INSIDE HR: The Future and a Window into the Future of Leadership


Amidst a backdrop of unprecedented change, human-centred leadership offers the best possible model for navigating the complexities and challenges of the immediate 21st century, writes Anthony Howard

The world is undergoing unprecedented change — which means people are undergoing unprecedented change. This means your model of leadership almost certainly needs to change. Are the changes at this moment of history truly unprecedented? Space does not allow a sweep through the pages of history, which are replete with moments of significant change, many of which you could recall with little prompting. However there are a number of forces converging at this moment that bolster the evidence.

“Sustainable long-term growth continues to evade most countries and companies”

China, Russia and the US are flexing their muscles while Europe stumbles, as each tries to establish dominance. Sustainable long-term growth continues to evade most countries and companies as they remain subject to financial tremors and geopolitical jitters. Alongside global challenges like these, four trends combine in a particular operating environment that could radically change your business.

Redefining the purpose of business

The economic model of business, which promotes a view that the purpose of business is to maximise revenue for shareholders, undergoing serious revision. This economic thinking underpins thinking about business and management. The majority of contemporary leaders were trained, developed, managed and rewarded in that environment. This model leads us to the illusion that you cannot manage what you cannot measure — and so we measure everything, including people and their performance.

People are our greatest asset

The consequence of the economic model is that it is very easy to treat people as units of economic production. Employees have one key function: deliver a result as fast and as cheaply (ie low wages) as possible. While we claim people are our greatest asset we dispense with them readily in order to maintain profits. In a downturn it is much easier to reduce headcount than liquidate a property portfolio. As the emptiness of the economic model is revealed so too are we reassessing our understanding of people at work.

Technological overload

We live in an ‘always on’ society where there is so much choice we often fail to make a choice. Labour saving devices such as smart phones mean that work and our boss now comes home with us, binding us more closely to work. If you are anything like me you would have experienced the anxiety that comes from digital deprivation, when we are forced to turn off our devices.

Convergence and crossover

In 1960 Peter Drucker wrote an article called ‘the manager and the moron’ which talked about a new ‘dumb’ machine that would do the low end manual processing work and be available at all hours while the manager could focus on the work that mattered. Around 50 years later IBM launched Watson, a computer that won the game of jeopardy and is used to do medical diagnoses and can process vast amount of data faster than any human being.

“The great risk is that we will fail to upgrade our human capability at the same speed as computers upgrade their technological capability”

While people are being depersonalised by machines, artificial intelligence is on the rise. This will lead to a convergence and crossover of people and technology. The great risk is that we will fail to upgrade our human capability at the same speed as computers upgrade their technological capability. The worker risks becoming a mere object to Watson.

VUCA: The operating environment

The military coined the acronym VUCA — Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity — to explain the challenges of operating in the fog of war.

You experience volatility in wild swings and sudden shifts in markets; Uncertainty in the difficult of knowing much with any great certainty; Complexity in the interconnectivity and interrelatedness of many disparate systems; and Ambiguity when there is more than one right answer or interpretation.

The combination of the above forces in a VUCA environment explains why we face unprecedented change, and why your model of leadership needs to change. But to what?

21st century leadership

The answer lies in human-centred leadership. Human-centred leaders:

  • Put people first
  • Integrate the moral and technical dimensions of leadership
  • Create an environment in which people can flourish
  • Are purpose driven

Putting people first means looking around and seeing colleagues and collaborators, with hopes and dreams and aspirations. It means appreciating that people are not machines whose role is to produce results for the company. Leaders who put people first make decisions based on what is good for people — all those people who the organisation touches — not primarily on what will drive profit.

Integrating the moral and technical dimensions recognises that since leadership involves people and decisions it necessarily has a moral aspect. Recent education has focused on the technical dimensions of, for example, strategic foresight or commercial acumen or global awareness — all of which are important for contemporary leaders. However, given the shifts and changes in the operating context, leaders also require a moral framework to ensure they choose wisely and well.

“Leaders who put people first make decisions based on what is good for people”

The key to change is creating an environment in which people can flourish, in which they feel free to be and become their best selves. Industrial models of leadership are based on a top down command and control model. Human-centred leadership is bottom up — it exists in service of others in the firm. Human-centred leaders understand one of their key responsibilities is to liberate initiative, which they do by creating an environment in which people can grow, develop and do their best work. You do this by setting the boundaries and then given people freedom within that.

Lastly, human-centred leaders are purpose driven, and build purpose-driven firms. This means they are clear about why they do what they do, and help the firm understand its greater purpose. They recognise that both they and the firm contribute to the good of society in some way, rather than seeing society as mere consumers of products or services.

Human-centred leadership offers the best possible model for navigating the complexities and challenges of the immediate 21st century. The fog created by VUCA, combined with the rise of artificial intelligence and the ubiquity and depersonalising impact of technology, means touch will be more important than telling. People will want to know that you care, that you put their dignity before dollars, and that you naturally choose for what is truly good rather than what is expedient.