5 Critical Principles for the Modern Leader in Today's Complex Times


When I accepted my first leadership position I was fresh out of university.  It involved the challenge of managing a team that was geographically dispersed throughout the State.  It was a big job but at the time it didn't phase me.  I had studied human resource management and leadership at university and naively believed it would give me all the answers.  But it didn't.  I was suddenly responsible for staff that were three times my age, who didn't like bosses and had all types of personality quirks.  In fact, all came with their challenges.   Challenges I hadn't read about in my text books.  I fumbled my way through and focused on the only thing I knew.  Outcomes.  I was great at achieving outcomes and I achieved many during my time.  But when the achievement glow wore off, I began to notice a sense of unease amongst my staff.  I was determined to "do" something to solve it and I arranged a team building session with personality testing hoping all might be revealed.  But it turned out the person who learnt the most was me.  "I cant believe the test revealed that I am 100% outcome focused and 0% people focused.  It must be wrong!" I exclaimed as I walked into our session. But the look on their faces showed that the information was in fact pretty accurate.  They shifted uncomfortably in their chairs but over time started to reveal feelings of being micromanaged, not listened to and sometimes treated as a means to an end.  This was my wake up call.  I thought I was a nice person doing all the right things.  And I'm sure I'm not alone in having faced a similar scenario.

Today's business environment is characterized by fast paced change, uncertainty and unpredictability.  Never before has a leader had the high volume and complexity of things to juggle, process and navigate.  And that's why a leadership rule book no long exists. The only thing a leader has to rely upon is themselves. And more importantly the wisdom that's generated from the combination of their heads and their hearts.   So what do leaders have to guide them in these complex times? The following  principles will help.

1. Leadership is more about "being" than it is about "doing"

When I was first a leader I was <em>doing</em> all the right things.  Having staff meetings, giving feedback, doing performance appraisals and all of the things I know are good leadership practice.  But something was missing.  I wasn't <em>being</em> the person that my team would want to follow.  I was wearing leadership as a badge of honour rather than living it as a role of service.  I cared more about the outcomes than the people who were achieving them.  A leader inspires people to bring their best to work.  If you are not <em>being</em> that person then all the "doing" in the world will not help.

2. Lead Yourself before you Lead Others

Never before has self awareness been such an important attribute of a leader. Many of the habits that have worked in the past will not work in today's environment.  Letting go of the ones that don't serve you and adopting new personal mindsets are key to inspiring others.  If you cannot identify mindsets for success and change your way of thinking, you will have little chance doing it for other people.

3. Be Vulnerable

Leaders in the past have felt the need to be perfectionists.  To have all the answers and to put up a protection shield that made them look unshakeable and invincible.  But these leaders didn't often inspire.  And their followers could see straight through the facade.  Operating from a threat state, always looking over your shoulder in case you get caught out as a "fake" is exhausting.  And it doesn't motivate anyone.   Being comfortable being yourself and being transparent with your feelings, fears and challenges is one of the most powerful acts a leader can undertake.  

4. Adopt a Beginner's Mind

If a friend has a business problem, often you can see an obvious solution. Not because you are smarter but because you are bringing fresh eyes to the situation. When you carry around the baggage of past experience, it filters your thinking.  A leader who recognizes that they are not an expert are more likely to listen, to learn from the people they leading, to see things a fresh and therefore come up with more creative solutions.

5.    Change your paradigm

Many common leadership  practices are adaptions of ones that arose from the industrial era when the command and control paradigm was the foundation.  They had their place when work was largely routine but they are no longer relevant in a fast paced, changing business environment.  Instead of viewing work and people as something that is predictable and therefore controllable, it is more useful to view it through the lens of a living system.  A garden for example has the characteristics of being unpredictable, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, it is highly adaptable and all pieces work together without having a central point to direct, measure and manage.  Much like the qualities of people in today workplaces.  As a leader of a living system your most important role is to step back, observe, align to purpose, create the environment, switch people on, weed out the issues and ensure overall connectivity.  Sometimes the best thing you can do as a leader is get out of the way and allow your people to thrive.

Times have changed and as leaders we need to be the first ones to change with them.  And the good news is when you start to let go and embrace a new way, you may just find that it is more satisfying and rewarding!