New approaches to leadership will make CEOs more successful

The way chief executives lead today is not how they must act tomorrow. The requirements of the job are changing, as are the expectations of their staff, for three key reasons – context, organisational change and personal demands. Chief executives will have to meet these challenges if they are to succeed as leaders.

First of all, chief executives must understand their leadership is context specific and that context is changing dramatically.

Just as a marathon runner might not be successful in a triathlon, so too a leader who is successful in one environment may struggle in a different one. In business it is often the marketplace that shifts quickly, creating new contexts. When the context changes, leaders who do not adapt find themselves qualified to succeed in a world that no longer exists.

Recent political and economic upheavals show clearly that the future is not what it used to be. The world is experiencing deep structural change, and this requires different leadership skills and new leaders. In our co-authored book, Leading in a Changing World, Keith Coats describes “future-fit leaders” as those who have the ability to “know what to do when they don’t know what to do”.

“Adaptive challenges” are becoming more frequent and pronounced. These occur when the issues being faced are unlike anything previously experienced, and require learning, unlearning and relearning. The need-to-fix mentality of most leaders will not be adequate for an adaptive context.

Leaders and teams who aren’t learners at heart get into trouble when facing adaptive challenges in a context that is constantly changing. Chief executives must ask themselves if they are adapting adequately to a world where the unexpected is the new normal.

Secondly, and of equal importance, leaders need to know that very soon their organisation will not resemble what it looks like today.

One of the biggest indicators that the future chief executive will need to be different is the emergence of different business models and different types of competitor. In our team’s work helping organisations tackle the challenges created by disruptive change, we’ve engaged with businesses from the Pacific Islands to the Middle East, from the Americas to Europe and everywhere in-between, and have seen the global nature of these contextual shifts.

Companies such as Amazon, Alibaba, Uber, Tesla and Airbnb are not just disrupting markets, but actively experimenting with different approaches to organisational design and leadership. These disruptor companies are changing the rules of the game in multiple industries. Some older established companies are responding, if slowly. Ford and GM, for example, are not just dealing with new automotive technologies, but adapting their organisations to attract Silicon Valley’s best and brightest digital talent because they realise they need fundamentally to shift business model.

Chief executives need especially to understand generational change. Today’s young people are not simply younger versions of us. They have a different set of expectations and approaches for the world of work. Established and traditional leadership styles are proving ineffective, even damaging. Leaders cannot just wait for these young people to “grow up” or they will shed talented young people.

Chief executives must ask themselves if they are adapting adequately to a world where the unexpected is the new normal

Thirdly, chief executives must understand the new, personal requirements of leadership that result from these changes. The future bosses will require extensive skills for leading in this world of a new context, multiple viewpoints and ever-present diversity.

They need to be able to evaluate outlooks, business models and metrics with a nimbleness and flexibility not seen in any previous era. The paradoxical demands on leadership will be pronounced – understanding the inner and outer requirements, the big picture and the detail, the personal and the collective, the specific and the systemic, the need to be involved and the need to step back, the need to direct and the need to allow self-organisation.

They must then present a compelling purpose that inspires their team. Dean van Leeuwen, author of Quest: Competitive Advantage and the Art of Leadership in the 21st Century, correctly predicted both Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidential election using the quest leadership framework. The most successful chief executives of the future will be those on quests that promise to deliver meaningful benefits and make the impossible possible.

So, how do leaders become future fit? Most importantly, they must first abandon conventional methodology surrounding their own development and education.

As we have learnt in our work on leadership development programmes with multiple business schools and some of the world’s most well-known companies, including Credit Suisse, Nestlé and John Lewis, there needs to be a radical revision in how leaders learn.

In addition to developing insights around the changing context and organisation design, leaders must learn to face adaptive challenges. Leadership development needs to move beyond content to engaging with these challenges.

One powerful method that our team at TomorrowToday Global uses is to put participants in an environment with unclear structure and outcomes that we call “adaptive exercises”. These simulate the emotions and mental states leaders face when dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity, and force them to confront their own responses. The exercises can cause stress, anxiety and even anger, all of which are debriefed to help leaders learn a new skillset.

Participants repeatedly describe the exercises as the most impactful learning experiences they have had. They also demonstrate the importance of working with completely new and experiential ways to develop future-fit leaders.

Leaders have to know what to do when the unexpected happens, when the world has changed and when they face myriad outlooks and approaches, especially when no one else knows how to react. Their smart new approach determines their very survival.

To download a handbook on how to develop the key skills future-fit leaders need, visit, e-mail or phone +44 208 123 5725