Leading for Innovation in Extreme Uncertainty

A recent article, ‘Leading in the 21st century’, in McKinsey & Company Quarterly, shares a series of interviews of leaders from some of the world’s largest and most vibrant organizations. The article suggests that leaders are operating in a “bewildering new environment in which little is certain, the tempo is quicker, and the dynamics are more complex.” It then explores what it means to lead in an “age of upheaval, to master personal challenges, to be in the limelight constantly, to make decisions under extreme uncertainty”.

These points resonated deeply with me, because innovative leaders and start-up entrepreneurs excel at responding to the convergence of forces they operate within, like the ones mentioned in the article. They do this by developing and articulating a cause greater than themselves. By thinking and acting differently in ways that transform opportunities, challenges, problems and constraints into innovative ideas and solutions that change the world forever.

The context of leadership is changing

To thrive in today’s turbulent and uncertain global environment, to face the harsh realities of the competitive, volatile and complex business environment, leaders are being compelled to;

• Become increasingly adaptive and resilient and able to perceive and respond appropriately to their worlds in multiple ways at once.

• See their world holistically and respond to it systemically through the breakdown of internal silos and the development of business eco-systems. Where they engage and collaborate across the private, public and social sectors to promote global, regional and corporate sustainability.

• Sustain their emotional health and well being whilst having the composure to operate calmly, decisively and quickly amid chaos and uncertainty.

Enacting embodying and executing a new context for leadership

Our research suggests that the following factors enable leaders to enact and embody this new context successfully. They can achieve this by developing the innovative and entrepreneurial competences that enables them to flow and flourish with the chaos, complexity and pressure through;

1. Creating a deep, personal, yet global ‘necessity’ for change; by enrolling in a cause greater than themselves, by adopting a possibility mindset, by taking the deep personal accountability towards ensuring its delivery and having a sense of urgency to get it done, no matter what!

2. Embodying an emergent approach; by opening minds, hearts and will to see the world with fresh eyes, by being detached and discerning to let go of the ‘old’ mindsets, behaviors, processes and systems that are no longer viable. To make way for experimenting and prototyping new and agile business models and processes that provide innovative solutions that improve their users’ experience.

3. Being curious, confident, courageous and collaborative; by challenging convention and the status quo, by developing the courage and strong self efficacy to deal with adversity, take intelligent risks and be kind to, and heal themselves (and others) when they fail.

4. Exploring and networking across differing teams, fields and disciplines; by seeking people’s ideas and input, through generative inquiry, listening and debating to harness and maximize diversity of thought, ideas and solutions.

5. Thinking differently; by developing their associational muscle to synthesize and make sense of novel inputs, to discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas. By creating breakthroughs at the intersection of diverse disciplines & fields.

6. Acting differently; by developing deep leadership presence by role modeling these qualities to inspire and influence others to engage and enroll in the innovation or leadership cause.

This is a much more hard edged, bolder and far more audacious model for leadership, requiring leaders to discard a number of their former operating leadership and team paradigms – “today’s leaders face extraordinary new challenges and must learn to think differently about their role and how to fulfill it. Those who do may have an opportunity to change the world in ways their predecessors never imagined.”

And we all know that taking a road less traveled is never a ‘nice’ or easy option, yet is it always the most worthwhile, rewarding and enduring road to ultimately travel on, even though it might not like feel like it at the time!

image credit: mckinsey.com

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    Janet Sernack gained her consulting, education, facilitation, training and executive coaching skills, from 30 years experience in manufacturing, retailing and learning and development businesses to Australia’s and Israel’s’ top 100 companies. She resides in Israel where she founded a start-up, ImagineNation™ that teaches innovative leadership and start-up entrepreneurship via The Start-Up Game™.

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