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The future of leadership

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In this VUCA world we live in - what does the future of leadership look like for the generations to come?

The future of leadership is a complex subject, and with the march towards Brexit and the controversial style of President Trump dominating global conversation, the traits of effective leadership have never seemed more ambiguous. What does good leadership look like and how can you succeed in an everchanging world? Business schools from around the globe identify key trends and leadership qualities.

The precise leader

Diane Morgan, associate dean, Imperial College Business School

We’ve become comfortable with “disruption” in relation to business but are less comfortable with it in regards to the politics of 2016. But the change in political landscape doesn’t change the importance of knowing what you value and having a clear and well-articulated vision to guide your organisation. Getting down to basics will be paramount and leaders should be asking themselves: what do we value? What do our customers value? What do we need to clear through the morass of information and emotion to make good business decisions, stay true to our values and be opportunistic? More importantly, as an individual, what can I influence? What do I need to do to bring others along with me in order to have positive impact? As leaders, let’s use data, facts and our hearts to move from positions to discussions. Let’s make 2017 a great year of action versus reaction, as insightful leaders take advantage of the opportunity to truly listen.

The ethical leader

Martin Day, managing director, corporate and professional qualifications, London Institute of Banking and Finance

Leaders play a key role in driving business practice, with ethical leadership becoming increasingly important. Ethics is a core component of the qualification framework at the London Institute of Banking and Finance, as we recognise that long-term value can only be achieved where businesses embrace and embed ethical values. 

Effective leadership requires leaders not only to instil ethical values and behaviour in their staff, but to role model them. Successful leaders understand that doing the right thing for the business means doing the right thing for customers, staff and the environment and engender a culture of ethical behaviour. Without transparent and inspiring leadership underpinning these values, the organisation is unlikely to adapt and thrive.

The surprise leader

Jeremy Ghez, professor of economics and international affairs and academic director of the centre for geopolitics, HEC Paris

 Don’t embrace uncertainty. Generate it. In 2016, leaders were reminded that ‘impossible’ and ‘improbable’ are not interchangeable. They were quick to write off the likelihood of a vote for Brexit or for Donald Trump as US president, rendering them vulnerable to these surprises. Leaders are trained to be predictable and are appreciated by their followers because of this. But by being predictable and rational all the time, they may be limiting their range of options and missing out on key opportunities to make a difference. This may be his most telling legacy for 2017. In fact, leaders who will strive in 2017 are those who are able to surprise us and to take us along paths we never imagined exploring. That is the type of creativity we need when stagnation is at the door.

The strategic leader

Karl Moore, associate professor of strategy and organisation, Desautels faculty of management, McGill University

My colleague Henry Mintzberg’s idea of emergent strategy seems to be the best strategy for today’s industrites and firms. It focuses on being flexible, reacting rapidly, being innovative and seeking input from diverse sources about the turbulent environment our firms operate in. The ponderous, deliberate strategy approaches and analysis done by expensive outside consultants is less appropriate in today’s crazy world. Indeed, 2016 was a year of large-scale global changes. 

Leaders and their strategies must be grounded in a deep understanding of what’s happening in the rapidly moving world of our customers, suppliers, competitors, key government influencers, disruptive businesses encroaching on traditional ground, new competitors, and sometimes-hard-to-fathom millennial employees. This is not true for all industries, but I am hard pressed to think of an industry where things are staying largely the same. Leaders must remember that the ability to adjust swiftly, and even substantially rethink in relatively short order, is what is needed in 2017 – and beyond.

“2017 can be a great year of action versus reaction as insightful leaders take advantage of the opportunity to truly listen”

The thoughtful leader

Martin Binks, professor of entrepreneurial development, Nottingham University Business School

“Act in haste, repent at leisure” is a much-quoted maxim, but one in which there is apparently little faith. Acting in haste isn’t just a norm in leadership, it’s championed. Quick thinking is far from the only true gauge of problem-solving prowess. Future leaders would do well to appreciate the difference between dynamism and a rush to judgement.

