In recent decades, commanding leadership has mainly been associated with having a strong strategic vision and the ability to commit an organisation, whether large or small, to that vision both tactically and operationally. Several recent publications on leadership, however, seem to point to a shift in that image. Above all, the leader of the future will need to be creative and able to adapt, as well as having a high emotional intelligence quotient and an affinity with technology.
The business community is experiencing rapid digitisation and the increasing dominance of artificial intelligence, robotisation and automation, all of which has a big impact not only on how businesses operate, but also on how they are led. At least, that is the conviction strongly held by Jeff Wong, Global Chief Innovation Officer at EY. Whereas businesses used to select leaders primarily based on past management experience in relevant areas, now they are increasingly looking to the future, seeking out leaders capable of navigating the company through a rapidly changing business environment.
Wong believes that this is causing a new leadership profile to emerge, one characterised less by the ability to create value for shareholders (although, naturally, profits are important) and more by five alternative qualities.
The first of those qualities is the ability to come up with new solutions. As Wong explains, “Whereas, in the past, leaders were often tasked with implementing established strategies, increasing efficiency and improving existing processes, one of the most valuable assets of future leaders will be the willingness and ability to create something totally new.” According to the CIO, the disruptive nature of many emerging technologies is redefining industries, processes and business models. The most prized leaders of tomorrow will be those who know how to help shape the impact of those changes, rather than simply reacting to them. “There is a need for leaders who are not afraid to forge new paths”, says Wong, “and who are capable of reinventing their company for the future.”
The second indispensable quality for future leaders is to be comfortable with a certain degree of uncertainty. This quality, also known as Adaptive Leadership, describes a leader who is able to accept the increasing difficulty of capturing developments in spreadsheets and identifying and predicting those developments. According to Wong, many businesses have ‘legacy’ systems. Though hugely valuable in the past, they are simply not agile enough to keep up with the pace of change today. In short: more of the same is a thing of the past, and a good leader can effectively manage a wave of simultaneous developments, even if in the short term that may cause uncertainty and vulnerability. American information giant Google also defines this quality as the ‘growth mindset’: the courage to continue to experiment, to learn and potentially to change course, even in uncertain times.
Managing (information) technology
The leader of tomorrow must also have a third quality: an above-average knowledge of and affinity with technology, information technology and their future potential. CEO of international technology consultant ThoughtWorks Guo Xiao sees businesses in almost every sector appointing technology experts to their advisory councils, and often creating extra C-level positions for IT professionals. “Modern leaders understand that ICT’s traditional support role has changed”, he says. “Something that once made businesses more efficient has increasingly become a defining quality. They understand that technology has to direct the core processes within the company if they want to stay competitive.”
Greater use of artificial intelligence is an inevitable part of the workplace of the future. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Paul Daugherty, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at Accenture, believes that this is precisely why it is emotionally intelligent leaders who will make the difference. “The classic idea of leadership is based on hierarchy and on controlling subordinates. But thanks to technology, work processes are evolving in an increasingly organic way, and organisations are becoming flatter and less hierarchical”, Daugherty explains. “That demands leadership based on emotional intelligence: understanding people instead of controlling them.” Google has also explicitly designated emotional intelligence as one of the six crucial qualities of today’s managers. The company describes it as ‘the ability to recognise emotions in yourself and others’ and ‘the way to create a heightened sense of self-awareness’ — because ‘managers who are self-aware make better decisions and communicate more effectively’.
Integrating people and technology
The fifth and final quality which the leaders of tomorrow must have is the ability to get people and technology to work together — or, as Daugherty puts it, ‘to design systems and processes for people’. He goes on, “Modern managers focus on more than how AI can be incorporated into operational processes; they also look at the role people play in those processes. They incorporate technology so as to optimise the value of the people in the processes.”
Jeff Wong agrees that this is a characteristic of the leader of the future: instead of having people compete with technology, the ability to get the two elements to strengthen one another. “The best leaders are consciously looking for the best of both worlds”, he says. “They embrace technology where it helps them make better decisions and see things more clearly. But they also know that there are areas in which people will always be superior, such as improvisation, innovation and independent learning.”