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How Complexity Killed the Rock Star CEO

Work Ahead
Code Halos
Digital Age
Robot Becoming First Company Director
Digital Darwinism
Collaborative Leadership

How Complexity Killed the Rock Star CEO

Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity: VUCA. Yes, we’ve all heard it before, and no doubt we’ll hear...

6 Minutes Read

Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity: VUCA. Yes, we’ve all heard it before, and no doubt we’ll hear it again. The term that originated from the U.S. Army War College has now wormed its way into modern business. Its relevance is plain to see, from Brexit and Trump, to the customer experience lessons learned from viral social media-induced brand damage (“United Breaks Guitars,” etc.).

But spare a thought for the current generation of leaders having to rethink how leadership works when faced with an economic shift as profound as the one we map out in our Work Ahead series.

Recently, Duke CE ran its Leadership in a Digital World event in London, where we had the pleasure of immersing ourselves in a world of thought leadership around ... well, leadership! A key theme that resonated throughout the event, and one that leaned heavily on the VUCA term, was that of “Digital Darwinism:” The application of technology is creating a “natural selection” in the business world, with the “winners” being those organizations that embrace technology and drive data innovation.

In this age of Digital Darwinism, leadership and a leadership context are more important than ever, as the problems facing businesses are complex, and driven by diverse and multiple inputs. Organizations that have successfully reinvented themselves in the digital mold, like GE and Siemens, really embody the leadership characteristics needed.

But as business grows more complex, so does leadership. We find ourselves in a world where our digitally connected lives create confusion for organizations as they try and engage with and get to know us through digital channels. By harnessing customer Code Halos, through big data, analytics and automation, businesses can begin to extract the benefits of digital, but today this is often more a case of survival than success. The failure to get digital alignment right will ultimately result in a solid “Uberization.” Take Blockbuster, Kodak, BlackBerry, Comet. The list is endless of business that haven’t adapted or kept up. Therefore, leaders need to be able to pivot their organization to adapt just to keep up.

Clearly leadership is critical to succeed in this digital age. But what does leadership look like today? What are the key traits that will define successful leaders going forward?

Well, it pays to look back at what previously worked. If we look at leaders such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or even earlier leaders such as John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, what comes to mind? Well they were all visionary leaders and “ideas men” who, by sheer force of will, could connect the dots and cajole staff to execute on their ideas.

But those were different times. The challenges of an analog world were more complicated than complex – and the difference between these two adjectives is vital. Complication refers to a high level of difficulty that is still solvable, while complexity entails systems that have emergent properties (or behaviors) that make the challenge non-solvable.

(Side note: It’s a pity we can’t use data science and AI to make sense of this leadership complexity... and if you think that’s a long way coming, read here how Amazon and Alibaba are beginning to use AI to craft and fine-tune strategy. Moreover, at the start of the year, we read about a robot becoming the world’s first company director – is this a sign of things to come for leaders?)

In this complex world, leaders require a new arsenal of capabilities and behavioral characteristics to succeed. Fundamentally, they need to be continuously self-learning and retraining. Particularly interesting, strong leadership today is not solely about intellectual capability but rather about getting the team to pivot in a cohesive manner.

Take communications service providers that have been made redundant by Netflix. The writing was on the wall for ages that streaming was to be the next wave of media consumption leaders in this field didn’t need an intellectual lightning bolt to figure that one out. The challenge, though, was in pivoting divisions of the organization to deliver on this new, more efficient model of delivery.

As such, it’s vital for leaders to become brokers of capability within their own team. What do I mean by this? Well, rather than be a leader at the front and center of an organization, leaders today need to utilize and “broker” the unique capabilities of each member of their team to best success. This needs to go beyond the C-suite – an ecosystem of collaborative leadership based on variable skill sets needs to pervade the organization from the top down.

An environment of “Yes, and ...” not “Yes, but...” needs to be at the forefront of the leadership agenda. And with increasingly shortened lifecycles of CEOs in public organizations, it’s imperative to develop a cohesive team, rather than lead in a Moses type manner, for the long-term health of an organization.

The writing’s on the wall: The age of the rock star CEO is gone. Do I mean that charisma, drive, vision and magnetism are traits we no longer require in leaders? Of course not! But no longer are these the primary traits that are needed. The top leaders of today and tomorrow will embrace diversity of opinions, skills, temperaments and backgrounds – and use these traits to fill gaps in strategic direction and tactical execution.

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