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Think BR: Leadership in times of change

In a world of unprecedented connectivity, transparency and democracy of opportunity, when automatic respect is in increasingly short supply, how should modern leadership be defined, asks Now's Mark Lund.

Mark Lund, Now

Mark Lund, Now

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Leadership is never easy. In times of acute change the mix of skills needed becomes even more elusive.

This is one of those times. Thanks to the digital revolution we are all in a world of unprecedented connectivity, transparency and democracy of opportunity.

We know more, we find out more, we communicate more and we can even publish more in a way that has never before been possible.

Connectivity, and the democracy it brings, is changing our world, from the Arab Spring to e-petitions to the UK parliament.

The difficulty of all this for leadership is that automatic respect is in increasingly short supply.

Trust in leaders and institutions, whether government, politicians or business, has fallen to record lows.

Brands themselves aren’t immune to the reputational scrutiny that social media makes possible.

Paul Polman of Unilever posed the question, "If social media can topple a government in three months, how long would it take to bring down a brand?"

The leadership solution lies in the nature of the problem. If unprecedented democracy and connectivity characterise the challenge, they should define the style of leadership too.

The world is now too tangled for even the most gifted of autocrats, and too transparent for the closed style of tyrants.

In this setting, the best leadership will come from visionaries who can bring a group of others with them.

This is not because decisions are best made by many, but because in an era of change and complexity a leader needs more than one person to create the hypothesis, test it, and work out how best to put the answer into effect. (Fertility of connectivity - more ideas to be grabbed).

That means a small group with different talents, shared interests and a common regard for and trust in each other.

One of them may be called the CEO but they should be a challenging caucus of intellectual equals, not a rubber stamp. 

Thus, the leader’s first, crucial task is to assemble or edit this group.

The right people come before the right strategy, because the right people will help define the right strategy and when things change quickly the strategy may have to change as well.

A quality leadership team is an enduring asset that may need to outlast a given strategy.

The second part is connectivity and the meritocracy it creates. The reality of visionary leadership is that communication needs to be an ever larger part of it: listening to ideas as well as expressing them.

This isn’t new. That master strategist William Shakespeare caught it in his description of Henry V before the battle of Agincourt.

The speech we remember is the one before the onslaught, but Henry’s best work is done the night before when he roves the camp, doing the 14th century equivalent of management by walking about:

‘Forth he goes and visits all his host.

Bids them good morrow with a modest smile

And calls them brothers, friends and countrymen.

A largess universal like the sun, thawing cold fear.’

Henry V, Act IV

Henry’s mood of measured optimism, is the key to leadership at times like these. 

Measured, because leaders have to be brutally honest about what’s true and what’s not, but optimistic because leadership must be about seeing and moving towards the most positive outcome from any position, however hopeless it feels.

That inner certainty comes from purpose. A clear sense of what it is that binds the leader and led together.

For Henry it was the fate of England. In the corporate world, shared purpose is unlikely to be as big or as simple.

But identifying it, communicating it and sharing it is one of leadership’s most crucial roles.

In changing times like these living with more uncertainty is a necessary part of all our lives.

Turning the power of that uncertainty into a dynamic purpose of shared endeavor is how leaders earn their corn.

Mark Lund, Now.


Mark Lund will be discussing how to be an inspirational leader alongside General Andrew Farquhar CBE, managing partner, Millbrook Partnership; Michael Kirkwood, UKFI Board; Ian Milner, chief executive, Iris; Rupert Howell, vice chairman, Advertising Association and former managing director, Brand and Commercial, ITV, among others on the IPA’s upcoming Leadership Course (7 - 9 March). Contact Chloe Williams at the IPA (chloe@ipa.co.uk) for more information.


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