Leading in a Changing World: Four things leaders can learn from Postmodernism

postmodernismIf the world has changed then we need a new kind of leadership. The world has changed.

Much has been said and written about change and the importance for leaders – wherever they might be, to adapt to the changes that have taken place. In fact it is often highlighted that the ability to adapt to change is the most important attribute of leadership and to be fair, many leaders sincerely do attempt to make the necessary adaptations.

Yet for the most part the old, outmoded and well-worn perceptions surrounding leadership stubbornly refuse to go away. Just recently I had a conversation with a senior manager who expressed the desire to be more “in control” – to assert his authority in a more convincing fashion in order to ensure his staff did exactly as he said. It all had to do with “delivery” – and of course he is right, it is about delivery. It is just that the way to go about it needs to change. The old ‘command and control’ mentality of leaders is, in today’s world, is as effective as attempting to harpoon a whale with a snorkel. And just as politically incorrect!

The confusion that leaders experience midst the cacophony of ‘experts’ who hustle the latest trend or fad, is just how to lead in an ever-changing world. In a global village where cultures collide and paradox is the norm, leadership is no easy task. Part of the problem is that there is an over-emphasis on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of leadership at the expense of fostering a deeper understanding of the changing environment in which leadership takes place. By neglecting the context for leadership the result is that the practice has become dislocated from the underpinning theory. It is a serious situation. For one thing it means that we unwittingly employ old practices in the face of new problems – with disastrous results. Invariably all that is accomplished is that we end up digging the hole that we are in, faster! The emphasis on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’  has bred a market for the consumption of quick fixes, ‘irrefutable laws’ and tips booklets that have invaded the realm of leadership at the expense of genuine inquiry, authentic discussion and bold experimentation. As a result, much of leadership has become one dimensional, stale, unimaginative, borrowed and worst of all, irrelevant.

What is it then that leaders need to pay attention to in the face of such an accusation?

There are two fundamental areas that any effective leader needs to explore, examine and understand. Both these areas require constant work. In a nutshell the two areas are: themselves and their context. Smart leaders know this and intentionally and instinctively work towards acquiring an ever-deepening understanding and curiosity for both relms.

Leadership is not so much about ‘what you do’ but rather ‘who you are’. The character of leadership has usurped the act of leadership. In a Connection economy people skills have come out tops in the list of attributes that leaders require. Granted, some leaders seem to deliver the goods using a manner and tone that is anything but relational, but these are more often than not, short term, stop-gap gains. Such an approach will not succeed over the long haul and when subjected to closer scrutiny, invariably reveals multiple flaws – unhappy and insecure staff, stifled innovation and participation, a lack of resilience, strong under-currents and an altogether toxic environment. Leading in today’s world, one in which geographical, cultural and economic boundaries collide and blur, is neither easy nor a simple task. Smart leaders work hard at understanding themselves which means exploring their own beliefs, principles, biases, prejudices and motivations. Interior landscaping is no longer optional for today’s leaders and requires as much, if not more sweat than that needed in mastering the many external skills that leadership demands. It has been on these external characteristics that leaders have long been judged – but that is changing.

How then should leaders engage with a changed world (context) if they are to lead effectively?

The place to start is to recognize just how the world has changed. Deepening our understanding of the change will serve as the raw material from which to fashion effective and relevant leadership. If leaders understand something of the changing context, the savvy ones will instinctively know best how to respond and what to do.

Of course there are many vantage points from which to explore the changes that have occurred, each with its own chorus of protagonists and antagonists. But for our purposes, lets use just one such vantage point from which to survey the changing landscape: namely the transition from the modern era to that of the postmodern era.

For many the term ‘postmodern’ conjures up a barrage of confusion or even guilt, as there is an underlying feeling that one ought to know what this term means. Bob Fryling provides a useful characterization to help explain the contrast between modernity and what has followed – postmodernism. He describes two people, each representative of the cultural paradigms.

Firstly there is the scientist, clan in a white lab coat and representative of the modern culture. Skeptical of the preceding ‘traditional culture’ where clergy authority, tradition, rites and absolute rules predominated, the scientist feels superior, secure in his or her ability to prove, test and understand. He (or she) stands erect and proud, boldly confident in individualism (I am free to pursue my own happiness), rationalism (research and reason can find the truth), technology (we can control and exploit nature to our own advantage) and progress (every day and in every way we’re getting better and better).

The modern era relied on proof, rationality and leadership reflected the cultural context of the times. The theory, practice and shape of leadership merely reflected and responded to the context in which it found itself.

Secondly, there is the rock musician. Clan in almost anything, this figure represents the postmodern culture. This individual is disappointed, disillusioned and skeptical when it comes to the Scientist and all he / she represents. The Rocker’s posture, attitude and behaviour stand in direct contrast to that of the Scientist. There is an uneasy energy and (as far as the Scientist is concerned) wayward perspective about the Rocker. The two might as well be from different planets but the reality is that are from the same planet, just different worlds.

So just what is this postmodern world that leaders need to understand if they are to lead effectively? Well there are at least four things that we should understand about postmodernism if we are to craft a relevant and effective leadership response to this new world.

