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Relevance for Leaders in the AI Age

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Today’s leaders must constantly update their survival skills if they want to stay on the island. Three capabilities to sharpen in today’s fast-moving digital world are adaptability, continuous learning, and empathy.

Leaders who can adapt

The digital revolution continues to highlight the value of collaboration, engagement and clarity in the workplace: the old-school ‘command and control’ leadership style is fading away as an older generation leaves the workforce and digital natives take its place. Today’s leaders and tomorrow’s are right in the middle of this transformation.

One important outcome of this generational transition is that leaders are expected to adapt to the evolving needs of their collaborators, teams and customers: leaders need to be even more flexible and versatile. But how should they adapt?

As a starting point, Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model reminds us that there is no single best style for leading individuals, teams or organizations. Leaders need above all to be flexible and open to change, a bit like parents who adapt their parenting styles as their children mature. Blanchard suggests four broad leadership styles that offer varying degrees of direction and support:

  • A telling or directive approach. Communication is top-down and the leader basically tells others what to do and how to do it. This can be relevant for people who are just starting in their jobs: they often need to be told things.
  • Coaching or mentoring. This approach relies more on two-way communication, influence, questions, and dialogue. It can be effective when workers have gained some experience but still need a lot of guidance.
  • A participative approach. This is more peer-like, with collaborative decisions, on-going support, and less overt direction. Skills and confidence have grown, but the team member still needs support from the leader at times.
  • Delegation. The leader remains involved and ultimately accountable, but processes and work responsibilities are delegated. The team member is quite independent and comfortable with delegation.
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A blend of these styles is often best, and nuanced judgment is required. Each approach has its time and place, and the leader should strive not to rely too much on one go-to style. It can be tempting to fall into a ‘comfort zone’ and default to the leadership style that is most comfortable. That may be easier and less taxing for the leader, but it does not necessarily serve those who are being led.

The reality is that people learn and develop constantly, and as they progress their needs change. If they are to continue to grow as productive, motivated professionals, they need their leaders to grow with them. Their leaders need to adapt to them, not the other way around.

Leaders who learn continuously

Not so long ago people were categorized as ‘manual workers’ who used their hands or machines to perform labor, or ‘knowledge workers’ who manipulated information for a living. But today knowledge is increasingly a commodity: all we need to access it is a computer or smart phone. The old nomenclature no longer holds, and the demands on today’s workers have changed as well.

Now a crucial survival skill is the capacity to learn quickly and continuously, applying recent insights to evolving situations and dynamic environments. The people who do this well remain relevant and constitute a valued category, the ‘learning workers’.

What sets learning workers apart is knowing how to learn. Rather than rely on a static set of skills or knowledge, they learn ‘on the run’, adapting knowledge and insights to emerging opportunities. This is clearly a valuable trait in an evolving, highly-competitive environment.

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Simply knowing things is no longer enough to lead: executives need to be continuous learners to keep up with change and to model adaptability for their teams and organizations. Four tips for continuous learning:

  • Ask questions and ask for help. Egos and concerns about status can make this difficult, but good learners ask questions. Share your knowledge freely and make an effort to learn from others.
  • Learn from people who are more experienced or knowledgeable. A popular example is ‘reverse mentoring’, with tech-savvy collaborators helping older executives learn about technology. Seek out people who know things.
  • Actively seek new knowledge and perspectives through courses, on-line seminars, or self-study. Opening our minds to new ideas and interacting with different people is enriching and encourages adaptation. Be curious.
  • Try different ways of doing things. Habit, age and inertia make it easy to find that ‘comfort zone’ and do things the same way every time. But that doesn’t encourage learning or adaptability. Be open to new approaches.

Leaders who demonstrate empathy

The digital revolution can be a double-edged sword: a powerful blade that can either strengthen or weaken relationships between businesses, employ­ees, and consumers. In the tug-of-war between speed and cost containment on one side and our human need to feel connected on the other, loyalty, trust and engagement are too often the casualties. Three suggestions to help make you and your enterprise more empathic:

  • Cultivate listening and tolerance in your organization. Making the effort to encourage listening and tolerance – and modeling these for colleagues and customers – will build empathy, trust, and motivation.
  • Make time for conversations. People want to be heard, and having genuine conversations is one of the best ways to build empathy and trust. But conversations require time, attention, and focus, and those are often in short supply. Make the effort.
  • Consider empathy an element of your firm’s value chain. Where can AI and machine learning be put to best use in your organization? Where do human interaction and empathy make you distinctive and confer a competitive advantage? Empathy, trust and ‘personal touch’ can be important differentiators in today’s digitizing economy, and they may actually be strategic assets in your value chain. Think it through.
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Today’s virtual world demands that leaders become more flexible, quick to learn, and collaborative. An adaptive approach to leadership, greater learning agility, and focused efforts to build empathy and trust will help you stay on the island. 

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Mark Brown
Mark Brown works with executives who are striving to become more effective leaders. An American based in Europe since 1994, Mark has worked extensively as a facilitator, leadership consultant, and executive coach across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas, with individuals of 75 nationalities. He is currently a director of a Portuguese company providing tri-lingual leadership development to firms worldwide. Mark holds an MBA from Solvay Business School (ULB) in Brussels, an MA from SAIS - Johns Hopkins in Washington, D.C., a diploma from Universidad de Belgrano in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and a BA from the University of Florida. A highly experienced executive coach and mentor, he holds a PCC from the International Coach Federation (ICF). Mark has published numerous articles on executive coaching, leadership development, and business strategy and published his first book in 2016, ‘The Empathic Enterprise: Winning by Staying Human in A Digital Age’. He works comfortably in English, Spanish and Portuguese and resides with his wife in Lisbon, Portugal.

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