As I write this article, I’m excited to reflect on the 2017 ILA global conference theme, Leadership in Turbulent Times, and share wisdom gleaned from 12 VoiceAmerica interviews I conducted in Brussels at the conference last October. This is the second year I have interviewed keynote presenters, top speakers, political leaders, board members, and organizers in the role of media partner. The interviews resulting from this collaboration began airing January 9, 2018 (See sidebar for complete schedule).
With a necessary focus right now on terrorist attacks and geopolitical instability across continents, and with the increase of populism as well as the impact of the rapid pace of technological advances, the logical theme of the conference was “Leadership in Turbulent Times.” It sounds ominous, right? The word turbulence typically creates anxiety and fear because it is never associated with something promising or hopeful. It is defined as conflict, confusion, and unsteady movement. I’d like, however, to offer a new way to think about turbulence. Change is never a result of stagnation, and only by churning ideas and challenging old schemata can we evolve. Turbulence, therefore, offers new opportunities across a broad range of sectors. While the challenges are more complex, and the world feels less safe, we have greater opportunities to make positive change than at any other time in recent history.
Turbulence is an ongoing condition to be managed, not a problem to be solved. Here is a summary of my key take-aways from presentations, conversations, and twelve hours of interviews I conducted for VoiceAmerica.
- Leadership is an interplay between our individual purpose and values, our behaviors, organizational culture, and systems and processes. It requires continual adjustment to maintain alignment between all four elements, an adjustment that is akin to a finely choreographed dance. It is ongoing and requires continuous attention and expertise. All aspects of the dance start with leadership having a self-awareness of purpose and values. This self-awareness provides the inner compass from which the leader leads the organization.
- Purpose and self-awareness are the foundation of effective leadership. Self-awareness is not an activity to accomplish once. It is a practice to be done regularly and routinely. When asked, most people want to make the world better than they found it. Leaders who can translate this sense of purpose into their unique commitment to action in the world are more effective as leaders because they have a North Star to guide their actions. When they share this purpose with those they lead, they build trust and inspire commitment.
- Reflection takes time — and it is a requirement. Reflection and meditation provide a physiological advantage by impacting the neural network in your brain. One of the precepts of self-awareness is the “moment of awareness” when we take a deep breath, pause, and ask ourselves what outcome we want in a moment. This brief pause allows us to be fully present and clear before we take our next step. The ability to pause and reflect, for a moment or longer, allows leaders to stay centered and grounded in times of high pressure.
- Leaders have many roles, including chief culture officer. Culture leaders are akin to musical conductors. Through their actions and attitude, they set the tone of the organization and the underlying agreements supporting that tone. In doing so, leaders create the culture in organizations that supports the purpose and values they claim to hold. Organizations living their purpose do not show it in a poster on the wall but through the underlying rhythm and music of a strong dance performance. The conductor becomes the music that inspires, sets the tempo and tone, and informs action. If the rhythm changes, so do the movements of the dancers. A strong culture offers a competitive advantage and makes successful organizations hard or impossible to emulate. One recommendation I heard repeatedly is that leaders need to create a culture of openness and safety. Awareness of the culture provides leaders with multiple perspectives so that they can adjust quickly to changes in the environment.
- Leaders need to inspire followership and know when to follow. Leaders are those formally recognized for their leadership role, some of them have the title of leader and others do not. We rarely talk about leaders as followers. Most leaders report to someone including boards of directors. Leaders need to learn to both lead and follow. They also need to teach those who follow them how they would like to be followed. Back to the metaphor of the dance, each dancer is different, the interplay between different leaders and followers is unique even with the same music. Another topic generally not discussed, but highlighted at this conference, is the idea of ethical dissent — when we chose not to follow and how we courageously hold our leaders accountable.
- People want to perform effectively. Organizational systems need to support peoples’ positive intentions and skills. Spend less time creating systems to weed out shirkers and poor performers and more time creating a culture that enables people with purpose to do the work that fulfills them and that concurrently serves the organization’s mission and success.
- Teams have become far more important in the current environment. Effective teams are based on the members’ ability to communicate effectively, often across the globe. A key factor in effective team interactions is building relationships with individuals. This is best done in person and, then, can be sustained remotely. There is no substitute for strong relationships when navigating complex work.
- Effective communication and learning organizations have become more important with the complexity of the challenges and geographic dispersion of teams. Communication requires both strong listening skills and the ability to speak simply and concisely, including attending to conflict and complexity when necessary. It also means unflinching accountability. Leaders must be accountable for their role when problems arise, and look forward with vision of the future rather than looking back and fault finding. It is important to learn from challenges and mistakes and remain agile in the face of ongoing change. Vision forward and data analysis backward creates learning organizations.
- Organizations must align their purpose with that of the stakeholders within as well as with clients, and the local and global community. Making a profit is the fuel for company survival, but it is not the fuel to thrive. Companies must find the intersection between company success and social action in order to make a positive profit while, at the same time, making a positive social impact. John Heiser, the President & Chief Operating Officer of Magnetrol International, gave a beautiful example of hiring autistic adults to perform tasks for which they are best qualified. This approach allows the company to attract and retain people whose skills match their jobs as well as provide meaningful work for people in the community who often don’t find opportunities. He gave several examples of how companies could align their interests with those of the community.
- Global peace and security depend on recognizing our innate nature to be peaceful. When we follow our true nature, we are peaceful beings. Conference presenters and attendees I interacted with talked about the intersection of creating individual conditions in which people can express their inner goodness and, at the same time, create cultures and systems that promote peaceful work and lives.
I left the conversations feeling hopeful that compassionate, wise, and highly-successful academics, executives, politicians, and military leaders are sharing their best thinking with one another at the conference and beyond. They forge and renew relationships, and identify new opportunities to collaborate to make positive change. This forum is one in which leadership as an art and science evolves through people and their interactions.
I hope this article inspires you to listen to select interviews or, even better, the entire interview series! Interviews from 2016 are being used in academic and professional leadership development programs around the world. I encourage you to share this information freely. This complimentary set of interviews are content rich, exposing listeners to the subtleties required to build leadership acumen, and give insight into those who have made a commitment to work and to live at the intersection between exceptional research and practice in leadership.
Photos (top-bottom): Maureen Metcalf and Ira Chaleff; Metcalf and George Papandreou; Éliane Ubalijoro; Metcalf and John Heiser; Metcalf and Mike Hardy.
A version of this article originally appeared in Forbes.com and is reprinted with permission of the copyright holder.
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