There’s a tendency to default to decision-making processes founded on the belief that choices are made with reference to a neat list of pre-prepared, fully formed options. This is a dangerous misconception. The advantages of an approach that’s more comprehensive, rigorous, perhaps even ingenious, need recognition. Above all, remember that the best ideas aren’t chosen: they’re conceived. Instead of perpetuating a regret-driven culture of “what if we had done this?” leaders must nurture a prescient culture of “what if we were to do this?” That means thinking loosely, imaginatively, long term. Hindsight is wonderful but foresight is superior.

“With politicians in disarray, business leaders must fill the gap as leaders of society as well as their enterprises”

The sustainable leader

Mark Smith, dean of faculty, Grenoble Ecole de Management

It certainly feels as if the world is in turmoil. Previous assumptions seem to have been turned on their heads. Yet the fundamentals of leadership have not changed. Teams and organisations, even countries, still need leaders, but the context means that effective leaders will need authenticity and to inspire trust.

Brexit, President Trump and other changes illustrate the risks of popularist leadership that appears to give people, or certain groups, what they want, but not necessarily what can be delivered or what is required. Short term, this popularist approach is powerful and hard to tackle, but in the medium-to-long-term it has limited sustainability. Once promises are broken, I believe the outcome will be increased public scepticism: this phase of “post-truth” communication will inevitably lead to disappointment. As a result, leaders will be required to work hard to (re)gain trust while demonstrating their trustworthiness. Authentic leadership requires honesty with oneself and one’s public and has been linked to improved levels of trust, wellbeing and engagement. We can be sure that change, internally and externally, will occur and effective leaders will be required to provide an honest pathway forward.

The political leader

Stephen Bungay, director, Ashridge Strategic Management Centre

During 2016, tensions in Western societies that have been simmering for years boiled over.

Global trends towards increasing free trade and free movement, inclusiveness and diversity, and a broader sharing of power and wealth, which were espoused as universal benefits, have been denounced for benefiting only a small global elite.

The enlightenment values behind those trends have been challenged. The non-elite, whose lives have become increasingly precarious and who see only hypocrisy and corruption among those in power, have uttered a howl of rage on both sides of the Atlantic.

With the credibility of politicians hitting new lows, the demagogues have stepped into the breach and replaced spin with brazen lies, political correctness with insults and intellectualising with the celebration of ignorance. The democratic institutions which held out against fascism and communism in the 20th century have been hollowed out, the centre is barely holding and social media, far from connecting everyone, has created enclaves of the like-minded who confirm each others’ prejudices and push them towards ever greater extremes.

With politicians in disarray, business leaders must fill the gap as leaders of society as well as of their enterprises. They must acknowledge the anger of large swathes of the population, expand their notions of inclusiveness and diversity to cover the dispossessed and the fearful, take visible action to address inequality, articulate the benefits of wealth creation to address the emotions and values of the many, and deploy technology to solve social problems not create new ones.

Enlightenment often begins with shock and pain. If we can recover from that to find new moral and intellectual honesty, we can usher in a new enlightenment and reinvigorate the values of the old one. We all have a role to play.

“Without transparent and inspiring leadership underpinning ethical values, the organisation is unlikely to adapt and thrive”

The transformational leader

Bernd Vogel, director, Henley centre for engaging leadership, Henley Business School

The context of leadership has and probably will become more ambiguous. We finally accept that, in previous decades, managers when faced with less-than-clear-cut challenges, were reliant on a few outstanding leaders.

Managers in the future will succeed when they orchestrate leadership with, and through, others. This does not mean that people at the top become less relevant, but they take on a new importance in co-developing an environment of culture, structure and process that allows engaging leadership to happen.

Second, many managers will have to acknowledge that leadership will come from various others in the organisation. Being challenged by others, in search of shared purpose, will create more mature and sustained relationships, not fewer.

Third, the senior managers of the future may focus on creating and shaping leadership capacity across entire organisations and not only in a few individuals. Multi-directional leadership capacity that combines downwards, upwards and sideways leadership capability engages and energises organisations.
Finally, we are not even at the beginning of understanding what this means for new practices of engaging leadership development. To stay meaningful and responsible, a key skill will be developing, refreshing, adjusting and reflecting on individual leadership capacity. Senior managers will engage in transformative learning throughout their careers.

Emily  Sexton-Brown

By Emily Sexton-Brown

Emily is the commissioning editor at Changeboard

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