The Paradox of Leadership

I love paradox. Today I’m going explore not just one, but two, paradoxes. Both are related to the role of leadership in our changing world. The first paradox: in a world of mounting performance pressure, we seek “strong” leaders with all the answers, when what we need are leaders with powerful questions.

The second paradox: those who have become disillusioned with the status quo are becoming champions of highly decentralized, leaderless “organizations,” when in fact we need leaders more than ever to help us accelerate our progress.

Response to mounting performance pressure There’s yet another paradox underlying the two above. It’s the paradox of the Big Shift that I’ve written about extensively, including here. The paradox of the Big Shift is that it is creating exponentially expanding opportunity while at the same time creating mounting performance pressure

Most of us experience the mounting performance pressure first and foremost because we reside in institutions and communities that were designed for an earlier era. As competitive pressure mounts and the pace of change accelerates, we struggle to stay afloat, riding on boats that were designed for calmer seas.

In those rough seas, it’s very natural to feel fear and seek stability wherever we can. That makes us vulnerable to leaders who claim that they know what needs to be done and have all the answers required to weather the storm. It’s not an accident that we are seeing the rise of authoritarian leaders around the world.

The challenge of course is that, in a rapidly changing world of mounting performance pressure, no one has all the answers. The paradox is that the leaders we are initially drawn to are exactly the kinds of leaders that we need to avoid. They provide a false sense of security and leave us vulnerable to the changes ahead.

Instead, what we need are leaders who understand that we are facing new questions that we don’t yet have the answers for, but that could unlock the exponentially expanding opportunities arising in the Big Shift. We need leaders who can frame the questions in ways that inspire us, by highlighting the opportunities that the answers could unleash.

By framing these questions, these leaders could also inspire us to come together and express our need for help in ways that help us to build deeper trust and overcome the fear that holds us back. These questions could become particularly inspiring if they are crafted as part of opportunity-based narratives that represent a call to action, motivating us to come together in a quest to find answers for the questions.

While we are naturally drawn to the first type of leader in times of mounting performance pressures and growing fear, these leaders feed the fear, emphasizing the threats that we face and underscoring our need to “follow the leader.” At the same time, we all have a hunger for hope, and I believe we will ultimately realize that we need a very different kind of leader, one who motivates us to take initiative together to address growing opportunities. Crafting new forms of institutional leadership

As we seek to re-build our institutions to address exponentially expanding opportunities and thrive in the Big Shift, we need to be careful to address the second paradox. Here, I am going to focus on institutional leaders, but I have also explored the implications for systems leaders as part of my work leading a World Economic Forum Council (our white paper is available as a pdf here).

It is natural, as we become disillusioned with the traditional institutional models that have dominated our society over the past century (I call them the “scalable efficiency” models), that we are tempted to throw out the baby with the bathwater. In our reaction to the dysfunctions of these traditional institutional models driven by the “strong leader” who has all the answers, there will be a natural temptation to try to do away with leaders altogether.

We are seeing this in many of the efforts to embrace distributed and decentralized organizational models that basically seek to eliminate leaders and rely entirely on local initiative. While very understandable, the paradox is that we need leaders more than ever in the Big Shift era, just a very different kind of leader to help focus and motivate participants in our institutions as they seek to move from mounting performance pressure to exponentially expanding opportunity.

Our institutional models will need to be re-built, moving from our existing “scalable efficiency” models to “scalable learning” models (an effort that I describe as institutional innovation). These scalable learning models will be fundamentally different from our current institutional models and they will require much more distributed initiative among the participants. But they will still require leaders.

What will be the role of leaders in scalable learning institutions? Their first role will be to focus participants by framing a powerful, long-term opportunity to create far more value than anything that has been achieved in the past. In a world of rapid change, there’s a natural tendency to fall into a reactive approach to the world, sensing and responding as quickly as possible to whatever is happening at the moment. We lose all sense of focus and spread ourselves too thinly across too many activities.

The role of leaders in a scalable learning institution is to pull everyone out of their narrow contexts and comfort zones and focus them on a very big opportunity that will challenge their current assumptions and behaviors. They are adept at framing opportunity-based narratives that are a call to action.

But there’s more. As suggested before, leaders in a scalable learning institution will frame inspiring questions related to the powerful, long-term opportunity. Since the opportunity is typically very different from anything that has been accomplished in the past, it is to be expected that we don’t yet know how to address this opportunity.

The role of the leader is to inspire all the participants by framing questions regarding the best approaches to address the opportunity and actively inviting everyone to come together in helping to evolve the most effective approaches. These questions also play a focusing role, but their key role is to inspire and motivate participants to act, making it clear that the opportunity won’t be addressed without significant effort, driven by a desire to learn.

The greatest value of these questions is to inspire a specific form of passion, that I’ve come to call the “passion of the explorer.” Based on our research, people with this form of passion are driven to learn faster and to achieve more and more impact in the domain that defines their passion. By drawing out this form of passion, leaders can move participants from inspiration to aspiration.

The goal isn’t simply to make progress towards the opportunity by addressing the questions framed by leaders, it is to accelerate progress to the point where it goes exponential. That’s the aspiration of participants who have developed this form of passion. Leaders can reinforce this aspiration by focusing on the trajectory of performance improvement and encouraging everyone to evolve approaches that can accelerate impact.

That leads to yet another role for leaders. They can play a key role in designing environments that help to accelerate learning and performance improvement. Many participants may develop an aspiration to accelerate impact but find themselves in environments that hold them back rather than helping them to progress even faster.

While the goal for scalable learning institutions is to empower participants to design their own environments as they seek to accelerate their learning and performance improvement, leaders can certainly play a meaningful role in the early stages by highlighting the primary design goal – accelerating learning – and challenging all aspects of the institutional environments that are obstacles to that goal.

So, in short, institutional leaders still have a prominent role to play in the institutions of the future – creating focus, providing inspiration, cultivating aspiration and designing supportive environments. Without this new form of leadership, institutions are unlikely to be able to address the exponentially expanding opportunities that await us. Bottom line To navigate successfully through the Big Shift, we need to acknowledge and address two paradoxes of leadership. Leaders can still play a vital role in helping us to achieve more of our potential as individuals and as a society. In fact, one might even argue that we need these leaders more than ever. But they will be very different leaders from the ones we are accustomed to today in virtually all our large institutions. Cultivating these new forms of leadership will be very challenging for institutions and for the leaders themselves, but the rewards will be enormous. The key is to recognize the need and begin the journey.


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