My 6-year-old daughter has a love for animals, with a particular interest in gorillas. She’s always reading about them and imparting her little factual nuggets to me. The other night she told me that a group of gorillas who live together are called a troop and the leader of the troop, the strongest and most powerful, is called a silverback and his job is to protect the group. The silverback makes all the decisions, determining the movements of the troop, leading them to feeding sites and taking responsibility for their safety and well being. Gorillas are endangered animals; one reason for this is due to their changing environment. Fewer than 650 mountain gorillas survive today in two parts of the world, Rwanda and Uganda, in Africa.

This made me think about the role of a leader in the 21st century, something I’ve been pondering on a lot recently. Just like the gorillas, their environment is changing, meaning that leaders are having to evolve. This can be summed up by a common acronym in the business world –VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity, which in essence is declaring it’s a rapidly changing and evolving landscape in the business world.

The VUCA environment

Volatility—The nature, speed, volume, magnitude, and dynamics of change

Uncertainty—The lack of predictability of issues and events

Complexity—The confounding of issues and the chaos that surrounds any organisation

Ambiguity—The haziness of reality and the mixed meanings of conditions.

Considering this, many organisations and leaders are struggling to stay afloat and aligned in the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous nature of today’s global business environment. Turbulence—the rapid rate of change—is swirling around many of us, tipping us this way and that as leaders and organisations attempt to navigate a safe passage through it all.

One of the challenges here is the potential primitive approach we have to leadership, which is inhibiting leaders to be effective in this changing landscape, and is very much a 20th century mindset. So what does all this mean? Top down leadership is years from being out of date and with generation millennial making up 50% of the global workforce by 2020, the expectation of leading people is going to be dramatically different.

As we all know, there are endless leadership theories, methodologies and ideas regarding what it is and what it shouldn’t be and to a degree we have made this a more complicated subject matter than it needs to be. I firmly believe that leadership is evolving in the face of increasing change and uncertainty. Going forward, solo competencies will no longer work within the new structures that are emerging and indeed may have been related to corporate failures. A new set of skills, behaviours and ways of working are required, which embody purpose, relationship capability, enabling change and emotional intelligence.

Not to create a new theory or methodology, but I believe effective leaders in a 21st century business world need to embrace an evolved style of leadership. This works across three simple and important outcomes looking at Purpose, Performance and Participation.

Purpose: Knowing your identity inside and out

A critical role in leading people is to define, embody and defend the purpose (the glue of the business). Purpose requires the leader to step outside the organisation and assess its progress toward achieving its overall goals and objectives. Purpose reflects the foundational idea.

Performance: How to perform in a complex world

One of the very real challenges that leaders face is the extent to which they are being presented with new unknowns. This is something that demands a response outside of your day-to-day toolkit. This requires leaders to be adaptive and see change as a continuum, not a start and an end.

We are in an age where leaders are not expected to know the answer and it is not top down in terms of mentality. Leaders need to be able to tolerate not knowing the answer; you need to be capable of uncertainty, mystery and doubts in life. The way through this is to become rooted in your experience, trusting wisdom that is there to reveal the way and give up on the illusion of control. To become more anchored in who you are, so from that place you can with ease navigate your way through the unknown and emerging future.

Participation: Recognising the power of ‘We not Me’

Leaders need to be attuned to their people to enable clarity and good judgment as well as a capacity to deliver. This requires developing emotional intelligence, which in its simplest form, is the ability to be aware of different emotions and see the impact these have on your performance and the performance of others.

We are working in a relationship world, built on networks, which requires a need for relationship capability from leaders. This is critical to the development of new networks and winning hearts and minds and the co-creation of trust, diversity and inclusion, which will add value to the organisation in terms of depth and breadth of thinking.

So what does this all mean?

Leadership is one of the most important parts of any organisation, and it has to develop and support great people, who thrive through coaching, feedback and opportunities to develop. Leaders who criticise people, demand too much, or avoid communication, create stress and fear among employees. In its simplest form, leadership is not about coming up with all the great ideas, it’s about creating the environment for great ideas and is not based on level or grade.

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