What will tomorrow's bosses be like?

MT at 50: The idea of the macho, authoritative leader has had its day. Say hello to collective teams, flatter organisations and more female influence.

by Ian Wylie
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

Could even the chief executive of the future be a robot? After all, a study by the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Manitoba found we are more willing to take orders from computers than from other humans.

Unlikely. In an increasingly complex business environment, the leaders of the future will need to make many more moral, ethical and other inherently human judgments. But they will use advanced analytics and artificial intelligence to assist them in both making and executing decisions more effectively.

They will need new skills to lead a fluid and mobile workforce of Generation Zs and beyond - and to develop them as future leaders, too. A 2016 survey by Deloitte of millennials found that 71% of those who say they are likely to leave their employer in the next two years are unhappy with how their leadership skills are being developed.

The horizontal boss

Today's chief executive already looks very different to that of 50 years ago. He (and it was almost always he) was at the top of a hierarchy and expected to command like an army general.

But research and experience tells us future businesses will be flatter and more lattice-like. Companies like Google and tomato-processor Morning Star have already experimented (not without teething problems) with such new organisational structures: authority is widely distributed as employees are encouraged to collaborate irrespective of business function or seniority. In these complex and unstable workplaces, leaders will have to create the conditions for others to come up with the new ideas. As Linda Hill, chair of the Leadership Institute at Harvard Business School, describes in Collective Genius, the role of leaders 'is to set the stage, not to perform on it'.

ThoughtWorks, a Chicago-based software development company, has adopted this idea of distributed leadership by implementing paired decision-makers - from the highest leadership level, to developers writing or testing the software - and by holding democratic elections where team members are nominated and voted for by their peers.

However, even such innovative organisations won't render the strong-minded leader extinct. While Lego, for example, has delayered its company structure and empowered employees to take on more responsibilities, it has also boosted its top tier of management with functional specialists, but moved these senior leaders closer to operations.

However, the title 'chief executive' itself may become redundant - large organisations too complex for one single person to oversee, may instead be run by teams of leaders equal in authority and responsibility.

The transparent leader

Tomorrow's leaders will face ever-increasing pressure, under the relentless glare of social and mainstream media, as they deal with accelerating business, societal and global challenges and growing calls for transparency. As a result, they will need to demonstrate authenticity, be capable of taking a very wide view and to manage across alliances.

From her Future of Work research, London Business School's professor of management studies Lynda Gratton describes in The Shift how leaders will increasingly be called upon to create resilience within their corporations, in their neighbourhoods and supply chains, while also playing a role in addressing global challenges. Their actions will be closely scrutinised, and their authenticity continually questioned.

Much of this pressure for transparency and authenticity will come from within. A survey of senior leaders by the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme highlighted the different expectations of generation X, Y and Z, their desire to customise jobs to make them meaningful - to make a difference, not just to make a profit.

The future is altrocentric - and female

Researchers detect a movement away from the kind of leadership that sets a vision for the group, communicates this vision and motivates followers to execute it. Numbered are the days of the dominant, typically male 'hero' leader who knows everything, gives direction to everyone, sets the pace, and demands allegiance in return. In future, a new kind of leadership will be required, that creates the context in which others are both willing and able to do the innovation and hard work required.

Research by consultant Hay Group predicts the emergence of an 'altrocentric' leader who places others at the centre, who is intellectually curious, emotionally open, displays empathy and is a good listener - not because these things are 'nice-to-dos' but because they are crucial to making the organisation function effectively.

Several studies suggest that the characteristics more commonly found in women are better aligned to this kind of altrocentric leadership. A paper published in Organization Science in 2015, by Raina Brands, Jochen Menges and Martin Kilduff, found that in groups where work advice interactions are perceived as revolving around the leader, people see male leaders as more charismatic than female leaders. However, in groups where work advice is perceived as flowing more evenly among team members, with the leader and followers linked in an inclusive flow of communication, female leaders are seen as more charismatic. If, as this research suggests, workers have an easier time associating more inclusive forms of leadership with women - and more centralised forms of leadership with men - the future leadership of our flatter, more networked and distributed organisations is likely to be female.

The data-driven decision-maker

Regardless of background, discipline or personality, the successful leaders of the future are likely to be those who are adept at using insights from big data to help them achieve their goals. They will have not only their own skills, but will also put in place data analytics experts and ensure that the right teams surround them - from chief data scientists to data-driven chief marketing officers.

The chief executives of tomorrow may not themselves be data gurus, but they will certainly appreciate its potential. They will use data to define what success looks like, and then hold teams accountable using quantifiable metrics. They will ask questions based on information derived from data analysis - but also know when to let the data speak for itself.

At the helm of their data-driven businesses, these future leaders will also employ big data to drive transparency, relevance and results across the entire enterprise. It will be a world of quick-fire decision-making, driven a lot less by instinct and a lot more by analysis.

Preparing future leaders

Ice hockey players skate not to where the puck is, but where it is going next – so how can we prepare our future leaders for the working world of tomorrow?

1. Create a culture of analytics. It doesn’t mean everyone has to be a data scientist, but they should be equipped to make more data-driven decisions.

2. Build cross-discipline teams. Choose managers who have multidisciplinary background, ask them to look at unrelated businesses, borrow ideas and seek opportunities to collaborate.

3. Develop an execution mindset: analytics and collaboration are meaningless unless ideas are applied and decisions acted upon.

4. Take the broad view on talent. Look far and wide. Partner with the best and most applicable degree programmes.

5. Offer the widest array of experiences to promising young leaders, and focus on the special skills that the future leadership of your organisation will require.

Source: Strategy& 

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