Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Leadership and the technological acceleration

Leadership. What a great concept. Ever since the dawn of time, we've migrated to charismatic leaders; strong types that we can follow into battle. I'm tempted to say today is no different, but yet it is isn't it? The world of technology has turned so much of what we know on its head, how many years of driving your own car do you think are left? The average life expectancy has risen by around 10 years in the last 30... that's staggering, technology has changed everything and we're in the midst of a technological acceleration; we haven't seen anything yet. How do you be a great leader now if you don't at least recognise the effects of technology on today's (let alone tomorrow's) workforce?

A lot of people merge leadership and management of course. They're different beasts, we tend to over-manage and under-lead by my experiences at least. For the simple sake of this blog, let's take management as being the ability to organise a team - think of it as a scalar quantity - like speed.  Leadership we'll define as a vector quantity; by that I mean
that as well as providing a level of management the key thing is that the leader also provides or enables direction as well as just organisation.  So if management is speed, then leadership is velocity (this is where my old physics teacher stuff comes in, for those not aware look up the difference between speed and velocity and hopefully that will become clear). If you're still unsure think that if your team goes at speed X they're flying, but without knowing the direction of X how effective are they? The leader provides both X and the direction to take them there. Put another (and perhaps clearer) way, the ability to lead requires the leader to be an enabler but also to unite the team in working towards their objectives.

Maybe I should write one of those blogs that tells you the seven things that all effective leaders do... but truth is those are mostly just marketing ideas. Leaders are defined actually by the affect they have on others not their own personal qualities. My first leader was a hilarious comb-over flare-wearing little man who had leadership down pat - though I'm not sure anyone else could have carried off his style and made it work. There is no formula for leadership, but there are things that are desperately important.

First up is around change. Call this the technological acceleration factor, but it's always existed through the industrial revolution, technological revolution and whatever the correct term for the current intelligence revolution we're experiencing. As a great leader you don't need to be up on all the latest technologies, but what you do need to be is a leader that understands the way things are changing and be open to those changes and realise they
have an effect on your team. If you've got someone driving innovation and pushing the boundaries that you're essentially struggling to keep in check you need to appreciate that this is a good thing. I love it when my team come up with ideas that I hadn't thought of, I like it even better when they say we've done this that and found this... I don't need them to check with me before they do things believe it or not. Innovation, change and technology... this is our world and the ability to embrace these things is what will separate effective workers from the 'robots' that will replace them.

Leaders need to be stretched, they also need to stretch their teams. You have to challenge them to come up with solutions and ideas and not stagnate on doing what they've always done. My favourite question is 'how can we improve this?'. You're either continuously looking for improvement or you're accepting that this is as good as it gets. Actually it's worse. If you stay still and things move forwards you're actually going backwards. I've been shot some filthy looks in meetings when anyone mentions 'best practice' I automatically respond with 'no such thing'. There isn't you know. It may have been best for one specific function at one specific time, but with the rate of change the concept of best practice is literally ridiculous. Good practice I can go with, but remember it's good now, doesn't mean it will always be good, you need to evolve.

If continuous improvement, change and appreciation of technology are vital to being a good leader now, one of the others is the very human element, it's a perspective issue. If I had to sum it up in a single phrase it would be; 'this is the team I'm a part of, I work for them'. My job as the leader of a team is to be a part of that team - they're not 'my' team, it's 'our' team. That's not just politically correct it's a vital approach to being able to get the most out of a team. The second part of that is that I work for the team not the other way round. For the most part they're the ones that do the work, I provide the environment, make sure they have what they need, are under manageable pressures and reduce external stuff that can de-rail effective teamwork. If it sounds wishy-washy, just think about effective leaders you've worked for; they seem to really care about you, this happens when you put yourself in this position.

My last thing is all about the direction. Work for your team, be open to change, look for continuous improvement and then make sure that the direction is there.  Easy eh? I've spend years in middle-management sandwiched between team needs and drives from above, but the key is that we focus on direction together knowing what we're heading towards. You know all that vision, goals, mission statement? That's what we're trying to capture; what's at the heart of why you do what you do. I'm in education so for me if we don't equate it back to what we're really here for - students and learning - then you'd have to question why you do things. The team looks to me when they don't understand some pressures and I work with them to bring it back to teaching and learning and the effects on students. The whole thing works beautifully if the whole organisation worked under a flipped philosophy that we work for the people who sit organisationally under us. When it doesn't, you need to be able to provide direction using a step-back perspective approach when you can still see the overall goal. My take on most organisations is that we aim for overly complex 'strategy' with numerous goals, missions etc etc. If we boiled it down to something really simple that everyone believed in we'd have massive buy-in for leadership in the technological acceleration.

So there you have my take on leading for the next generation. Innovative, always looking for improvements, working for your team and providing clear direction.  There's one characteristic I think you need to make that happen (flares are optional) - courage. Courage to do the right thing, back your team when it's right, tackle them when it's not, make the tough decisions with the right frame of mind. Courage to put them before yourself and courage to challenge the status quo.

Of course I may not even be a good leader so why listen to me? Maybe because this is the same thing I want in my leader, what about you?