1. Postmodernism is skeptical of certainty; its leaders need to be likewise.

Objective certainty and absolutes come under attack in the postmodern context. It is not so much absolute truth that is challenged but rather the ability of any one person or group to know such truth. In other words what the postmodern stance challenges is ‘absolute knowledge’ rather that ‘absolute truth’. The implications of this as a prevailing mindset for leaders everywhere is obvious. The smart leader understands that as certainty gives way to uncertainty, so answers should give way to questions. Most leaders feel compelled to have the answers but in the future, leaders will be required to know which questions need to be asked. Framing the relevant questions will become one of the most critical tasks for leaders in tomorrow’s world – a world that paradoxically, is already here. The legacy of traditional leadership formation is that ‘leaders’ emerge and lay claim to leadership through their accreditation. “Look, I have the certificate / degree that prove I am now ready to lead” is the spoken or otherwise boast of those exiting their MBA or MBL or any other configuration you care to think about. And this is a huge part of the problem. The world of business is full of ‘accredited leaders’ who leave their incubators certain rather than curious; teachers rather than learners; isolated and individualistic rather than connected and interdependent. Our companies are the poorer for it and never before have we had so many leaders, but yet so little leadership. It serve leaders well to reflect on the words of Mark Twain who once said, “It is not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, but rather what we know for sure that just ain’t so”.

2. Postmodernism is sensitive to context; its leaders need to be likewise

In today’s world diversity is the norm. Each slice of diversity brings with it its own context thereby creating myriads of contexts. Smart leaders recognize, embrace and endeavor to understand such complexity. Again, it is no easy task, and is one that doesn’t offer much comfort. Postmodernism validates several contexts and leading in such ambiguity requires no small amount of dexterity from the leader. Again the leader’s ability to adapt and to entertain ‘grey’ as opposed to ‘black and white,’ become key attributes in such a fluid environment. Ironically, in such a context it is often the leader who articulates a ‘right way’ or clarifies one single course of action that attracts a large segment of support from a populous tried of the ambiguity and of engaging in the complexity of cultural diversity. However inviting the offer of such certainty and clarity – a hankering for the ‘way it was’, is really a mirage in today’s landscape. For evidence of such one need look no further than the American reasoning and justification for waging their war on terror. It is proving a futile and costly endeavor – an all too simple response perhaps in a context riddled with complexity. Using the language of ‘adaptive leadership’ it was a technical response to what ultimately has proved to be an adaptive challenge.

3. Postmodernism understands ‘togetherness’ in a different way; its leaders need to do likewise

In a diverse and multi-cultural context, it is obvious that our understanding of what constitutes a ‘good team’ will need serious revision. In the past ‘good teams’ were those where alignment was prized and conformity the norm. “Being on the same page” was an oft repeated statement when it came to describing successful teams. However, without discarding such notions, it is no longer quite as simple. Embracing and incorporating diversity is not optional for today’s leaders and where so much has changed, it stands to reason that how leaders go about building effective teams also needs to change. Leaders need far more savvy in this regard than ever before and certainly an autocratic, “do as I say” style has very limited use in the process of building effective teams. Many companies spend vast sums of money on ‘team building’ and for the most part, it is money wasted.  Not because the end is at fault, but rather that the means employed towards that end are so misguided. In TomorrowToday we are of the opinion that leading diversity is emerging as perhaps the preeminent leadership challenge. It is an area in which those tasked with leadership development, especially the business schools, are failing dismally. The topic gets added to the curriculum but it seems that there is neither the will nor the courage to do what it will take to ‘really learn’ is this vital area.

4. Postmodernism values subjective experience; its leaders need to do likewise 

An emphasis on the ‘here and now’, on present experience, characterizes postmodern behaviour. Experiential learning that engages the whole person is paramount. Leaders need to fully enter into this collaborative process in an unedited, uncensored and unrehearsed way. Central to this process is the individual, as well as the collective ‘story’. Leaders will need to be storytellers and the tag, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) may well become, Chief Storytelling Officer (CSO) as smart leaders understand the importance of storytelling in achieving organizational coherency and success. Leaders will be required to listen more attentively to stories and be prepared to tell more stories. Stories are the vehicles for sharing our experiences and as such have the ability to offer fresh insights, raise awareness, enhance creativity and deal with complexity and uncertainty.

And so…

In the postmodern context leaders will find themselves addressing issues they never even thought about before. Much like the bemused Director of a large international company that I spoke to who had been asked a young staff member if it was acceptable to have his dog accompany him to work! Clichéd answers and simplistic methodologies no longer provide refuge for embattled leaders. “I’m sorry but I don’t know” will often carry more weight than the standard fare we have become so accustomed too.

Of course this brief exploration hardly does justice to the enormity of the change experienced as we have transitioned from the modern era to that of the postmodern. The point is that smart leaders pay attention to the Teutonic plate type shift that has taken place. It is a shift that, although hidden from our view, evidences itself in far reaching implications and is one that cannot simply be ignored or wished away. To be caught unprepared will prove catastrophic for leadership. Our world in general and our corporate world in particular, desperately need a new breed of leaders. Men and women who understand what is required and who are then willing to act on what it is that needs to be done. Leaders who understand the times and are willing to engage others in exploring and fashioning appropriate responses in which all play a part.

Idealistic? …Perhaps, but a worthy dream nonetheless.  In Oliver Stone’s epic film Alexander, the thought is expressed that dangerous are those who dream, and best they be killed before their dream kills you. History is littered with those whose toxic dreams would validate such a thought. But it is not the dreaming that is the fault line here but rather it is the unchecked, isolated dreams of those with power that cause such havoc. Postmodern times will necessitate leaders who are not afraid to dream, but leaders who are able to weave together a coherent expression and tapestry of the diverse dreams of many. It will be a rich tapestry indeed and one that will require the unique stitch and imprint of South African business. South Africa and its peoples represents the most diverse patch of land on our planet and as such has a unique responsibility in leading the challenge on behalf on an expectant world in the decade to come.

Acknowledgements:

The four points describing postmodernism (excluding the leadership emphasis) are taken from Brian McLaren’s excellent book, The Church on the Other Side (Zondervan Publishing, 1998). In it he refers to Bob Fryling’s book, Being Faithful in This Generation (InterVarsity Press, 1995) from which he takes the analogy of the Scientist and the Rocker (p160).        

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