Challenge of Leadership in the 21st Century: What’s Needed Now?

In an exploration with Saint Mary’s University in Halifax (one of my alma maters) about an upcoming series of leadership workshops, the team there asked me some evocative questions, worthy of sharing on the Shape Shift blog. The previous blog post explored the question of what guidelines or, in their words, rules, would I share with leaders today. Another of their questions was: Why does the area of leadership fascinate you? Why indeed?

Leadership and leadership development has had my attention for as long as I can remember. It currently has my attention because the way I was trained, or more accurately indoctrinated, into leadership (as is the case with many of the leaders I meet and work with, even younger leaders) is much different than the leadership skills needed to navigate the complexity of today’s world.

I came into leadership positions at a young age; at a time when leaders were believed to have the answers, were expected to solve problems and fix situations that popped up. This was a time when letters were written on stationary and mailed, when fax machines (which are now almost obsolete) were just new and the idea that everyone would have a computer (much less mobile devices that process as much and more than computers) was a farfetched notion. A very different world, a very different worldview.

The world has grown far more complex, social media has a strong influence and our environments and situations are demanding greater collaboration and collaborative decision making because no one person has the solution.  We need to unlearn and relearn our habitual leadership skills and strategies to be responsive and still make decisions and take actions that move initiatives forward.  We can only unlearn what is habitual by becoming aware of what is right in front of us that we cannot see, because so much of our worldview – as much as 80% – is unconscious.  This is why Jerry Nagel and I are in the exploration of the transformative power of worldview awareness.

This is a balancing act, working with dynamic tensions of collaboration and collaborative leadership – also something we are learning our way into.  Many leaders are uncertain about how to navigate this 21st Century world with skill and ease, how to draw out the collective intelligence or wisdom needed to find our way forward. In partnership with amazing colleagues, I have been using patterns and practices that help leaders make sense of the world, invite our own ‘not knowing’ while engaging the wisdom and collective intelligence of people most impacted by or having the most influence over the particular issues or challenges at hand.

These are the solutions that have staying power.  This is what this new series of programs at Saint Mary’s – but also offerings in other venues in other cities – offers: insights into navigating the 21st Century, particularly as leaders of any age feel a responsibility for the significant challenges of our times.


Sensing Into and Connecting With Future Possibilities

If studying and learning from the past only serves to create more of the same problems we are experiencing, as Otto Scharmer eloquently presents in his book Theory U, and the way to a different future is by sensing into and connecting with future possibilities – a view, by the way, supported in much of Peter Block’s work around Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community, what is required to shift us – individually and collectively – into living into an emergent future rather than one that flows from the past?

This question excites me. Intuitively I completely get it – even as I work to get my head around it well enough to explain it to others and to live more fully into it in my life and work.

It requires tapping into new  or underused leadership skills and capacities like activating intelligences in addition to cognitive – the intelligences that come from an open mind, open heart and open will.

Shifting the shape of leadership – internally and externally is the most significant struggle I witness in the people, teams and organizations I speak to and work with.

In Theory U,  Scharmer speaks about the social field which he describes as the totality and type of connections through which the participants of a given system (organization, community, family, social network) relate, converse, think and act.  When there is a shift in the social field, people connect with a deeper source of creativity and knowing and move beyond the patterns of the past.  When this happens it is a memorable moment.   It results in outcomes that include a heightened level of individual energy and awareness, a sustained deepening of one’s authenticity and personal presence and a clarified sense of direction as well as significant professional and personal accomplishment.  It is felt individually and collectively.  And it has been far too rare an occurrence in the past, sometimes because it feels elusive rather than something you can create or co-create with intentionality and sometimes because it almost doesn’t seem real.

What does it take to more permanently shift the social field?  Awareness.  Intentionality.  The willingness to hold the space for this to happen and emergence to occur.  Presence.  Things that now and in the past we often say we don’t have time for because the business at hand is too pressing. We need results!  Current leadership practices and organizational and social culture do not support creating the conditions to sense into and connect with future possibilities and this is the point of resistance and struggle in many organizations right now.  Individuals see it, sense it, come close to it, yearn for it and then the risk feels too great to step partially or fully into needed new leadership practices.

Scharmer says the essence of leadership is to shift the inner place from which we operate both individually and collectively.  It may well be the single most important leverage point for shifting the social field in this century.  This is enormously exciting to me as I am more and more boldly emphasizing growing capacity through self-awareness, personal and, dare I say, spiritual journey – however that shows up for people.

How can we learn to better sense and connect with future possibilities that are seeking to emerge? Presencing is one means of sensing, tuning in and acting from one’s highest future potential – the future that depends on us to bring it into being.  There are many avenues to presencing, individually and collectively.  A few of them: meditation, physical exercise like running, mindfulness in any activity including walking, connecting to nature, yoga, Aikido and Shamanic practice.  Any practice that requires us to activate a different source of intelligence: the intelligence of the heart, which gives us much greater capacity to listen into the emerging field of the future.

I know this experience of listening into the emerging field of the future.  It is what happens when I follow the energy flow of intuition around work, life and the things that matter most in my life and journey.  It is what happens when I am willing to let go and let come, when I can let go of attachment (or at a minimum identify it when it shows up) and surrender completely into what is wanting to happen (instead of trying to direct it or manage it).

Taking a note from Scharmer’s work on Theory U, I am immersing myself in this study and will start by observe, observe, observe, then retreat and reflect, then act in an instant.  I am deeply curious about the future I am sensing into and connecting with and what magic will emerge for me and others as I do so.