategies parties is the pursuit of singular policies,  as set out in election manifestos for example.  Here too the seeds of failure will be increasingly sown if success  is to be measured by a Government’s ability to deliver this set vision of the future in the face of often uncontrollable change.  I believe the case for a newevidence-based approach to policy and a more reflective style of leadership should now be seriously considered.   The qualities of a chess player might be preferred to those of say a general in this situation.   The future is a complex and uncertain space.  Many alternative futures are possible and no-one – however well-informed, dedicated or clever they may be – is able to predict or control which will eventually occur.    By careful strategic analysis however it is possible to develop a better understanding of at least what some of those futures might be.  Surprises will still occur but with a little foresight it may be possible to anticipate the unexpected too. 
A programme of horizon scanning and strategic future analysis (such as that now beginning to develop in the UK public sector) can underpin such improved readiness and help to inform strategies which have the resilience to cope with more than one potential outcome.  The ability to identify and seize opportunities for innovative advantage can also come from this approach.  Possibly a shared understanding of the possible futures that may arise and of the real choices available to politicians to affect or respond to these would provide a better starting point for political strategies debate than we now have. 

Towards A New strategies Leadership Style  

The impact of these changes on leadership mean that the traditional “hard” leadership style of the 20th century where a strong personality drives change towards a fixed vision of the future needs to give way to a “softer” more adaptive style for the 21st century.  Leaders still need vision, but this must be sufficiently open to encompass more than one possible outcome – even if these are potentially contradictory – and they will need theadaptability to respond to change as events unfold.    Having good mechanisms in place to track key leading indicators of change will provide a distinct advantage to such leaders.  They will respond opportunistically yet in a manner which is as closely aligned as possible with their core value set.  It is these core values which will distinguish one political strategies party from another rather than specific policies on this issue or that.    
The proactive and anticipatory approach offers a greater prospect of success than waiting until a rigid policy is  seen to have failed before new strategies pastures are ploughed.  It is not necessary or possible in an era where change is driven by complex technological developments, for a leader to know all the answers.   Often change leadership will flow from the bottom up, and leaders will instead need to provide the encouragement and support so that a culture of learning and innovation can flourish.  Leadership will be much more challenging in the 21st century, requiring new strategies skills, new strategies approaches and a focus on some very different personal strengths. 
Facing Up To Uncertainty 
The main task will be to explore and develop improved understanding of the key uncertainties affecting the future of the organisation.  This will require leaders, strategy and policy staffs, researchers and analysts of many kinds to work closely together.  And it will require a willingness, based on evidence, to invest in uncertainty, to take a measured risk on certain outcomes – either to encourage their evolution, to promote opportunities or to defend against their adverse impacts.   This may require planning, financial investment or  regulatory action covering a selection of likely or high impact but less likely outcomes – core values and leadership judgement will be important in selecting an appropriate balance of effort.  It will also require acceptance that sometimes, perhaps often, the futures you have invested in will not materialise.  A degree of “failure” is an inevitable part of the process of backing parallel universes since only one future will ultimately come to pass.  Accepting a substantial degree of failure in this way will however require a change of culture in many if not most organisations.   
This approach also begins to challenge the supremacy of the Efficiency Model which has been a major force in shaping Government policy in the 20th century.  It owes much to the Scientific Management strategiesmovement and appears to be a natural fit in a public sector environment where good measures of performance are difficult to come by and keeping the cost to the taxpayer low by tight input control is a vote-winning formula.  Yet while it appears an excellent theoretical model which few have been able to challenge successfully, I believe it is fatally flawed.  Efficiency is the enemy of resilience.  It drives out the flexibility needed to cope with the unexpected and fails to take into account the cost of failures, which may even have been caused by excessive efficiency savings in the first place!  Such failures, as explained above, are likely to be an increasingly common occurrence as leaders seek to grapple with greater uncertainty and more uncontrollable forces in a more complex and inter-connected environment.   Resilience may well prove to be a more cost-effective model in the long run. 
Building Learning Networks 
Finally our leaders cannot any longer work alone, all-powerful in their silos, defending their turf against all-comers.  To be effective in getting to grips with these complex, global drivers, leaders need to work with others across boundaries – challenges like the Bali roadmap goal of reducing emissions in the developed world by 80-95% by 2050 to reduce the impact of climate change seem tough enough even in cooperation with others, yet are clearly impossible alone.  In future I believe that learning networks will be an essential ingredient to help leaders learn from others – learning from one’s own past experience will no longer be sufficient.  Sharing of strategic actions will help spread the risks – whether globally, or between Government departments, or among  commercial, academic and third sector organisations  - leading to flexible delivery partnerships which nevertheless preserve the core interests of each partner.  This too is an area where the new strategies leadership skills will be important – to create sensible sharing of  risk without losing essential benefits.

Are You inspired To Take The Next Step? 

It may be over-optimistic to think that leaders and political strategies parties worldwide will abandon their traditional roles and approaches en masse and adopt the new strategies paradigm described here.  But the future is challenging them ever more strongly and a leadership model with an almost built-in guarantee of failure seems increasingly unsustainable.


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