Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Complex Challenges Demand New Approaches to Leadership

As we cross the threshold of the 21st century, leaders confront serious challenges many of their predecessors did not have to face. What are the most important and distinctive challenges of this historical moment, and which, if any, leadership paradigms are most likely to help leaders address them and why?
The world is at an interesting juncture in history. The rapid technological advances in the last 50 years have rendered our world more interconnected and interdependent than before. In such a globalized world, where information and ideas travel to the farthest reaches in a matter of minutes through the internet, societies find themselves facing problems whose scale and complexity demand that a new approach be taken to resolve them. The challenges of global food shortages, climate change, terrorism, energy security – are not issues that individual countries can address alone.

As a society, human beings are in the period of transition where the world is increasingly being characterized by unprecedented interdependence. Eminent scholars like Jean Lipman-Blumen have noted that this time is marked by two contradictory forces - interdependence and diversity - pulling in opposite directions. This new situation has rendered the old paradigm of leadership obsolete and calls for leaders to draw upon a broader range of leadership styles to integrate the new challenges facing them.

Leadership has evolved over the past millennia along with human society and Lipman-Blumen classifies this evolution over three contiguous and overlapping stages. She explains how stage 1 or the Physical Era was characterized by strong physical boundaries that were both protective and obstructive. Leaders in this stage required to act independently and portray strength to defend their followers against threats. In stage 2 or the Geopolitical Era, leaders formed alliances with others to protect clearly marked boundaries and ideologies. Stage 2 often produced a very competitive environment, where authoritarian leaders could create a cohort of obedient, fearful, passive followers, who carried out their instructions. The remnants of this stage are visible till today in some developing nations like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where regime changes are common between democratically elected governments and the military, with both groups competing for power and control.

The advent of new technologies and the march of globalization have brought us to the cusp of a new era – what Lipman-Blumen calls stage 3 or the Connective Era. The nature of today’s problems requires solutions that rely on the politics of commonalities, and not on the politics of differences. Today’s problems require the art of the long view, and leaders who recognize that no single leader can claim to be able to surmount challenges like climate change, health epidemics, and food shortages. Today human interdependence is visible in all spheres of life. Global coalitions and networks help solve problems by bringing leaders and experts from different fields to develop innovative solutions.

Connective leadership, as explained by Prof. Lipman-Blumen, is an approach to leadership that is politically savvy and instrumental, and yet more ethical, authentic, accountable, and ennobling. This approach stands in stark contrast to traditional approaches to leadership, which are either power driven or manipulative. Connective leaders use political strategies and skills, and the interconnections among people, institutions, and processes in an ethical manner. Some other important characteristics of connective leaders include[1]:
  • Connecting their vision with the dreams of others – combining and bringing together rather than dividing and conquering
  • Striving to overcome mutual differences and problems, instead of merely uniting followers against a common enemy
  • Creating a sense of community between diverse groups of stakeholders
  • Bringing together committed leaders and stakeholders for common purposes and inspiring active constituents to assume ownership and responsibility, rather than manipulating passive followers
  • Joining with other leaders, even former adversaries, not as competitors but as colleagues
  • Renewing and building broad-based democratic institutions instead of creating authoritarian regimes
  • Nurturing potential leaders, including possible successors
  • Demonstrating integrity and commitment to the cause, and holding themselves to the high standards that they expect from their peers and followers

[1] For a detailed discussion of the characteristics of connective leaders, please see Jean Lipman-Blumen, Connective leadership: Managing in a changing world, Oxford University Press, New York, 1996, pp. 16-20.

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