There was a time when ‘leader’ meant ‘hero’ – that one person who ran the organisation and who had all the answers. But in today’s turbulent times, leadership is increasingly being understood as a collective responsibility. To survive uncertainty, we cannot sit around to wait for management decisions − we all have to develop a leadership mentality.
It’s about everyone understanding their organisation’s goals and actively contributing to achieving them. Which means everyone has to become aware of trends, threats and opportunities facing a business – and everyone has to be open to learning and adapting to new environments. Katleen De Stobbeleir, Professor of Leadership at Vlerick Business School, says: “Leadership has become a broad topic, and it’s no longer about managers alone.”
A shift in mindset
In this big-picture world, there’s a pressing need for everyone in an organisation – and especially its managers and senior managers – to think beyond their own role. Prof De Stobbeleir says: “Individuals should not only think about their role within the company but also about the impact the organisation wants to create – seeing it from an organisational perspective. This requires a shift in attitudes.”
Senior managers need to be careful that they don’t resort to the mindset of ‘mind your own business unit’, working within their own silos without thinking about the bigger picture. Instead, they need to identify with the organisation. “To be a leader in these turbulent times, you need to start in your own head. Leadership is a mindset – a growth mindset – being able to see the bigger picture, and being able to learn and adapt to thrive.”
Learning, adapting, thriving
The successful organisations of the future will be those that can anticipate and adapt to change, says De Stobbeleir, and those that become flatter, so that ideas and feedback can flow in all directions. She continues: “This means that, instead of having all the answers, leaders become brokers of learning within their teams – and they stimulate learning within themselves and the wider environment. They role model learning through 3 key behaviours: experimentation, reflection, and seeking feedback.”
“By experimenting, leaders signal to the team that performance is not only about success, but as much about failing and learning from failures. By making time for reflection, leaders create the space to think about how to approach the work differently and not fall into the business-as-usual trap. By seeking feedback, leaders show that they don’t have all the answers and put themselves in a vulnerable position, which creates trust and openness.
“Of course, individual team members also have the responsibility to learn – and to learn continuously. We don’t know which skills will be important in the future − but if there is one thing we do know, it’s that people will not be able to go into their comfort zones and they will need to learn continuously in order to stay relevant.”
Becoming an organisation of leaders
In the past, would-be leaders first learned how to think like leaders in order to later act like leaders. “This model has been replaced,” says De Stobbeleir.
“Today, you start by behaving like a leader so that ultimately you may be recognised as a leader. Leadership is not a position you are given, it’s something you need to earn − and you earn leadership through the behaviours you exhibit.” At the same time, organisations themselves need to seriously rethink what modern leadership means. De Stobbeleir says: “Many organisations are moving away from a top-down approach and towards more bottom-up processes. The challenge is to make the process relevant and of interest for teams. And it can be simple.”
Learning rather than performing
“Coca-Cola introduced 2 new concepts to its team meetings. The first was to get people to think about what they would do if they were spending their own money and not the company’s. The second was to avoid simply talking about successes and to also talk about what wasn’t working so well – they called it ‘tops and flops’. “This kind of approach stimulates learning rather than performing. It’s a habit you want to instil in your organisation − you need to establish a culture of learning to stay future-relevant. And you need to find ways to engage people in this.”
“The changing nature of leaders also has a big impact on leadership development. I observe 3 evolutions.
- First, organisations are not only investing in leadership development for their (senior) managers − increasingly, leadership development is taking place in all layers of the organisation.
- Second, whereas leadership development trainings used to start with a lot of self-reflection, leadership development programmes today are more likely to start with the impact that leaders create and how to increase that impact through their behaviours. 360 feedback, simulations, improvisation and decision-making exercises are essential in that process.
- Lastly, leadership development has become as much a collective process as an individual process. It’s about taking joint action for the benefit of the company. So, individual coaching is increasingly being replaced by group coaching and systemic approaches.”
“Fundamentally, it’s all about having a growth mindset. Senior managers expect others to develop and grow, but leaders need to do that too. The journey starts in your mind. You need to know you can do this.”