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Leadership - take charge

Rethink how you lead the troops through the downturn because a different approach could be needed

The current tidal wave of global uncertainty continues to present leaders,
organisations and governments with complex challenges ­ which require new ways
of thinking about leadership to account for the complexities and paradoxes
coming from all directions.

Where once leaders would have responded reactively to crises, modern day
leaders need to respond with a mindset which can identify the potential of that
crisis and work to turn it to their advantage.

Leaders in accountancy firms face extra challenges. The scale of some
accounting firms today is unlike anything seen in previous crises and adds
multiple layers of complexity.

The global digital economy, supposedly a great enabler, can actually compound
the difficulties ­ in particular in relation to leaders and the development of
the next generation of leaders ­ as individuals, groups and teams are based in
different geographies with different cultural understandings.

As the corporate landscape changes, many of the globe’s biggest businesses
are having to revisit their leadership models and their performance management
processes. The skills acquired in a more stable environment do not always bring
the necessary judgment for an uncertain and highly complex business world.

The future has always been unpredictable but, in the past, we were certain
that leaders had to pay attention to the short term while keeping an eye on the
long term.

Today, with the speed and scope of change, the future could well be here
before we expect it.

You need to be ready to demonstrate an open mind, that will help those around
them feel more secure about taking risks and creating innovation. By embracing
three sets of seemingly contrasting characteristics, leaders will be able to
help others see the opportunities beyond the crisis. These attributes are
authentic flexibility; reflective decisiveness and confident humility.

A recent programme of ours at a pharmaceutical company, designed to develop
new insights into leading through this current turbulence, examined these three
elements. The company is doing remarkably well in terms of both revenue and
investor confidence. However, with research and development the lifeblood of
this company, directors were keen to address the real challenge of engendering
creativity and innovation at a time when most people want to hibernate from the

Groups were assigned to each of the contrasting attributes and asked to agree
which leader behaviours would best demonstrate that particular quality. The one
thing which emerged as fundamental to all three was the ability to ask the right
questions of both ourselves and of others.

Authentic flexibility

Authentic flexibility is about being clear and firm about one’s core values
yet having enough adaptability to flex according to changing circumstances. We
recognize leaders with authentic flexibility with questions such as: “Are we
looking for new ways to innovate, what are the things we should not change?”;
“Do the people around me see and hear the real me?”; “What life experiences have
shaped my values, and how do I demonstrate them at work?”

Reflective decisiveness

The idea of reflective decisiveness is being able to make time to stand back
and survey the bigger landscape yet not be paralysed by too much analysis so
that actions can still be taken. Those who ask: “Am I taking enough time to
think? If not, how and when can I reflect more?”; “What do we need to do to
reach the goal and how will we know when we have got there?”; “If we were to try
something different, what lessons from the past should we revisit?”

Confident humility

Confident humility is more about being able to get things done in a quiet,
confident way where personal ego is directed away from one’s self and others are
encouraged to take centre stage when the time is right.

Leaders demonstrating confident humility ask questions such as: “How am I
doing on this?”; “What should I do differently next time?”; “What kind of
leadership do you think is required right now?” Encouraging leaders to ask
searching and revealing questions forces them to think about the choices they
are making at a time when decision-making feels out of their hands.

Questioning, a wise man knows, leads to fuller and more collaborative
solutions. Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz put it succinctly: “You can tell
whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by
his questions.”

Russell Harlow is a senior principal consultant at TMA World

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