Colin Williams is Professor of Practice and Director of The Transformational Leader program at Ashridge Executive Education.

We spoke to him to get the low-down on leadership and find out why he believes it’s time we shifted our thinking on the role of those taking organizations into the future.


Q:  What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

A: It’s the inability to correctly predict what’s going to happen. 

What do you do, when you don’t know what to do?  It’s about recognizing that the world is not black and white.  It’s full of paradoxes, and sometimes you need to do one thing and its opposite at the same time. You need to look at the bigger picture, while also focusing on the detail.

This is a whole new world for some leaders, and they need to adopt a new mindset and find ways to become more flexible and adaptable.

How can leaders develop agility in their teams?

The current climate calls for a shift to a new style of leadership, which is less about offering solutions and more about encouraging people to think for themselves and come up with new ideas. It’s then about supporting them to work through those possibilities.

Leaders need to give people the confidence to take the initiative and act in line with the overall intent, while not necessarily following the plans that have been agreed or asking for permission.

It’s about actively encouraging people to experiment, helping them understand what is an acceptable level of risk, and allowing them to learn from their experience if it doesn’t work.

“Leaders need to give people the confidence to take the initiative.”

Is there a danger in doing everything too fast?

There’s a lot of focus at the moment on how organizations need to become more agile. Although we definitely need to be able to respond quickly, the idea that we should just accelerate everything is misguided.

There are plenty of examples of where organizations have rushed to do things—like big IT projects—only to realize that they should have given it a bit more thought and involved a larger group of people in exploring what should be done.

The ability to think on your feet is important, but sometimes it’s equally important to start slowly and pay attention to the detail. 

What are the consequences of not shifting to a new leadership style?

The banking industry is a good example of how some organizations have failed to adapt swiftly enough and have been left lagging behind their competitors.

Some financial-sector businesses recognized very early on, for example, that mobile banking was the way forward and were quick to develop the necessary software.  However, it’s important to recognize that sometimes it’s about bucking the trend rather than following it.

One of the banks I’ve been working with decided not to offshore their IT activity because they could see technology was going to be key to their competitiveness going forward.  It was a brave decision by the leadership team and cost them more money initially, but they have been able to react more rapidly to changing customer demands as a result.

“It’s important to recognize that sometimes it’s about bucking the trend rather than following it.”

How do we need to change the way we develop leaders?

Research suggests that the ideal learning environment is a “safe emergency.”  In other words, we need to “stress” people, in a controlled and supportive environment. This makes learning memorable and helps them build new pathways in the brain that they can call on when faced with difficult scenarios in real-life.

We put people on our leadership development programs in quite challenging situations, to push up their ability to think on their feet and deal with discomfort—because if you are going to innovate and experiment it is going to be difficult at times.

It’s also important to help leaders develop a growth mindset, so that they approach things as challenges rather than problems and are open to thinking about how they can apply new concepts rather than dismissing them out of hand.

“If you are going to innovate and experiment it is going to be difficult at times. “

Interested in further developing your leadership and management skills?
Download a brochure to find out more about Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School.

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