Don't get left behind: Staying ahead of the future of leadership

Andrew Hill
Computer Hackers Gather For Annual CCC Congress
Leaders need to adapt to changing norms in science and technology (Source: Getty)

For centuries, predicting what leaders would look like in the future was simple. Just look at the past and repeat: a succession of commanders and controllers, almost exclusively male, fighting to reach the top. Why might leadership in the rest of the 21st century look different? Two reasons: new science and new people.

First, science. As a term, “big data” is on the verge of becoming a useless piece of jargon. But the leaders of the future will be the ones who use dynamic data - the sort we create every day on Twitter, Facebook or Snapchat - to analyse not just what happened last week, but what is happening now. Those who also have the intuition to know where the data fall short will be “rock stars”, in the words of Susan Athey, a Stanford professor who studies data.

Neuroscience is another discipline that will change how leaders lead. New research suggests it has the potential to change the way in which leaders work with their teams, and even to change their own flawed approaches.

Neuroscientist Tania Singer presented a study last year that shows intensive exercises in empathy, perspective-taking and mindfulness can change "the brain's hardware". Such exercises could make selfish leaders more inclined to help each other for mutual benefit. Robert Shiller, the famous economist, has said such findings, if confirmed could shake the fundamental underpinnings of economics.

The third area of science and technology that will changed the way leaders work is automation. I think a dystopian vision of managers replaced by machines is less likely than a more optimistic future of leaders supplemented and supported by technology.

Which brings us to new people. Improvements in machine intelligence require improvements in management skills. That requirement will in turn drive leaders to look at a wider and deeper pool of candidates, changing what constitutes “the leadership”.

Stereotyping generations - old and young - is unproductive. Even so, evidence of a gulf in attitudes between generations of management is strong. Sir Ian Cheshire, when chief executive of Kingfisher, owner of B&Q, conducted internal research showing that of the group’s top 300 managers, executives aged over 35 tended to hoard their accumulated knowledge; younger managers were happier to share it.

The sharing has to go both ways. Bosses must offer more constructive feedback to their juniors. Above all, leaders have to stop offering young workers what London Business School’s Lynda Gratton has called “crap-awful work”.

As current leaders improve their dialogue with this younger generation, what leaders look like will also change. It is about time. While the symbolic power of campaigns to introduce more women and ethnic minorities onto listed company boards is not in doubt, the real pressure needs to come further down the pipeline, in advancing a different-looking and, crucially, different thinking group into executive positions.

Research has shown diverse teams are more innovative. But they are also more difficult to lead. In a further complication, future leaders will be running teams that are looser, less committed, more spread out, than they are today.

How quickly these new leaders will emerge is hard to predict, not least because the forecast depends on resolving a paradox. The type of leaders at ease with freeing their people to change the old the way of doing things are exactly the confident top-down leaders who usually resist giving up power. But if business is to advance, give it up they must.

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