In the turbulent environment in which businesses around the world are currently operating, organisational transformation has become imperative. No longer can outdated postal system providers be expecting growth year on year through mail deliveries – this is now largely handled electronically through e-mail and social networks. No longer can traditional banking exist entirely on its own – computers and hand-held devices have primarily taken its place. Retailers have had to extend their services to online shopping platforms, with new distributions methodologies. Authors and publishers have had to consider publishing electronically, the same being true for the music and film industries. Client service expectations have placed new demands on employees to understand and serve “virtual” clients. Stationery providers are having to continually reinvent themselves to stay in business. Greeting card companies have had to provide digital cards for customers or become extinct. These changes and many more have taken place just over the past three or so decades – on the one hand, opening the door for ingenuity, initiative and innovation, but on the other hand, pressurising business, and particularly employees, with stressful environments and new skill expectations.

Organisational transformation is certainly necessary, but coping with and successfully leading the same requires above-average leadership skills. Organisations that need to adapt during turbulent times cannot solely engineer change through purely technical approaches (like restructuring and re-engineering). They fundamentally need a new kind of leadership capability to reinterpret possibilities, reframe problems and reformat operations. This continuous process of applying a new approach to thinking and leadership behaviour is counter-intuitive – as leaders, we tend to stay with what we know best and what we do well. We even question too much reorganising and rather attempt to focus the business on producing well, but often getting less than expected results. Finding successful strategies is proving to be more elusive and operational decisions that were once clear-cut are becoming more complicated and ambiguous. Leadership is working harder, is overwhelmed, endures long hours and is even becoming cynical.

A recent Centre for Creative Leadership study found that “the four most important skills/capabilities needed by organisations in the future – leading people, strategic planning, inspiring commitment and managing change – are among the weakest competencies for today’s individual leaders”(The Leadership Gap, June 2009). Furthermore, leadership’s very nature is changing – approaches focusing on flexibility, collaboration, crossing boundaries and collective leadership are increasingly more important than the basics of reaching the production and budget expectations.

Some of the new skillsets for leadership then could possibly include the following:

  • Stretchable minds to stay abreast of a rapidly changing reality – in our world, the value of investment in technology development is exponentially larger than any form of investment in human understanding or development. Executives will have to take special care to grow the way they think, collaborate and network.
  • Radically transformed mind-sets and not just acquiring new skills – the whole organisation is required to adopt a new approach to business and not just manage the change. Leadership and the human resources function should focus on working on the collective mind-set of the organisation.
  • Change in leadership behaviour – personal transformation precedes team or organisational transformation. Leaders should be demonstrating the readiness and personal commitment needed to successfully implement organisational change.
  • The ability to unearth and transform hidden assumptions and beliefs – not dealing with the underlying beliefs that control the organisation renders the business unchangeable, maintains it in a state of inertia, encourages self-deception and prevents any meaningful change.
  • Interdependent and collaborative leadership practices – a collective activity that embraces mutual inquiry, learning and a capacity to work with complex challenges. Here, authority, control and responsibility are shared based on strategic competence for the whole organisation. Mistakes are embraced as learning opportunities.
  • Communication, engagement, performance management and coaching – the ability to articulate vision and challenge deficient paradigms, the emotional intelligence to communicate feelings effectively, the candour to confront poor performance, a compassion for employees and the coaching ability to aid their development.

Facilitating organisational transformation is a leadership skill. Leaders need to pair leadership culture to the operational need – an agile business strategy, for example, requires a flexible leadership approach; complexity and challenging issues need an interdependent leadership style that relies on all available skills to solve problems. Results can be achieved when leadership develops and transforms leadership talent throughout the organisation to the expected level of capability.

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