Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Changing Face of Leadership in the 21st Century: Part Three

Foresight – Facing Disruption with Flexible Determination

In the last post we looked at the vital role that Picture plays in 21st century leadership. Beyond imagining the future and what is possible, our 21st century leaders take immediate action to “step into” that picture and begin to live it as soon as they possibly can. These leaders do not stand by and point towards the future; they move there and act as a beacon to others to join them.

Disruption and Discontinuity – The Age of Volatility

So how do you do this when the world around you, geopolitics, the business environment, markets, the social context you operate in, is changing, not just rapidly, but in sudden bursts, leaps and twists that are impossible to consistently predict?

The type of climbing I am known for can best be described as Real Alpine Adventure. It is comprised of four elements: difficulty, danger, exposure and a high degree of commitment. Exposure means there is no possibility for outside help once you commit to the climb and it increases the higher up you are, the more remote your location, and the greater the difficulties encountered. The outcome is always uncertain, especially as in pioneering new routes, I am constantly encountering the unknown.

I asked my colleague, Global Trends Specialist Robert McGarvey** for his take on this: “If there is one key leadership take away from Jim’s efforts in the Himalayas it’s that success in conditions of dangerous uncertainty depend upon flexible determination.

“It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen, but a leader should prepare for alternative futures that are much different than today. Complete your formal plan, of course, but more importantly become more strategic as an organization. That means have a plan B, C and even a survival plan D where the unexpected is modeled and adjustments are anticipated in detail.” 

On our Everest Light expedition, we had a plan A and a plan B, and a survival plan C. We were determined to bring everyone home alive, and so our Plan C consisted of keeping support climbers on the mountain within reach of the summit team, so help was available if they got into difficulty.

Our plan A was the west ridge direct route, which fulfilled our desire to pioneer a new route to the summit. As time ticked by, we realized this route was consuming our resources faster than we could afford – we would exhaust our supplies and human capacity before we could mount a summit bid. So we had a plan B in our pockets – still a new route, but bypassing the worst of the West Ridge direct route that was eating us alive.

Even with all our planning and preparation, we were constantly challenged to dig deeper and deeper for the determination to carry on. Getting the summit team into position for their one-day final push almost defeated us – it was so windy, so cold, and working without oxygen in the Death Zone so debilitating, thoughts of surrender were getting the upper hand. This is where our team approach came through for us – Kevin Doyle, who was climbing (and sometimes crawling) in support, declared he was not about to give up, having come this far, even though it meant he would have no chance to summit himself, and he was so fiery about it that he reignited the determination of the summit climbers and they got to the high camp site, set up the tent and tucked in for the night. The summit bid was back on track.

Summit day was long and gruelling, and Sharon and Dwayne got to the top very late in the day – they had to descend to their tent in the dark. Plan C came into play the next day when, dehydrated and exhausted, they were met on the way down by Laurie Skreslet, who brought them oxygen and hot liquids. Their chances of getting down to a safe altitude on their own were pretty slim. I have been grateful ever since that we remained committed to plan C

Plan C in action. Sharon and Dwayne, exhausted and dehydrated were met by Laurie who brought them hot liquids and oxygen and helped them get down to a safer altitude. Without this support they would have been at serious risk of dying.
For leaders at all levels, your organization will face adversity in the future, maybe orders of magnitude greater than you anticipate. To be among the winners you’ll need all the flexibility and determination you can muster. Now is the time to prepare your mind and your organization for success in a volatile future.

Learning for 21st Century Leaders in an Age of Disruption:

To foresee effectively in disruptive environments, the leaders’ mindset needs to embrace multiple awarenesses:

Process awareness -- attention to the ongoing work and what we are doing right now;

Situational awareness -- attention to the operating environment and the complex of active components that influence ongoing activity;

Emergent awareness -- attention upon what is emerging around the edges: the subtle signals that come quietly in on a tangent, that are hard to detect because we are not specifically looking for them–.

These three levels of awareness were in constant play for me on Everest – keeping the major goal in mind, addressing all the myriad operational details and the shifting influence of weather, snow conditions, the state of mind of each climber, the ebbs and flows in relationship among the team members, a constantly-changing constellation of challenge and opportunity.

But there is one more dimension to this arsenal of awareness and it is the key: self-awareness, attunement to self: a continuous attention to one’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and how one is reacting to changes in the environment, or to differing, even conflicting perspectives. A leader’s beliefs, often unconsciously held, have been reinforced by success. When circumstances radically change, the tendency is to fall back on the old success model, the beliefs and assumptions that worked in the past, often with disastrous results.

Lack of self-awareness has killed far too many climbers. Without self-awareness, we can become blinkered and overconfident, the key weakness of so many leaders.

For more about the role of self-awareness in leadership, check out my Leadership Coaching Model at:

** Robert D. McGarvey, Global Trends Specialist. Keep in touch with Robert’s latest thinking at:

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