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Leadership for the Future of Work


Expert insights from Barry Winkless, CSO & Head of the Future of Work Institute, Cpl Resources Plc. This blog has been written exclusively for IoD Ireland members.

The leadership challenge (and opportunity) in the future of work is to purposefully alter an organisation’s genetic make-up and improve it for the better. 

I believe that the core DNA of most organisations hasn’t changed that much over the past 30 years - at least until relatively recently. If we were to imagine an archetypal organisation as a colourful DNA strand it would probably have looked at lot like this one (figure 1) with a predominance of blue & orange (see footnote reference at the end of the article) - a  ‘play to win’ mentality, a myopic focus on generating ever greater shareholder value, a tendency towards bureaucracy and a traditional process-based approach to how we lead, manage and motivate. 

Figure 1.

The Changing DNA of Organisations

But something has been stirring. A growing understanding that, perhaps, the genetic make-up of organisations must evolve to meet the changing expectations of human beings and to help tackle the many societal and environmental challenges facing us. This is leading to an evolution in the core genetic code of organisations - resulting in a broader definition of shareholder value to include people, planet, and profit, a growth in the real world application of flatter structures and self-management practices, a renewed questioning of how ‘things are done’, and a growing recognition that in order to sustain, organisations must empower people to truly ‘be themselves’.

I love music - all genres - and one of my favourite orchestras is the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra - founded in 1972 by Julian Fifer. It is also representative of one form of organisation with a fundamentally different genetic code to most. Often held up as a leading exemplar of a ‘self-managed’ organisation, Orpheus has embraced rotational leadership, truly democratic process, and a new way of doing that in turn has led them to becoming one of the best chamber orchestras in the world. Orpheus is just one of many ‘pockets of the future’ organisations that have been in existence for quite a while. Do they perhaps offer leaders a blueprint for what an evolved direction of travel looks like?

The Impact of Digital Technologies

The increasing pervasiveness of digital technologies has also led to a fundamental shift in what this thing we call ‘an organisation’ is. Platform businesses (like Airbnb , and Quirky), for example, have blurred the lines between the traditional roles of a customer, supplier, and employee. They are also empowering individuals with toolkits heretofore only available to large organisations, resulting in the exponential growth of the ‘one person business’. Networks of individuals can now come together to create value centres for given assignments and then dissipate. Yes, the short lived, purposefully disposable organisation is now a thing!

Leadership for the future of work means on one hand creating a living, breathing organism and, on the other, a hyper efficient machine.

Given this context, it could be argued that the core role of leadership for the future of work is the purposeful design and alteration of an organisation’s genetic code for the better. I believe that this leadership challenge (and significant opportunity) will require three mindsets. In a funny way, these mindsets are the true skillsets that leaders will need to embrace to face the future of work. They are:

  1. Holistic
  2. Circular
  3. Polarity

1.    Holistic

The philosophical definition of ‘holistic’ is ‘characterised by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole’. We need to start viewing the future of work in a more holistic way. As leaders when we think about moving to a ‘working from anywhere’ workplace (for example), we must also appreciate the associated changes that need to be made to the overall workforce model design, the critical changes to leadership style and how the actual work gets delivered.

2.    Circular

For many years, the visual metaphor for leadership could very well have been a line - a focus on hierarchy, directing and control. There has been almost an enforced infallibility to the leadership role until relatively recently. The new visual metaphor for leadership must surely be the circle. Leaders must adopt an open mindset, continuously renew their thinking, and fully embrace a circular view of the short, medium, and long term (the 100 year view) benefits and harm created by themselves and their organisation.

3.    Polarity

The ability to deal with seemingly opposite or even contradictory perspectives and designs is something leaders will need to get comfortable with. For example, they must create hyper efficient, technology enabled organisations at the same time as growing a vibrant living organism. They must gel an ever disparate, diverse, and distributed workforce around common assumptions and purpose. These and many more polarities are the true ‘wicked’ problems that must be solved for organisations to thrive in the next evolution of work.

And with that I’ll leave you with a question, the only real question that you need to ask: ‘What is your organisation’s DNA and how are you going to alter it for the better?’

Over to you...

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Footnote: Colours are in reference to the concepts first developed by Professor Don Edward Beck. Core Reference: ‘Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change’. Professor Don Edward Beck and Christopher C. Cowan. 2005. Wiley-Blackwell. Further developed by co-author’s research.