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Authentic leadership in an era of crises

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The dawn of the 21st century ushered in a plethora of multiple interconnected global challenges and changes, not least of them being issues of poverty, inequality, social injustice, climate change, globalisation, socio-political crises, unemployment, food insecurity, the digital era and the major technological disruptions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

To add to this malaise, the world was overwhelmed by the ill effects of the Covid 19 pandemic this year. Our daily lives, from educating our children, managing our health, and working from home, to simple social rituals like dinner with friends, underwent rapid multi-dimensional change. Emerging trends such as the virtualisation of the workspace, online learning, virtual health, and e-commerce accelerated exponentially. Changes anticipated to take years occurred in months and, in some cases, weeks and even days.

Justifiably, leaders from all sectors have struggled with great difficulty to address these overlapping changes simultaneously, dealing with economic, health, and logistical crises that have unfolded at a phenomenal speed. Much as we would like to think of 2020 as an anomaly, it may not be.

The conditions for accelerating change have been building for years. Advancements in information technology, automation, human interconnectivity, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the network effects among them, created a new reality where change is much more rapid, continual, and ubiquitous. Covid-19 and its derivatives laid bare a ‘new normal’ of change which exemplifies that it is perpetual, pervasive and exponential. The old has given way to the new and we now live in a world on the cusp of dramatic global change and disruptions.

This new disruptive phenomenon is re-defining our emerging future and, as a consequence, effective leadership will be defined by the ability to navigate this new reality. However, our models for leadership were not built for this kind of exponential change. Human minds have evolved for thinking linearly in the face of challenge and not exponentially. It is as futurist Ray Kurzweil asserts, “The future is widely misunderstood.

 Our forebears expected it to be pretty much like their present, which had been pretty much like their past.” As such, projecting our pasts onto our futures exposes a fundamental error – linear thinking can never catch up and adapt to the perpetual, pervasive, and exponential change occurring around us.  It is simply too fast and extremely complex.

Given this new scenario it is quite obvious that the world needs a new form of leadership – one that is better equipped to navigate this unprecedented kind of change. We need Authentic Leadership. An Authentic Leader is one who is wise, erudite, discerning, empathetic and pragmatic; a change-maker; a person who is resilient and can navigate exponential change with agility and nimbleness; a person who can generate impact and change at scale; a person who is proximate to the people he leads and one who is steeped in antifragility strategies.

Above all such a leader should be humane, humble, exhibiting authenticity and inspiring the necessary trust and psychological safety that drives shared learning and intelligence, resulting in enhanced collective performance and decision-making and leading to a better future for all he or she is responsible for. An Authentic Leader is a transformatory agent and sees opportunity in a crisis.

The Covid 19 crisis and its concomitant disruptive lifestyle transformation has made us too aware that change, by its nature, leaves people and organisations feeling confused, vulnerable, and fractured at a time when resilience, cohesion, and collaboration are necessary to perform at the highest levels. It is instances of this nature, especially in a rapidly changing environment that an Authentic Leader can provide psychological safety, shared purpose, and distributed cognition as powerful drivers of leadership. The days of the picture perfect hero as a solo, individualistic leader who inspires certainty in a deterministic way forward are over.

Linear and provincial thinking can never adapt fast enough, leaving traditional leadership increasingly ill-equipped to deal with rapidly changing environments. The frequency of these new disruptions can be likened to a hurricane where one has to navigate multiple threats of a calamitous situation almost simultaneously.

Conventional leadership will not be able to deal with the crisis at hand, adequately. An Authentic Leader on the other will be able to handle the situation with agility and nimbleness, at the same time inspiring necessary shared learning and collaborative intelligence, resulting in enhanced collective performance in coping with exponential change.

In a world where change is perpetual, pervasive, and exponential, leaders need to continuously evolve themselves in order for their organisation to evolve and grow. Rather than bending the organisation to the will of the leader, a leader must be willing to instead exhibit humility and flexibility and change according to what the circumstances require. Leadership and their teams, and their organisations must continually learn, update mental-maps, deploy new tools, and course-correct based on the best ideas and practices.

In the age of massive disruptions the leadership will have to come to terms with the fact that no one person or organisation can master all knowledge across all domains, no single person or organisation can master enough skills in breadth, depth, or pace, to keep up with the exponential changes. Instead, learning will have to be inspired by leadership, reinforced by culture of an organisation, occur across a variety of domains, coordinated through the whole and shared openly and actionably to create the broader picture of the ‘new normal’.

Navigating perpetual, pervasive, and exponential change is the quintessential test of effective leadership in this era. Leaders, teams, and organizations that don’t skilfully navigate change will fail. Mastering this new reality requires fundamental enhancements to our collective capabilities. Authentic Leadership enables the creation of perpetual, pervasive, and exponential capacity building necessary for managing the era of exponential change.

Finally we need to remember that the challenge of rapid change is that it amplifies the pressures on leaders, teams, and organisations to evolve and adapt faster, or become irrelevant. Change that used to take place over years and decades is now taking place in weeks or days. Historically we have never confronted change of this magnitude or at this pace. Authentic Leadership is a framework that enables accelerated adaptation in a wise and humane way and builds into its structure the imperative for leaders, teams, and organisations to continuously evolve in order to overcome the challenges of disruptive change.

Dr Ridwaan Asvat is the Director for Operations at Regent Business School and writes in his personal capacity
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