This article by Finn Jackson is the fifth in a series examining the future of leadership in a changing world. It considers opportunities in times of change.
Our search for the future of leadership has shown us how vision, values, and purpose enable us not only to cope with change but to use change to become stronger. In a world of constant change this brings competitive advantage.
To achieve this we need to create an inspiring vision. That vision will be stronger if we first widen our options by looking for the opportunities that exist in any crisis.
The previous article showed how to find those opportunities. This article discusses how to choose between them.
Find What You Love
Having identified more options to move forward, a churning world makes it more difficult to choose which one to implement: when the future is unpredictable how can we know which way forward will turn out best?
Steve Jobs had a simple answer to this question. He was an imperfect human being like the rest of us but he achieved more in his short life than many of us do. Describing what enabled him to recover and find new direction after being fired by the very company he had founded, he said, “You’ve got to find what you love… If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
In a time of change this makes sense. Love is what will bring the inspiration that keeps us going when difficulties arise – and keep our employees, customers, and investors going too.
But love can be difficult to convert into a business plan. And what if we haven’t found what we love yet? Are there other approaches that future leaders can apply?
Benchmarking is the process of looking for existing best practices in other industries, then adapting them to meet our own needs. The best practice example for achieving results in highly unpredictable circumstances must surely be elite army units. Special forces operating behind enemy lines have different objectives from you and me but they know how to accomplish specific, measurable goals in highly uncertain, even hostile environments.
They achieve their goals, despite those difficulties, by defining two things:
- First, as well as knowing their primary objective (to capture the target, gather intelligence, or whatever) they also make sure that every team member understands the wider purpose of the mission: the role it plays as part of the larger campaign. Then, when things turn out differently from expected, they can easily adapt to carry out other, independent actions that support the same aims.
- Second, each unit is given rules of engagement. These define what actions (such as returning fire) are appropriate and inappropriate under different circumstances. This keeps the unit focused on its highest priorities, maximising the chances of success.
By defining these two simple principles of conduct – purpose and rules of engagement – elite army units are able to go into highly unpredictable, even hostile environments and adapt to changing circumstances in ways that maximise their potential to achieve the outcomes they seek.
As we move forward to accomplish our objectives in a changing world we, too, will face unpredictable circumstances. The equivalents of purpose and rules of engagement for us are our purpose and values: these define the underlying intent behind what we are doing and the way we choose to act in the world. And, unlike the army units, we get to choose them for ourselves:
- To find your values, think back to times when you have felt most alive, in flow, operating at the maximum of your potential, ‘doing what you are here to do’. Ask yourself what values you were upholding in those moments. These are your core values.
- To find your purpose, identify your two best qualities and how you love applying them. Then define what an ideal world looks like to you. Your purpose is to create whatever an ideal world looks like to you, by applying your two best qualities in the ways you most love.
When we define our purpose and values in these ways we are effectively defining what we love, and making it actionable.
Then when we work in organisations that align with our purpose and values we feel “alive, in flow, applying our best qualities in the ways we most love to build what our ideal world looks like.” No wonder Gallup repeatedly finds that companies with highly engaged workforces significantly outperform their peers. No wonder Google provides “an environment where people can flourish and grow,” then commercialises the best of whatever emerges.
People who work in organisations that align with their purpose and values are not just building the organisation, they are building themselves: fulfilling their deepest psychological drives, realising their full potential, self-actualising. And when people and organisation work together in this way they become a mechanism for bringing their shared purpose and values alive in the world.
Making Your Choice
We now know how future leaders will decide which direction to move forward in: they will choose the option that aligns best with their purpose and values, given the conditions they face. They will follow what they love.
In other words, like a sailor on the sea, if the weather is calm and the wind set fair, they will choose the course that leads most directly towards the purpose or port they are aiming for. But if the wind is against them then they will tack and jibe across it until the wind changes. Their short term direction might appear disjointed but their long term destination (purpose) remains unchanged.
This approach combines focus, determination, and adaptability. In an uncertain world it gives future leaders the best chance of achieving the outcomes that matter most to them. And it reinforces their values and purpose by example, attracting more people who share those values and purpose, and creating an organisation that uses change to become stronger.
Our search for the future of leadership has now uncovered five steps towards creating organisations that use change to become stronger.
All that is left is to make sure they can implement their chosen way forward.
The next article will describe two more skills or abilities for achieving this. A final article will then review what we have learned about the future of leadership and examine its implications.
This is the fifth in a series of articles examining the future of leadership in a changing world.
Finn Jackson is a consultant and coach who helps clients generate lasting solutions to issues of strategy, leadership, and change.
His first book, The Escher Cycle , was called “A unified theory of business” and “A blueprint for winning any game your business chooses to play.”
His second book, The Churning, Inner Leadership, has been called “The inspiring manual to improve our VUCAbility,” “A book which should be on every change-maker’s bookshelf,” and “an ethical framework for business decision makers, based on emotional maturity.”