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The Responsive Leader

By Erik Korsvik Østergaard

I have not met a single leader in the past 2-3 years, who did not know and feel, that the times are changing.

The paradigm shift of leadership is omnipresent, and clearly driven by advances in society, arts, literature, music – and naturally by the immense development in technology. This is referred to as the fourth industrial revolution; or the first digital revolution. The question is, how does the modern leader think and act in this turmoil of change? One way of answering this is by describing the mindset of the responsive, modern leader.

First and foremost, the modern leader is a responsive leader. That is, it’s a leader that has “try, inspect, adapt” deeply engraved in his behaviour and thinking. The responsive leader is fully aware of the threats of a business world in tremendous development, but also see it as an unprecedented opportunity to rethink and redesign the existing structures and practises of the business model, the organization, and the delivery methods. On one hand, you’re under constant pressure to be fast enough to develop innovative solutions before your competitors, who might come from unfamiliar places or even from seemingly unrelated industries. On the other hand, you have the possibility to exploit both the new technological landmarks and the changes in attitude to work to the benefit of your customers, your employees, and yourself.

The responsive leader seeks input and encourages all employees to be part of this curious and explorational way of adapting to the future; and to shaping the future. The leaders allow the employees to experiment to gather learning moments, and strives to make everybody a part of this movement. It is not enough that innovative thinking happens in R&D or in special project labs. The approach to shaping the future should be something, that everybody is part of.

This “try, inspect, adapt”-approach applies to many different dimensions of leadership, from strategy to innovation, from culture to organization.

Classic strategy execution is being replaced by something that is way more adaptable, and embraces the fact that we are less able to predict the development in technology and marked demands. Instead of waterfall planning, forecasting, payback calculations, regular business reviews, and mitigation plans, more and more leaders are seeking purpose and dreams as their means of setting direction. These dreams and purposes are often formulated as problem statements instead of product deliveries or ambitions on size or capabilities. No-one cares about how big you are; instead we care about what problems you’re solving and the value you’re creating. And now you’re at it, why not aim your business at solving one of the Global Grand Challenges described by SingularityU, or supporting one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals described by the UN.

With that dream – or purpose – in place, the responsive leader instills curiosity and courage in everyone to test and experiment with approaches and technology, that can support him and the organization in solving the problems. This calls for an understanding of the innovation spectrum, from everyday LEAN improvements over business development to radical pivoting with disruptive technology. The thinking is, that by solving problems for the customers – or the employees – you work in arenas, not in industries or in product categories. It’s a holistic understanding of the customer experience, that must be the driver and motivator for all activities, services, and projects.

This also calls for a new approach to organizations, which become way more adaptable to the context needed: The flexibility of “organizing” is a clear advantage. The modern organizations are capable of organizing themselves around the problem that needs to be solved, and the value that you create. This is also called “teaming”.

This mantra of having an ambitious problem to solve as an organization is a clear lever for identity and a sense of belonging, which is also a huge part of the organizational culture in the modern workplace. We don’t go to work; instead we belong here. The modern culture is viscous, that is, clearly defined, but with a flexibility to adjust for initiatives from the inside, and for gig workers and partners from the outside. The culture is defined by trust, belonging, identity, and very frequent touchpoints between leader and employee. The monthly 1-on-1 is not fitting anymore; instead continuous dialogue and expectation management is needed. Clearly, the responsive leader has a “people first” approach, and the human skills are highly praised.

Finally, the responsive leader starts measuring success – both as leader and for the organization – in two new dimensions on top of the financial goals: Social capital, and value creation. The responsive leader wants to document and measure the development in relationships and connectivity, that is, the social capital inside the organisation, and outside with the customers and the community that they are a part of. And, tying the loop back to the problem solving, dreams, and purpose, the responsive leader monitors and measures the functional, emotional, and societal value, that they create by solving the problems.

The design of our workplace, and our understanding of what constitutes ‘work’ must change too:

More
Less

Problem solving
Product thinking

People and culture
Humans are resources

Delegation and mandate
Top-down-control

Extreme transparency
Keeping things private

Experiments
Planning

Complex thinking
Simple solutions

Exception-based work
Job-and-task orientation

“I belong here”
“I go to work”

The mindset of the modern leader is one part old-school thinking and five parts new-school thinking. The responsive leader knows how to mix-and-dose these approaches. This is a clear paradigm shift.

Erik Korsvik Østergaard is author of The Responsive Leader(LID Publishing) and a partner in Bloch&Østergaard, which he founded in 2013.

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