The heart of the leadership challenge that confronts today’s leaders is learning how to lead in situations of ever-greater volatility and uncertainty.
This is allied with the needs to deal with scale, complexity and new organisational forms that often break with the traditional organisational models and structures within which many have learned their “leadership trade”.
So the basic assumption that past experience is the key for future leadership success is more open to scrutiny than ever.
While some aspects of leadership appear to be immutable, it is clear that one particular leadership development challenge has to be met by today’s leaders if they are to be able to deal with the scale and complexity of change that will meet many of tomorrow’s leaders.
This is described as being able to make the essential leadership transition from “knowing leader” to “inquisitive leader”.
The inquisitive leader needs to develop the capacity to be deeply questioning, open and alert. This then has to be allied to a level of personal humility that, at a fundamental level, means that just because he is in charge, he does not necessarily know all the answers.
Similarly, the inquisitive leader does not see his past experience as a definitive teacher of future success. He understands that the old winning formula may simply not work in every situation.
Hence, the old model of knowing leadership based on the value of past experience has to be merged with the capacity for real adaptability and learning agility.
This implies that leaders have to be able to share account-ability to deliver solutions to complex problems, invest less authority in certain individuals, develop means of dialogue and discourse that pool the wisdom of collective minds and see leadership as more a process of evolving a response to shared challenges and less a mechanism for investing too much power in the hands of too few people.
Bridge, a company specialising in transforming leadership, has observed over 400 senior leaders across many organisations to explore the changing nature of leadership and what the new demands for tomorrow’s leaders are.
Taking into account cultural and contextual differences, it has identified the underlying attitudes and skills — the critical foundations — of inquisitive leaders:
Learning agility and inquisitiveness
Past experience is seen as only a starting point rather than an implicit winning formula. Inquisitive leaders are also unusually energised by not knowing how to do things. They appear to thrive on chaos, and their relationship to risk and failure is accordingly unusual.
Ego maturity and personal qualities
Not needing to be right, not being over-identified with their role or status and demonstrating a lightness of touch are core to having an essential humility that nonetheless is allied to a sense of grounded confidence.
They also inspire trust by the way they behave, what they do and what they stand for. They are warm and caring and genuinely interested in the people who work with and for them.
Loyalty and respect with a lack of overt judgement typifies how they are with others. With themselves they are questioning, open to challenge and keen to improve.
Personal dynamism and savvy
The combination of doing things that feel purposeful, a natural capacity for renewal and an associated “can-do” mindset means they are seen as energising to be with and easy to believe in.
The combination of traits means that people who work with them are far more likely to bring their best to situations feeling relaxed, valued, stretched and excited.
The savvy attribute means these leaders are able to apply good judgment to doing the things that really count most and seeing ways around problems that others might not. They also tend to be unconventional when necessary, yet used grounded data in incisive and considered ways.
Uniquely, they seem at their best when it matters the most. This is not simply about stepping up in the face of a crisis — it is about being able to avoid the stress triggers that undermine or derail so many leaders. They exude calm in the face of adversity and certainty in the face of doubt. They also look after their bodies and minds in such a way that they seemed balanced even though senior players.
The right support
Unless the changing context within which leadership is taking place is fully understood, a generation of leaders will emerge who can only lead to a certain level of scale and complexity. Research has shown that leaders can make significant personal transformations in these underpinning capacities, skills, mindsets and competencies if they are given the right support.