By Giles Hutchins
Over the last few weeks, I've had the pleasure of engaging with senior business leaders from a range of organizations. And I was struck by the consistency of the challenges they faced, regardless of their sector and company size.
Today’s leaders are holding an increasing tension. This tension is caught in the reality of today, with the pressing need to quickly react to increasing volatility, disruptive innovations, changing expectations, system shocks and more. It’s a challenge just to keep our heads above water in these business climes. Yet on the other hand, this tension is also about tomorrow’s reality -- not some distant future. In five years, that the ‘new norm’ of our future will likely unceasing transformation and increasing volatility.
And so today’s leadership challenge is framed by an inquiry: How do we keep our heads above water today while we begin to radically redesign for resilience, so that we don’t just survive but actually thrive in the times ahead?
This new set of business challenges requires a new set of leadership skills, as well as an overhaul of our approaches to organizational learning and development. To not just survive but thrive in this new norm of business requires our leaders to deepen their personal and organizational capacity to sense into the emerging field of future possibilities and attune to them. Those organizations and leaders that hold on ever-tighter to outdated managerial mindsets rooted in separation, control and power-based hierarchy will be yesterday’s news.
So, how do our leaders equip themselves appropriately amid this increasingly challenging landscape?
The good news is that the insights we need for our pressing challenges are all around and with us, if we so choose to look. In opening up to more of who we naturally are, and also in opening up to how life really is (beyond the habituations, acculturations and control-based frames of yesterday’s logic), we allow a deeper perspective to form within us. We learn how to reframe our meeting conventions, our strategic intent, and our day-to-day interactions. We move from a linear, control-based, mechanistic frame to a regenerative living-systems approach that embraces our humanity and our sense of place and purpose within this more-than-human world.
There is more good news: We now have ample and evidence-based studies, methods and approaches to help guide us in this transformation of leadership mindset. For instance, Joseph Jaworski’s work around synchronicity and flow in leadership, Otto Scharmer’s Theory U tool-set, Peter Senge’s work at the Society for Organizational Learning, Bill Torbert’s work on action inquiry and global leadership frameworks, and Frederick Laloux’s work on self-organizing Evolutionary/Teal organizations can all help business leaders evolve.
All of this boils down to our ability to tap into our deeper personal and organizational learning by reframing our mental models.
In my latest book, "Future Fit" (2016), I explicitly explore how we enable our leaders, teams, organizations and stakeholder relations to become more regenerative – not just inspired by the logic of living systems, but tending toward harmony with life.
Put simply, our leaders of today and tomorrow need to become more human. And in-so-doing, inspiring, they can facilitate and catalyze our teams to become more human within our firms of the future.
We can open up to more of who we truly are by cultivating our natural ways of knowing. Carl Jung referred to this as our four ways of knowing: intuitive, rational, emotional and somatic. Danah Zohar and others at Oxford University referred to it as our IQ/EQ/SQ. By doing so, we allow our deeper self to come through us. We fertilize our daily ego-awareness with a more soul-infused awareness, which enriches the quality of our attention and the quality of our inter-relations, i.e. enhancing the ability to really listen, to engage in generative conversations, and to sense the flow of what is emerging rather than attempting to control it or polarize it in to me-versus-you thinking.
This is a subtle shift in awareness, yet it has profound consequences for how we behave in our organizations. It allows us to bring more of ourselves to work, so we can draw on more of our creative potential and innate collaborative intelligence, enabling our organizations to become vibrant and resilient living systems.
Otto Scharmer, and others, have referred to this quality of attention as ‘presencing,' as we are both fully present to what is in the moment now, as well as sensing into what is emerging. It is a spontaneous yet compassionate attention, heightened yet relaxed, receptive yet responsive. This is our opening up to the flow of life and to the intentionality of our deeper Self (our soul promptings). It is a crossing of a threshold from an awareness dominated by the ego-self to an awareness that is infused by our soulful-self. The ego acts as a faithful assistant to what arises rather than a controller, judger and manipulator. It is what Otto Scharmer refers to as a ‘letting-go to let come,' which is a surrendering process, a self-emptying so that we can be more receptive to what is emerging rather than beholden to our habituated ego-responses.
This subtle yet profound shift in awareness is the root of true leadership and essential for the times we face. The origins of the word leadership find their root in the old European word ‘leith,’ which means to cross the threshold, to let go of old ways and embrace the new.
Whilst still inured in our hurry-up-and-get-on-with-it managerial mind, we may seek cookbook solutions to our pressing challenges. Yet we unwittingly apply the very logic to our solutions that created the problems in the first place. For instance, I come across more and more organizations that wish to move toward self-organizing, adaptive approaches of operating. Yet many try to force-fit a holacratic approach through top-down operating models and processes, while overlooking the need for a deeper shift in mindset. In other words, we provide another mechanistic approach (albeit more inspired by living systems than conventional power-based structures) in our quest for regenerative outcomes.
This is why many organizations are really struggling with top-down approaches to self-organization. We need to turn this logic inside-out. We need to first work with ourselves as leaders, so that we can start to create the conditions conducive for regenerative living systems to flourish within our teams.
To summarize, the fundamental challenge for today’s leaders is to improve the quality of attention amid increasing tension. There are myriad case studies, tools, techniques and liberating structures we can apply to do just this. This is what "Future Fit" aims to directly equip our leaders and our organizations to deeply connect with our humanity, enabling us to become fit for our emerging future.
Image credit: Flickr/Kevin Doncaster
Graphic courtesy of the author