A new kind of leadership in this 21st Century VUCA world

Professor Erik de Haan is the Director of Hult Ashridge's Centre for Coaching and shares key insights into why leaders must open up new conversations to bring the best out of their teams.

Organizational leadership today is finding itself in a rapidly changing landscape or context. Not just because of the multitude of global crises that are raging, but also because of longer-term changes in our society which have led to human resources, executive coaching and therapy and mindfulness at work. Leaders and managers of all stripes and ranks have to increasingly be truly comfortable with their emotions and those of others, as they flex their influencing styles to bring out the best ideas from the team and guide them into the decision-making processes of their organization.

This means all leaders and managers are having more challenging, more intimate, and more exposing personal conversations with their staff and direct reports. All other more ‘administrative’ aspects of leadership will be taken over by computers or artificial intelligence, or they will be resisted as stifling, autocratic, or pointless. Leaders have to increasingly get out of the way of their reports, whilst deeply connecting with them.

This means leaders will have to learn much more deeply to ‘coach’ their team and individual employees. Equally important, those reports will have to be allowed to coach the leader in turn. In other words, openness to everyone’s suggestions, feelings, and ideas has been shown to be of crucial importance (De Haan & Kasozi, 2013). This includes the ability to be swayed by those contributions, to be confused by them at times but still remaining curious, and to not always know the answer to them whilst remaining calm and secure.

More and more of us are having to bring our ‘whole person’ to the workplace, in order to contribute the feelings, hunches, and creative ideas that are being called for. That means that we will have to wrestle with our demons in the workplace – with our very own, highly personal leadership shadows. Shadow patterns, born out of neglect or overuse of leadership strength, are a demonstrable consequence of all leadership, but they are also where those really good ideas and challenges come from. If a leader realizes that they are very good at gossip but as a consequence, some people do not feel safe around them, or another leader realizes they are very passionate and that comes through, but that people are scared of them as well – then that moment of realization can bring great freshness and new solutions. For balance and security, the observations from their team need to be integrated into their leadership strengths, the ‘bright side’ of our leadership.

All of this means leaders will have to open up personal conversations with employees around motivation and suggestions for change, deepen those conversations, release emotions and doubts, find ways to look at conflict and confusion together and find creative ways to integrate the many ideas and feelings that are around so that the team innovates. Part of the challenge is to acknowledge and openly share and reflect on shadow patterns where they exist.

At Hult Ashridge, we have developed models of this kind of coaching and consulting for managers. Coaching to bring out the best of your individual contributors. Consulting to bring out the best of your leadership team and make the best decisions, which should be made through distributed leadership, i.e. everyone taking responsibility and influencing top decisions so that they become a demonstrably better quality (Surowiecki, 2005).

Coaching-for-leaders means:

1) Being able to take a step back and look with creative indifference at your own conversations. A step as it were on the balcony overlooking your own conversation, i.e. observe yourself in interaction.

2) The ability to contract and recontract with your direct reports, to check if you are having the right kind of conversation and how you could help them more.

3) In many cases, it means being able to take a step back to work through disappointments, fear, anxiety, and confusion – and contain them for your staff, be a secure ‘go-to’ base for your staff.

At times you will not feel equipped to do that all by yourself and you may consult your spouse or your best friend, or work with a more neutral executive coach to keep yourself grounded and fair. This will help you even in stressful times to go back to your staff with new ideas and new types of conversation so that something becomes unstuck between you.

At the Ashridge Centre for Coaching, we have a long experience promoting managerial coaching. We coach managers through challenging times and through their risky promotions. We organize reflective group coaching (called ‘action learning’) for CEO’s, and we have recently developed a program to hone those coaching skills that leaders need in the 21st Century.

De Haan, E. & Kasozi, A. (2014). The leadership shadow: how to recognise and avoid derailment, hubris and overdrive. London: Kogan Page.

Surowiecki, J. (2005) The Wisdom of Crowds, Anchor, New York.

erik de haan

Professor Erik de Haan is the Director of Hult Ashridge's Centre for Coaching with over twenty-five years of experience in organizational and personal development.

“Leaders will have to learn much more deeply to ‘coach’ their team and individual employees”

Hult International Business School
Hult International Business School
Ashridge Executive Education