A leadership solution: Finding our way in a changing world

By Maretha Prinsloo on September 2, 2019

©Dmitry Pichugin / adobe.stock.com


This article consists of three parts about the potential impact of leadership solutions within organisations: the first is about the emerging world of work; the second about potential leverage within that context; and the third provides practical guidelines for HR to enhance leadership solutions, thereby contributing towards sustainable organisations and societies.


Work remains an important aspect of most people’s lives. It provides an opportunity to realise one’s potential; to create meaning; and to make the world a better place for all. But how can we as HR practitioners prepare for what the future world of work may entail, and optimise its value add.

Strategies aimed at managing the future through our work-related efforts depend on our basic assumptions about the world. Will our future world require more and better of that which we already have; or do our current mental models carry the seed of their own destruction? Are we destroying the world through consumption, pollution, overpopulation and the possibility of nuclear war? Is the future of life on this planet now dependent on us, humans, or does the world still belong to the immense mass of microbes of the “deep biosphere” thereby relieving us of stewardship in this regard. Most importantly, how can human consciousness and thereby our work-related contributions, be enhanced to accommodate the requirements of our changing world and even participate in the process itself.

When considering the future, it is useful to clarify one’s position. Some guidance in this regard can be found in Sohail Inayatullah’s (2008) article, entitled “Six pillars: Futures thinking for transforming” in which he provides a conceptual map for futures studies. He identifies six basic approaches to the study of the future:

  1. a focus on the used future, as borrowed from the past or from someone else;
  2. the disowned future, entailing an unbalanced focus on a current strength or strategic angle that may limit our adaptability instead of enabling the holistic integration of wider possibilities;
  3. the identification of alternative futures and whether or not we get caught up in the straitjacket of one expected future – which may not materialise, leaving us lost for solutions;
  4. the aligned future which is constantly calibrated with the daily emergence of opportunities;
  5. our models of social change and whether we believe we have the power to create the future or whether it is merely a given; and
  6. the use of the future, which involves applying the right tools to challenge our concepts of the future, deconstruct them and consider further possibilities. According to Inayatullah, this latter kind of futures thinking creates the possibility of a paradigm shift.

In this article it is proposed that leadership holds the potential to dynamically integrate and enable the last three options [4-6], namely: considering alternative futures, creating the aligned future and benefitting from the use of the future.

Inayatullah also identifies associated images of the future: one of the evolution of human and technological progress; one of collapse, given the view that man has reached his limits; the Gaia concept of the world as a garden where everything is connected and in which social technologies can repair social and environmental damage; globalism or the integration of economies and cultures as opposed to traditionalism and dogmatism; and finally, a return to a simpler future where life is clear and stable. These metaphors all offer food for thought in considering the future of a world we are contributing to through work.


Business Disruptors and the Emerging World of Work

When considering the future requirements of work, and indeed of our world, it may be useful to identify some of its currently emerging challenges to best navigate through the complexities involved.

In this brief article, a number of disruptors which pose prominent adaptational challenges are addressed, including technological advancements, demographic factors, regulatory mechanisms, business and economic uncertainties as well as cultural diversity.


Technological Advancements

Technology has emerged as a front runner in this regard. It is in fact completely changing the face of business and HR as we know it. From a people management perspective, virtual work environments associated with the creation of global talent pools where project-based outsourcing replaces current employment practices, has become a reality. In addition, technology holds the key to optimise the viability of alternative organisational structures involving project-based, circle, matrix and holacratic forms of collaboration. Automated employment self-service by employees may initially relieve HR of its administrative burdens and in the longer term may render currently known talent management and employment practices redundant. A contributing factor in this regard is that social media stands to exponentially increase networking opportunities, informal collective collaboration, and provide big data for algorithmic and artificial intelligence analyses to gradually integrate talent and work management practices as well as to enable augmented solutions. A world without nine-to-five jobs and traffic jams may even become a reality.

