Escaping the ‘cult of leadership’

07 May 2019

Forget your current way of thinking. The old leadership model is dead. Dr Pippa Malmgren conducted countless hours of interviews with global leaders from business and politics for her award-winning book, The Leadership Lab, only to discover a lack of imagination and a lack of diversity of thought. The solution? An entirely new style of 21st-century leadership.

Walking through a Waterstones bookshop in a well-heeled part of London recently, I noticed a new section had come into being. The sci-fi section had been renamed. Typed out in gold on the dusty shelves: ‘sci-fi / dystopia’.
 
Come for the comics, stay for the end of the world as we know it. Last year, Ryan Gosling starred in a nostalgic ’60s-set epic about the triumph of man over nature in First Man, and in 2017 featured in Blade Runner 2049, a film set 30 years hence that conjures an AI-infused nightmare that makes the Harrison Ford original from 1982 look cheery. In short, future gazing isn’t much fun at the moment.
 
This is crazy. We live in a world that has lifted record numbers out of poverty and created a growing middle class. New technologies allow developing economies to leapfrog established infrastructure development and gradual economic growth. The future – and change – is invariably a good thing.
 
Today’s leaders need to look across the whole landscape. Forget the data – look at the signals. 
So why the long face? I spent hours talking to global leaders as research for my most recent book, and the gloominess seemed to come down to two things: a lack of imagination and a lack of leadership.
 
All of their thinking was what I call a 20th-century school of thought. They were desperate to drill down into data, to make clear, analytical decisions, and to come up with black-and-white answers. They were (predominantly) male, they went to the same schools, and they’d all taken a similar career path. They’d learned how to lead from those who had led them.
 
But in a world that is ever more fluid, today’s leaders need to look across the whole landscape. Forget the data – look at the signals. Take inflation: while it’s barely there on official statistics, it’s extremely relevant – ask a millennial how they feel about their rent increasing. Just because it’s not captured in analytics doesn’t mean change isn’t happening.
 

Challenge the old guard

 
The successful 21st-century leader needs to move away from predictions and certainty to preparedness and uncertainty. How can you react to change if you’ve already decided it can’t happen?
 
I listened to leaders who considered it a virtue that they ‘didn’t do’ technology. Is it any wonder, then, that their younger staff – who are passionate about the latest advances – didn’t follow them? Imagine a top-level sports team with a coach who didn’t bother to watch the games back because they ‘didn’t do’ video – would they be able to lead that team?
 
We are entering an era where the leaders who are able to view change as an opportunity will succeed, but that requires a whole new mindset. There are already political leaders who have taken advantage of people’s concerns about the transformative forces in the world by promising to protect them from tomorrow. But that won’t work for very long.
 
‘Drill-down’ thinking is no longer enough. ‘Look-across’ skills have become more prized. The predictable, Western-orientated, left-brain-rationed, technology-leveraged, top-down leadership culture is being challenged by one that is inverted, irrational, gender-fluid, strategically multipolar, information-soaked and rapidly changing.
 
It’s a big statement, I know, but what does it mean for leaders running their business day-to-day?
 

(Nearly) everyone agrees: diversity is good

 
The challenge is now to bring diversity of thought into your business. If you’re surrounded by people who look at the same data and draw the same conclusions, find somebody who looks elsewhere for their information – they’ll give you a different viewpoint.
 
Pippa Malmgren
“Leaders must embrace radical transparency. When times are tough, they have to explain how and why they’re going to turn things around.”

Pippa Malmgren

 
Those leaders who ‘don’t do’ technology won’t have seen a certain MAGA hashtag blow up on social media from the moment Trump entered the US presidential race. Shake up your board and your management structure: the 21st-century leadership team isn’t just a club, it’s a conscience. Ask Enron’s leaders how useful it was to hang out with each other at the golf course – they had no idea what was happening in their own business.
 
Leaders must also embrace radical transparency. When times are tough, they have to explain how and why they’re going to turn things around. When change concerns people, leaders need to embrace it and open up about how they’re going to prepare for it – not run away from it, or claim the wave can be held back.
 
Achieving this comes down to values. Leaders will need to be better, not just do better. They will need to demonstrate the way in which they add value to local communities and measure success in the long term by evidencing how they are reflecting and responding to the diverse needs of their communities.
 
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future, as long as leaders are willing to welcome it. For years we’ve been told that artificial intelligence was going to destroy jobs. But we’ve heard those warnings since the Industrial Revolution (about textile machines, cars and computers). And yet today we have more people in work around the world and record levels of employment in our most developed economies. These aren’t destroyed jobs, they are changed jobs.
 
The leaders who will thrive in the 21st century – those who look across and are agile with change, and who deliberately change and disrupt themselves – will reap the rewards of a tech revolution that, I promise, is all for the good.
 
Former White House adviser Dr Pippa Malmgren, currently a non-executive board member in the UK government’s Department for International Trade, has written three bestselling books. Her latest, co-written with Chris Lewis, is The Leadership Lab: Understanding Leadership in the 21st Century, which recently received the 2019 Business Book of the Year award.