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Tearing down traditional leadership structures and making room for the new

Evolution in the plant and animal kingdom is as painful as it is messy, and it is no different in the concrete jungle. We are at a tipping point where outdated, hierarchical management structures are becoming obsolete, and forward-thinking business leaders are actively seeking out new ways to keep pace with a rapidly-evolving business landscape and join the ranks of becoming an organisation of the future. It’s a process not without pain, but, much like the butterfly who emerges with a flourish from her cocoon after months of internal reconfiguration, the rewards are significant and the results impressive.

The truth of the matter is that the future no longer belongs to managers—it belongs to leaders. Management has always served as a workforce coordinator. Since the beginning of the industrial age, managers were put in place to ensure that the work was being performed and that the output was of sufficient quality. In the organisation of the future, outdated traditional Machiavellian management styles of command and control have been cast aside.

Leaders are now emerging in all levels of an organisation, not just in the higher echelons. Everybody is invited to chip in, and everyone is acknowledged for their contributions. The days of managers breathing down their subordinate’s neck or calling their employees into (often) terrifying performance reviews are a thing of the past. Insisting that people clock in at the office every day is considered old-fashioned. Leaders have followers who have chosen to follow them, whereas managers command authority whether people want to follow them, or agree with them, or not. The energy expenditure in the two realms is completely different.

Managers tell people what to do because they have sufficient knowledge of how to perform the work according to best practices. When important work needs to be done, managed employees can choose how much effort they put into the task, but employees who are part of a team with a leader amongst them are going to outperform their managed colleagues, work the long hours, and produce outstanding results. Teams who are being led feel part of a process, making them more inclined to take calculated risks and explore alternatives than people who are being managed.

Millennials do not respond well to command-and-control leadership styles, and since it is millennials who are the emerging workforce in today’s organisations, leaders need to be aware that this new generation of employees is going to respond more favourably to a different style of leadership. How much better is it when an organisation focusses more on improving performance and grooming future talent than reflecting on and holding people accountable for past behaviour for hours on end? How much better is it when an organisation focusses on building a collaborative culture where talent is nurtured, where individuals can become the best versions of themselves, and where independent thinking is not only encouraged but expected?

The organisation of the future is one in which a substantial amount of managerial control is relinquished and placed in the hands of employees, giving them the space to think creatively, make mistakes, and collaborate with team members and leaders alike. Things are being done in a way that takes industrial-age organisational structures and management styles and turns them on their heads.

Traditional business leaders need to understand that by holding onto outdated practices, they could be bottlenecking the organisation’s chances of survival and future success. Practices that worked in the past and brought the organisation success could be the very practices that are holding the organisation back. Many leaders fear loosening the grip on the reigns of their organisation, fearing that all hell will break out if they do. Still, they cannot risk allowing their fears of moving from bureaucratic leadership to distributed leadership to lead to inertia. A more agile, customer-centric approach to leadership is the way of the future, and inertia of any kind is a one-way ticket to extinction.

With the mere idea of change likely to make most people within an organisation nervous (with some running for the proverbial hills) strong leadership is going to be required to calm the waters. It is to be expected that implementing change will be met with a fair degree of resistance at the outset. Leaders, while working to make their organisations more agile, more digitally savvy, and more customer-centric, are going to come up against deeply-entrenched values and behaviours that have been around since the company’s inception—and not only from those higher up the organisational ladder. When this happens, progress can easily come to a grinding halt. To get the entire company on board from the outset, leaders need to identify outdated practices quickly and then find ways to either modify or eliminate them, thereby reducing the risk of sending out mixed messages about the organisation’s desire to change. Long-standing customs that appear to involve a great deal of investment in people or time should be the first to be assessed. While these practices may have been what led to the organisation’s success, they may have become meaningless or counterproductive over time as the company evolved. If the practices only serve to reinforce established ways of thinking and behaving (and therefore hinder change), they either need to be eliminated or radically transformed.

Astute leaders know that their organisations (and their people) must evolve before they become irrelevant or obsolete. To become the organisation of the future, they must first make sense of what is going on in the world by exploring the wider system, creating a map of it, and then acting within that system to learn from it. After this, it’s all about steering people in the direction of what is happening. Sense-making is critical if a leader is to understand the context in which the team or organisation is operating. CEOs of future-oriented organisations are not hiding behind computer screens—they’re out there in the field, asking questions, and preparing themselves for the revolutions that are on their way. Strong leaders are mapping what is going on out there so that they can act appropriately within their changing environment. It is, however, not just a matter of understanding what opportunities exist out there—it is also about being able to move in that environment. This is when the leader shifts into invent mode, creating the structures and processes required to propel the organisation forwards. With expertise and innovation being key to any CEO’s portfolio, many of the world’s most successful and influential leaders are directly involved in inventing and producing offerings—all while simultaneously leading their organisations into the future. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos who were all intrinsically involved in product development from start to finish, creating over eight hundred patents between them since 2018, and pushing their companies into the future.

In an agile organisation, it is not only the leaders who need to adopt a strategic mindset—it’s everyone. A strong belief in collective intelligence will transcend organisational bureaucracies and bring about leadership at all levels. It is for this reason that an agile organisation needs to hire and develop three types of leaders: On the first (and lowest) rung are the entrepreneurial leaders, responsible for creating new products and taking their organisations into unexplored territories. The next level up is the enabling leaders who make sure the entrepreneurs have the resources they need, and who identify similar projects within the organisation and look at ways of collaborating with external organisations. They also coach junior leaders who have ideas of their own but don’t know how to bring these ideas through the organisation. On the highest rung are the architecting leaders who monitor the organisation’s culture, and build systems and structure that will allow people to innovate and explore possibilities without descending into chaos.

Organisations of the future need to have adaptive leaders at all levels who can create flexible teams to collaborate effectively with internal and external partners. While there must be room for teams to innovate freely, leaders must be able to spot potential chaos before it happens and pull a handbrake up where necessary. Just as they cannot permit the permeation of outdated skillsets, or sell outdated products or services, neither can they afford to bring the same outdated talent on board. They must ensure that they hire the right talent to match the organisation’s culture and customers, in line with the company’s mission and vision. Leaders with ego-fuelled, toxic leadership styles (which can surface like a tsunami during challenging times) must realise that this modus operandi will serve them and their organisation in the short-term by driving productivity and results, but not in the long run. Employees will eventually start to realise that they have been manipulated and are bound to feel demotivated. Leaders who are willing to leave their egos at the door and change their leadership styles will find that bringing people together to solve problems and find solutions—instead of insisting that it’s their way or the highway—will propel their organisation into the future. Leaders who practice ethical business standards and operate from a place of integrity will build respect and trust in those with whom they work. Their people will be able to lean on their leaders for stability, knowing that they have the support in finding solutions for getting out of difficult situations, for improving their product or service offerings, and creating things that are new and different.

Future-focussed leaders are much like orchestra conductors, bringing passionate, highly-skilled, driven people on board, and then melding them together into a grand symphony. The individual instruments, each dependent on the other for the show to go on, work harmoniously together to produce sheer aural magic. This is the organisation of the future, and there are thousands of them living and breathing and evolving and thriving amongst us today. The question is, are you rooted to your office floor living in fear of change, are you preparing to take those first tentative steps into a new organisational order, or are you already there?

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