The markers that identify successful leaders in a VUCA world
Over a cup of coffee recently, a leading FTSE Chief Executive posed an interesting question. Asking me to put aside industry sector and function for a moment, he wanted to know what fundamental leadership traits were common to the most effective executives Inzito had recruited on behalf of our clients.
His question struck me as particularly relevant in the context of the current business environment where every industry sector is having to deal with accelerating rates of change, much of it driven by disruptive new technologies and threats of disintermediation. This is typically combined with slowing rates of growth and increasing levels of competition, including new market players with radically different business models. As a result, we see leaders increasingly having to deal with new and unprecedented challenges, for which there is no existing playbook.
On reflection, our experience tells us there are three ‘strands’ to the DNA of the leaders most adept at addressing what McKinsey and others, borrowing a US military acronym, refer to as today’s increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment.
When there are no precedents for the challenges you face, the best-equipped leaders are those with a diverse set of skills and a breadth of knowledge gained through wide and varied career experience – different companies, sectors, functions and geographies all add to the mix. This allows them to draw on multiple reference points to develop new strategies and actions with greater confidence.
The most effective executives have a natural and authentic leadership style that includes the humility that Jim Collins associates with ‘Level 5 Leaders’, together with a high degree of empathy and an authenticity that remains true to ones values, even in adversity. These enable more effective leadership through influence and persuasion, rather than the ‘old school’ command and control approach that is increasingly at odds with a world of complex organisational structures and joint venture partnerships requiring far greater collaboration.
Rapidly changing business environments and unprecedented challenges require strategically agile leaders, able to quickly adapt to changing situations, with a high degree of cultural sensitivity that makes them equally effective across the entire global span of their business operations.
Ultimately, exceptional leadership is an art, not a science, and we cannot entirely codify it any more than we can bottle and sell it. Nevertheless, from our experience of conducting searches at a senior level, the elements of ‘Leadership DNA’ outlined above are strong predictors of today’s most effective executives.
Chris Donkin is the Head of the Industrial & Technology Practice at The Inzito Partnership