Leaders today are facing extraordinary challenges. Along with the pandemic came issues like death and suicide, which are difficult problems for teams to face during even the best of times, and we’ve seen widespread isolation and loneliness like never before. Then there’s the economy, supply chain issues, The Great Resignation, war, the staggering global rise of unhappiness that started long before the pandemic, and the stress that comes with it all. It’s not surprising that people have been behaving in atypical ways. We’ve all witnessed greater rudeness and hostile behavior in public.
These issues are not just societal or cultural problems. These are business problems and leadership challenges. Today’s leaders have to be flexible and grow in the moment to handle the unknown, the unprecedented.
This presents a challenge to all of us who prepare others for leadership positions. How do we train people to lead and make the best possible business decisions in this environment of accelerating challenges?
We’re living in a VUCA world
The term VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) aptly applies to the world we live in. Making business decisions has become incredibly complex, and we’re not just making traditional budget and managerial decisions. More than ever, leaders have to consider community impact, employee wellbeing, and business continuity under an extraordinary uncertainty.
There are so many considerations for even the smallest decisions we make. The highly distributed nature of how people work today means we have to consider a broader potential impact of every statement and every choice.
Leaders have the responsibility to think about equity when some employees are sitting in the room with you and others are remote. How much face time are you giving each? Are you treating instant messages the with the same level of attention as someone dropping into your office? This situation is not likely to be any less of a challenge for future leaders.
It’s our responsibility as leaders, as people who impact the future of our businesses, to give all the people in our organizations an equal opportunity to contribute and grow. And for the sake of training our future leaders, we need to be willing to be vulnerable. Sharing our failures along with our successes is invaluable.
Mistakes and failures are powerful learning tools that shouldn’t be ignored — even if sharing them is uncomfortable.
People can’t lead without access to information
Information is power. The world of hoarding information among the select few is over. If we are to create a culture that develops tomorrow’s leaders, we have to be willing to empower others with information so they can make informed decisions and move forward in their leadership journey. We need to be more open with information so we’re able to count on the business thriving no matter who’s on vacation, out sick, or can’t participate due to some natural disaster.
Sometimes it seems risky to share information, but we can’t help people build leadership muscles without doing so. Too often, leaders hold on to information too tightly. We consider it too precious. But to enable high-level decision-making, we need to give people the big, hairy problems and all the information that goes with them, and then allow them to come up with solutions. Guiding and discussing options in the moment helps to shape leaders’ thinking about trade-offs, downstream implications, communication, and feasibility.
Assigning only easy problems will not build resiliency in leadership. We can’t continue to train people as if all the problems have been written about in a textbook. We can’t define the problems leaders will face in the future, so we have to train them to learn how to handle them on their own. And we do this by taking risks, sharing critical information, and empowering them to learn.
Create a learning and development-oriented organization
There are a few key things we, today’s leaders, need to do to prepare the next generation.
- Assume tomorrow’s leaders will face even greater challenges than we are today.
- Acknowledge that not having enough people who can make high-quality decisions will slow the business down — or worse.
- Remember that it’s not about knowing the answer but knowing how to approach decision-making.
The next generation of leaders needs that discernment about decision-making, and the only way to prepare them is to give them the opportunity to have that experience across the continuum of decision-making. The organizations that will win in the race to turn out great leaders for their future are the ones that focus on creating a culture of empowerment, learning, and development.
If nothing else, I hope you take this away today: Future business success requires that we develop our leaders differently. Instead of teaching people by showing examples, we need to teach them in the moment as we tackle trade-off decision-making.