Over these past four months I have sat alongside a group of top executives of a large multinational corporate in an executive leadership development programme. They are grappling with the question - how do we build the company of the future while we deliver to the current business demands? This tension plays out on a business level and a personal level.
“One of the biggest challenges facing leaders today is the need to position and to enable organizations and people for adaptability in the face of increasingly dynamic and demanding environments” (Uhl-Bien & Arena, 2018, p.89).
Yet it is these very current ways which have brought success to me and the business. And the drive to stay the same conflicts with the demands for change and adaptability. And this is an inherent tension as a leader can only build the future whilst letting go of the current. Simply building new skills alone will not craft this new leadership and organisational capacity. A leader needs to recraft their leadership identity to support an emerging new organisational identity. And this requires a 'letting go' of current success and letting go of a current leader identity. And herein lies the tension.
This question is tough as it asks how will I as a leader now disrupt this current success to craft a different future business trajectory which is uncertain and not guaranteed? And alongside this it asks how will I disrupt my own leadership identity to become a more future fit leader, of which success too is not guaranteed? This calls for leadership courage to disrupt ones own identity and way of leading and organising.
This leadership identity development work requires support and a psychological safe space for personal exploration and a context of letting go, of stretch learning and experimentation in the workplace. The leader experiences new ways of leading and rebuilds an identity which says I am now a leader who can better hold ambiguity and uncertainty and I am a leader who is now not the expert, who collaborates, is curious to ongoing sense making, learning and unlearning, and who is now more nimble and adaptable.
The aim is to support the leaders to explore the question 'Who am I now as a leader in these times?'. An expanded leader identity supports a leader to be adaptable and to flow in these challenging times. "The manager (then) experiences reduced stress and feels less overwhelmed, as the role switching does not now conflict with the internal leadership identity. The leadership identity remains expanded and coherent within the individual, even if behaviours switch across contexts." (Sarah Babb, White Paper, 2019) And so it is said that a leader finds flow in building the future through letting go whilst re-crafting an expanded future fit leader identity.
Complexity means turbulence, but for leadership it is finding the flow in this.