Leaders don’t always have the answers we’re looking for. So what is leadership for and what should leaders think, do and imagine to address the new challenges we face? Perhaps the answer is not about knowing more, but about becoming more.
I was recently invited to join a three-day conversation at the Peter Lougheed Leadership Institute at the Banff Centre in Western Canada on the future work of leadership. Specifically we were asked to consider what leaders would need to be, think, do and imagine in order to address the challenges of the next 35 years.
One common theme that emerged is that the primary lens for leadership will shift from the factory to the farm. In other words, leaders in the future will not only be influencing economies, they will be stewards of ecosystems.
As such they will be less like the ‘captains of industry ‘ and more like the mayors of cities who engage large complex networks of stakeholders, neighborhoods and citizens in the fulfillment of the aspirations of the collective will of the ‘polis’ or the public square.
Drawing upon the metaphor of the mayor over the traditional masculine image of the general also represents the triumph of a narrative of hope and possibility over one of power and control. Mayors are successful not only for managing the bottom line but for creating livable and thriving communities based on an ethic of beauty and hospitality.
They instinctively understand that neighborhoods and cities are networks of innovation. Like a garden, they offer dynamic environments for pragmatism and problem-solving as well as for cooperation, networking, creativity and innovation. The mayor knows they need to reach for this highest aspiration while, in same breath, ensuring that the potholes are fixed and the garbage is picked up on time.
In this context we will need new enlivening images for the work of leadership in the future. These will draw less from the combative styles of war rooms and measuring factory production and more towards leaders who see themselves as partners and co- creators, capable and willing to both accept and learn how life works rather than believing that they are the overlords of it.
In this context, as we look to the future of leadership we may observe the following:
Accepting our own vulnerability and not knowing
I have noticed how much more leaders are willing to accept their own vulnerability and not knowing. By vulnerability I mean both that they accept that they are no longer the experts and don’t have all the answers and also that they allow themselves to be touched by others.
Traditionally to take up the heroic quest of the strong independent leader has often involved shutting down their emotional life including their needs for rest, harmony, balance and a healthy and an intuitive life - needs that are often neglected as they strive to achieve the impossible each day. They forget that the gardens that thrive require fertile ground and soil that needs to lie fallow from time to time.
Anticipating disruption and discontinuity
In a recent executive leadership program we had an aikido instructor who said; “Remember the purpose here is not to avoid being thrown off balance: it is noticing how quickly you come back to balance.”
In a few weeks I will be co-leading a workshop with a colleague Bob Stilger. Bob has committed the past few years to helping communities throughout Japan find a new balance following the disruptive impacts of a devastating earthquake and tsunami.
In our workshop invitation Bob and I wrote:
How can a disaster serve as the springboard for building resilient communities? What do we do when things fall apart? Can we see this as an opportunity to start afresh and build the lives and communities we want? How can beauty and a sense of place offer a sense of stability and centeredness in a changing and chaotic world?
As poet Gerard De Nerval once wrote, “When you gather to plan, the universe is not there.” How do we go beyond planning? How do we step into the unexpected? How to we find our way forward when the lives we have known disappear?
Seeking continuous renewal and self -discovery
The unimaginable is happening just about every day now .Is it possible that through crisis we are reminded that to be effective leaders we need to be leaders to ourselves first? How would this help us avoid consuming our energy in the busyness of the everyday and instead take time for our own regeneration and renewal so that we have the reserves to absorb the shocks that that come from the unexpected? And how do we put our lives together after the unimaginable has happened?
The journey to awe: learning to life more beautifully
One of the over- arching conclusions that our working group at the Banff Centre came to was that leadership is less about what we know - everyone has access to the encyclopedic knowledge on the internet now - and more on who we are.
We lead through our presence. So the future work of leadership will involve a continuous search for higher purpose, authenticity, self -awareness and greater presence. Or as one colleague put it, ‘taking the Journey to Awe’.
A sense of Awe alters how we see. It invites us to take in and enjoy each moment through stretching our perception of time. It is the quest towards creating more beauty, accepting greater mystery, being open to moments of enchantment and achieving a greater sense of generosity, value, happiness and well-being
Recently I viewed a compelling new documentary by actor/director Ethan Hawke titled Seymour: An Introduction. It is a deeply moving and compassionate portrait of the mastery of craft and the art of living life more beautifully through the eyes, heart and hands of New York concert pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein.
Throughout the documentary we discover his how his Journey to Awe involves marveling at the significance of each human feeling and experience. Through his devotion to realizing his own life purpose, we realize that his commitment to learning how to play the piano better includes learning how to become a better leader and teacher and even becoming a better human being.
And this is the paradox. There may be answers but they are not to be found in the familiar territory of the sciences and technology. Instead the keys to living a more expansive life are to be found in philosophy, in music, in art, beauty, poetry and the language of life.
So the key to the leadership work of the future may be held by those who find the path from knowing more to becoming more. To be the best version of ourselves - the version that is willing to commit to taking the Journey to Awe and in so doing be the ‘mayor’ of their own domain in order to craft a more generous and hospitable world.