The availability of information and the automation of knowledge work may also shift workforce demands from a focus on qualifications and positional power, to an emphasis on talent, interest, learning and leadership; the nature of the latter which may evolve to be very different from what is now typically regarded as leadership. Key interim considerations in the changing landscape of employment are those of information management, privacy risks and the associated legal penalties involved, which increasingly seem to be addressed by blockchain technology aimed at the tracking of transactions. The latter may even ultimately contribute towards an economy of trust, but also holds the potential of enabling an ultimate form of control.

As with any new opportunity, there thus also is a shadow side that should not be ignored, but carefully explored.  The potentiality created and the risk introduced by technology should, however, not overshadow the role of people within the world of work. As Steve Jobs said: “Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.” The secret sauce of this people-work equation may, however, revolve around leadership awareness and skill.

Jacques Fresco of the Venus project further uncovers the core challenge for harnessing the potential benefits offered by science and technology: “Today we have access to highly advanced technologies. But our social and economic system has not kept up with our technological capabilities that could easily create a world of abundance, free of servitude and debt.”

One also cannot ignore the call of Jiddu Krishnamurti in this regard: “We are facing a tremendous crisis, a crisis of consciousness.  The turning point, the perceptive decision, the challenge, is not in politics, in religion, in the scientific wrld; it is in our consciousness. One has to understand the consciousness of mankind, which has brought us to this point.” Leadership at the appropriate levels of awareness may thus be required to craft a future world, as Krishnamurti also pointed out that “…truth is a pathless land…”. Again, the most viable catalyst in this regard is likely to be found in consciousness and leadership.


Demographic Factors

In addition to the fundamental impact of technology, there also are social issues that pose challenges for people management. Emerging demographic factors include cultural diversity, generational differences, health and wellness challenges and the effects of socio-political upheaval.

Diverse and extended work forces characterised by fundamental cultural discrepancies have resulted from business globalisation, immigration, migration, refugee movements and temporary work seeking. These trends are often linked to the effects of poverty, climate change, the impact of the military industrial complex and government corruption. The cultural diversity involved create a daunting level of complexity in society and at work.

In the immediate future, remote, mobile and diverse work forces call for HR strategies related to knowledge transfer to newcomers, effective people and organisational culture management, appropriate and flexible recruitment, the crafting of dynamic career paths, flexible remuneration and rewarding strategies, the coordination and integration of virtual environments and outsourcing initiatives.

Health and wellness issues too, are taking their toll as an increasing proportion of the populations globally are dealing with physical challenges related to increases, for example, in diabetes and depression. This problem is exacerbated by food production characterized by the lowering of nutritional value and a loss of food security for the majority of people on the planet, all largely due to corporate greed.

Generational diversity associated with an aging work force, the employment of millennials, changing educational values and practices as well as differences in the world views of various age groups, further cloud the picture.

In the longer term and with the emergence of virtual talent pools who engage in informal collaboration, globally, current HR strategies may lose their relevance. Within a diverse and complex work environment, leadership may well become a dynamic phenomenon in that leadership roles will temporarily be adopted by the most suitable team member; the one driven by the greatest degree of passion and insight for a particular aspect of the overarching goal.

A profound impact of such virtual work systems may entail a redefinition of what economic “value add actually means. This is bound to calibrate our mental models of what “work” entails. So, besides possible changes to the way in which organised work will take place, the content and focus of specific work roles, may also be challenged.

Current narratives claiming the beneficial contribution of the “takers” at the expense of the “makers” in the system (Mariana Mazzucato, 2018, The value of everything: Making and taking in the global economy) may be tested harshly. Mazzucato points out that contemporary capitalism revolves around corporates striving for monopoly advantage to optimise the perceptual worth of their predatory speculative activities.

This raises questions about the value add of a significant proportion of professional careers in Finance and Law, for example. To what extent do the activities of corporate lawyers and investment bankers (amongst others) actually contribute to environmental and societal health and well-being? Could the knowledge and skills of these professionals be put to better use in educating and uplifting the masses and in resolving societal challenges of poverty and resource depletion, for example?


