How to overcome the need to change the leadership paradigm when the VUCA contexts make it obsolete.
“In challenging and stressful contexts, the leader must be able to think away from interference in a state of generative flow”
“The future is not scary if you are a creative thinker”
In this article, we illustrate the essential features of our approach to leadership, Leadership X.0. Leadership can be implemented according to various paradigms that differ according to the characteristics of the reference context to which they apply, the necessary skills, and the leadership style. When change represents a discontinuity, the evolution of the context and the inadequacy of the required skills can make the leadership paradigm initially adopted obsolete. When this happens, the leader has to adopt a new leadership paradigm.
What happens in contexts where change is instead the only element of continuity? What happens, in other words, when we are in the presence of a VUCA context? More specifically, what happens when change takes place at such a fast pace to prevent the transition to a new leadership paradigm?
In VUCA contexts, characterized by rapid and relentless change, the need of a “future-proof” paradigm arises, that is, a paradigm that doesn’t have to be replaced as a result of the change, that is not subject to obsolescence. The Leadership X.0 paradigm does not necessarily arise as an alternative or in contrast to other paradigms but, by its nature, it encompasses them all, by building upon them through the creation of the conditions for the development of a generative thought. The leader X.0 will adopt an infinite game perspective within which he will identify his own narrative by developing new skills (the capabilities). He will have to think and act free from interference, in a state of generative flow in deep connection with himself and with others.
Leadership theory moves its steps from ancient times. Through leadership, mankind has informed his choices during military conflicts (texts on military leadership have been known since the times of the Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome), it has inspired new artistic expressions (with the emergence of new subjects in figurative arts – think for example of sacred arts developed with Christianity or Cubism at the beginning of the 20th century), has given new impetus to culture and, more generally, to knowledge (think, for example, of the birth of Freudian psychoanalysis and its repercussions on philosophy).
Each example of successful leadership has the following fundamental characteristics:
- It fits the reference context: the direction to be pursued reflects the specifics of the reference context in which the leader operates;
- Is competent: leadership uses appropriate skills to effectively inform leaders’ decision-making;
- Is inclusive: the effectiveness of leadership presupposes the involvement of a group of subjects that is required to follow up the choices made by the leader.
All the paradigms of leadership we are aware of satisfy these characteristics. Over time, however, these paradigms have become obsolete or risk to become so, for example, if they become unable to respond effectively to changes in the reference context, or if the skills required to inform decision-making become inadequate, or, finally, if unable to safeguard the cohesion of the group of individuals that have to promote it, which is essential for the direction identified by everyone to be followed.
To preserve the effectiveness of their leadership to changing environments, to the emergence of new skills required to cope with the challenges and to the arising of risks that the cohesion of the group may fall apart, leaders are often required to revisit their leadership paradigm. The fundamentals of the new paradigm must be reconsidered such as to avoid the failure that would inevitably arise if the leader retained the old paradigm.
The process that leads to the adoption of a new paradigm is not automatic and its successful completion requires the following steps to be taken:
- Identification of ongoing trends that risk to make the current leadership paradigm obsolete and harmful;
- Fulfillment of the requirements for a new leadership, that is, characterization of the reference environment, of the new skills and of the new leadership style required to restore the leadership effectiveness;
- Characterization of the new leadership paradigm, through which the leader can exit the impasse which the previous paradigm led him into;
- Timely adoption of the new paradigm to ensure the evolutionary fitness of the organization to the new conditions.
The above steps are not immediately effective: the possibility of adopting a new paradigm obviously presupposes that the leader has enough time to identify and implement the new leadership. If the pace of change is too fast, the leader will not have enough time to adjust his approach. When time is not enough to a leadership reconfiguration, the leader will fall behind with respect to the requirements imposed by the ongoing changes. This will make his action untimely and, over time, drive an unbridgeable gap with respect to the needs that the new leadership should satisfy.
It is therefore reasonable to ask what would happen if the reference environment were not only unstable but also evolving so rapidly that the leader could not complete the reconfiguration of his leadership approach in a timely fashion. However, even if change were gradual, the leader would wait a long time before identifying the trends in place, with the risk of reacting to these changes much later than when they started. Waiting times could be reduced if the leader were able to anticipate current trends and the changes they have produced, as often one attempts to do. It should be noted, however, that this option appears risky if chosen in a VUCA context, since the complexity, the uncertainty and the ambiguity of the context make any attempt to anticipate the evolution of the context vain.
Is it possible to fend off the risk that leadership becomes obsolete by exposing the leader to the risk of failing to react to the changes in place in a timely fashion? How can one avoid falling behind in updating his leadership? Finally, how can one navigate change by averting the risk that his action may lead him astray and prompt counterproductive effects?
We define Leadership X.0 as the leadership that does not become obsolete and, therefore, inadequate to successfully guide the choices of the leader. Leadership X.0 allows to navigate change without waiting for the development of the context to manifest itself, a leadership that does not need to anticipate what cannot be anticipated.
In particular, Leadership X.0 is:
- stem: adopts “stem thought and action”, through which to safeguard and regenerate the effectiveness of leadership in changing environments, evolve the skills required to inform decision-making, and preserve the cohesion of the individuals within the team or the organization.
- subjective: does not rely on an objective characterization of the reference system, but rather on a subjective interpretation of the context and of the events that animate it.
- capable:draws on available skills to form new ones (the capabilities), depending on the emerging needs and the identified objectives. The skills acquired through various forms of learning, although indispensable, appear insufficient to respond to the challenges posed by complexity and uncertainty.
- hermeneutic: is strongly inspired by the principles of the philosophy of hermeneutics according to which each subject does not learn the world, but interprets the world, in light of his own pre-comprehension and prejudices.
- phenomenological: emerges, in the wake of these philosophical ideas, as the result of a subjective perspective according to which existing events, and their future evolution, do not lend themselves to be “anticipated”. Rather, they emerge as a result of subjective perspectives of thought and action, which are combined according to intricate set of interdependencies. This vision of leadership therefore finds its microfoundation in Husserlian and Heideggerian phenomenology, according to which each individual is “thrown into the world” and lives it in the light of a purely subjective perspective.
- narrative: must develop its own narrative, that is, a story that draws an evolutionary path to make the present, the past and the future coherent.
- playful: is characterized by a perspective of thought and action that does not perceive the environment as a space where to play a term game, within given boundaries and agreed upon rules of the game, known players, and known outcome (finite game). Conversely, Leadership X.0 adopts a perspective of thought and action that does not have a temporal term, where boundaries re not given but can be played with, where the rules of the game can be changed, the number and nature of the players can change, where the players are not competitors to act against but allies to generate a universe of playing possibilities to sustain the game (infinite game). The goal of the infinite game is to preserve the game and the players in the game.
- rhizomatic: able to innovate ceaselessly by making new combinations of elements of the context, in the light of the chosen narrative, of the interpretative capacity of the leader and the generative potential of the elements themselves.
The future-proof leader will be who will not adopt a leadership paradigm with the intent to replace it when obsolete, but rather who will choose a narrative, develop it within an infinite game perspective, innovate in a rhizomatic fashion, and orchestrate his decisions such as to preserve the game and himself in the game.