Times have changed for leadership

Lynda Gratton
Professor of Management Practice, London Business School
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Davos is full of leaders – but that does not stop them from questioning how their roles could change. The pervading theme this year is of extraordinary change and challenge: “we don’t have a moment to lose”; “we have to do things differently”; “this is a moment in history”; and “there is a crisis of consent” are phrases I’ve heard from academics, CEOs and politicians. Yet, while there is broad rhetorical agreement, conversations about the means of action are less clear. In this Davos blog, I’m going to concentrate on what this means for leadership. In the sessions I have attended and conversations I have had, there are two emerging themes which stand out beyond the normal leadership rhetoric:

  • Leading in a multistakeholder world. There is broad agreement that leaders will increasingly be called upon to operate effectively in a multistakeholder world – these stakeholders could include governments, NGOs, citizens’ groups and, indeed, other businesses. To do this, leaders must develop networks with these stakeholders, and understand and deeply empathize with their position. The sheer complexity of these relationships will require leaders to operate successfully in ambiguous, often chaotic circumstances. These are complex times that will require patience with the process of gaining commitment across multiple stakeholders.
  • Leading in society. Leaders will also be called upon to have a point of view of their role and the role of their business in society. Being a bystander will no longer be sufficient. How leaders engage will be determined by their personal values and the core competencies of the businesses they lead. It could be reaching out to the immediate community, working actively on global issues such as poverty, or engaging employees in community activities. It’s true, many are already doing this – but the call is to do more, and to do it more quickly and to scale with speed. It about “thinking beyond”…

Reflecting on what these two themes mean for how leaders are developed, it strikes me that neither can be “bolted on” to current leadership. Instead, they have to be “baked” into the very core of what leaders do and how they spend their time. For example, “leading in a multistakeholder world” means a significant and probably early commitment to spending time with people who are different. Through these committed time periods, deep understanding and empathy can emerge. We know that empathic relationships and broad networks take time to develop. Similarly, “leading in society” cannot suddenly emerge from classical leadership training. Again, it requires a deep understanding and empathy with the challenges and dilemmas faced. It also needs the courage to understand that while the short-term stock market may require a leader to simply make a return on profits, the society in which they are a member requires much more of them.

Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice, London Business School; Chair, Global Agenda Council on the New Modes of Leadership

Picture:  World Economic Forum

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