Business and Economic Uncertainties

In addition to technology and demographics, there are also a number of economic disruptors with which HR has to contend. Included are the fragile and erratic nature of the monetary system and the sometimes counter-productive strategies aimed at manipulating it, which further contribute to turbulent business environments and economic uncertainties. In addition, business models with potentially far reaching implications for social and environmental factors, are on the increase. Wealth inequality and disparities in asset distribution within society, as well as fraud, corruption, deceptive business practices and economic crimes, all call for fresh perspectives and moral awareness.


Cultural Diversity

The apparent darkness of the impending demographic cloud does, however, also have a silver lining – a principle described in Nassim Taleb’s book “Antifragility” which explains “the dynamics of things that gain from disorder” and variety, as supposed to stability. This concept clearly applies to people and work too. For example, for an organisation to be functional at all, workforce diversity necessitates a culture of interpersonal openness and understanding, which in turn will add depth and flexibility to the adaptive responses of the collective. Powerful leverage such as that required to transform the world of work and society, however, seems to depend on leadership capability at all levels and categories in organisations.


Environmental Factors

From a planetary perspective, climate change and the demise of species, food production and factory farming, fossil fuels and greenhouse gasses and the threat of nuclear war which may destroy civilization, all call for awareness and action. The complexity associated with these issues, necessitates the careful identification, positioning and development of leadership within business, educational and societal contexts, as solutions in this regard are unlikely to transpire from the legal fraternity.


A Radical Simplicity of Response?

The factors mentioned above overwhelmingly contribute to complexity. However, these factors also unfortunately seem to elicit radical simplicity in response.  Whether within the political, business, educational or cultural milieus, examples of inadequate and inappropriate perspectives taken to deal with the challenges of the emerging world, are on the increase.

Legal practice, for example, currently seems increasingly occupied with an emphasis on contractually based compliance aimed at avoiding commercial risk, but at the cost of the bigger picture and morally aware leadership within the business context. A stern warning in this regard can be inferred from the findings of Arnold Toynbee, (1939). In A Study of History, The Disintegration of Civilizations, Vol.5. Toynbee traced the development and decay of 19 civilisations throughout the course of history. He pointed out that societies emerge from the innovative contributions of “creative minorities” who inspire others. The breakdown of societies, on the other hand, result from a deterioration of creativity which leads to stagnation – an excessive drive for compliance, in other words. It thus seems that talent spent on endlessly navigating the labyrinth of corporate bureaucracy is talent wasted.  One can only conclude that innovative and inspirational leadership, is what is required to ensure viability within the world of work.

In education for example, university training, aimed at preparing each new generation to meet societal challenges, seems increasingly inadequate. Whereas in the past it involved broad exposure to subjects such as Mathematics and classical languages, the focus seems to have narrowed towards specific subjects that are dis-embedded from their transdisciplinary context. Postgraduate studies, even at prestigious schools, often seem to revolve around an uncritical coverage of key concepts, imparting text-book knowledge absent of critical thinking and evaluation, while in the case of postgraduate theses, a superficial regurgitation of some of the literature on a particular topic seems to suffice.

This reification of knowledge acquisition in absentia of critical thinking has also been the focus of Robert Sternberg, the famous US cognitive psychologist, who recently published an article in the American Psychological Association professional magazine, and an interview in Scientific American, entitled: The IQ of Smart Fools. Sternberg expresses concern about current selection and educational practices at universities and emphasizes the importance of fostering the wisdom and positive ethical values of graduates to enable them to make a meaningful difference in society. Sternberg’s article concludes with a comment on typical assessment practices: “Whatever it is that the standardized tests test for, they’re not fully measuring the skills you really need to succeed in life.”


So, how do we develop leadership qualities within individuals that can evolve into innovative and inspirational leadership? That is the topic of the next article.

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