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How to be a visionary leader

Posted on from London Business School

The best way to transform employees’ behaviour is to change your perceptions and theirs, says Nigel Nicholson. The author and professor also reveals why developing collaborative, organic structures can boost engagement.

Changing roles for leaders

If you’re an HR leader, you must wake up to a new range of challenges facing business. Globalising markets are transforming the value chain and leaving current organisational models behind. The nature of work is also changing as the distinction between managers and leaders dissolves. Managers can no longer just ‘execute’; they are part of the transformational and innovation processes that the best businesses need to survive and succeed. Employees also need new levels of awareness and competence to serve not just the bottom line but the top line, too. These are where the key relationships exist that drive competitive advantage.

Culture is shifting. Workers have more diverse needs, interests and lifestyles, and the uniform application of HR tools leaves them disengaged and cynical.

Help people see things differently

We need a new way of looking at HR leadership. Bad managers confront an employee’s way of being and try to change their needs, attitudes and identity, while better ones focus on actions. You can spend a lot of time trying to control behaviour at work, with mixed success. The only way of changing someone is by shifting their perception of the world, for example by moving them into a new role. All of us, especially leaders, should agonise less about who we are and focus more on the situations we are in, challenging our perceptions and helping our people see things in new ways that can energise and engage them. As an HR leader, you have a special role in this visionary leadership, needed so desperately in these times of diversity, uncertainty and dynamism.

Use a new model to empower and engage

At the same time, HR leaders can now step up and advocate models of organisation and leadership which we know, from evolutionary biology, empower, engage and perform best in the digital age. Companies such as video game developer Valve and Gore-Tex manufacturer WL Gore have fluid non-hierarchical structures, keep unit size small and have no formal managers, allowing leadership to function organically. They encourage learning from mistakes and allow flexible self-organising working practices to suit the differing needs and interests of employees. Australian travel agency Flight Centre has done this consciously, organising itself into highly empowered and collaborative “families, villages and tribes”. One of the most valuable side effects of this model is how effectively it engages women and breaks the glass ceiling.

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