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Sudhanshu Palsule, award-winning leadership educator and author

24 March 2015

The article at a glance

For the 21st century leader the question is no longer whether we will be disrupted, but how quickly can we adapt to …

For the 21st century leader the question is no longer whether we will be disrupted, but how quickly can we adapt to constant disruption, according to Sudhanshu Palsule.

Chameleon on flower

We have held onto the image of the “leader as hero” for too long. There is still a certain unconscious masculinity attached to our idea of leaders – people still talk of a general leading his troops. This is increasingly out of touch with reality. In a socially networked world of multiple constituencies, the metaphor of “mayor” is more appropriate than that of “general”. I am not just thinking of Boris (Johnson, Mayor of London), though he is certainly playing his role in a challenging way, but of “mayoral” in the US sense, where the institution is more established and credible.

The leader doesn’t have to be the one who knows the answer to the problem. Since the beginning of the social age, with the widespread adoption of the internet in the mid 1990s, we have been going through a revolution which is just as great as Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the 15th century. The challenge to the leader of today is how to influence and inspire people who have access to just as much information as you, and who have their own point of view.

And we are seeing the demise of the expert. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has closed down publication and we have entered the age of Wikipedia and Google. These are never going to be as rigorous as the Britannica, but as my daughters’ generation says, they are “good enough”. What the Millennials value is being able to interact with information rather than information for the sake of itself. Information itself is now a social commodity.

But the answers are fewer and less obvious. Leaders have to get better at leading in ambiguity. Classical science and the industrial revolution fostered a belief in a world of certainty and predictability. The business world simply took this on as the truth and for a while it worked, as long as the environment was relatively stable. But in a world of increasing complexity, it is ambiguity that we must learn to understand. And that is not the realm of science but that of philosophy, art and poetry. I was trained as a physicist but I am increasingly drawn to these areas for answers, especially the philosophers who were the last of the intellectuals to study ambiguity. It has now come back full circle and ambiguity is a big theme in cognitive psychology.

Disruption has become the new norm. The question now is no longer whether we will be disrupted but about how quickly can we adapt to constant disruption. We have to nurture the capacity to be adaptive, to shed our baggage in order to become a more vibrant, society capable of rapid innovation.

Leadership is a continuous process of self-discovery. There is no longer any place to hide for the leader and the days of the spin doctor are gone. There is a new demand for what appear to be traditional values, albeit that they are re-emerging in a new disguise. Leaders must be authentic, believable, inspiring – and above all, relevant. In an increasingly attention-deficit economy, the biggest challenge for leaders is to get and keep attention: their primary work must be to stay engaged and engage others.

For me staying engaged is about mindfulness. We have to become aware of the biases and the noise inherent in our own thinking and, for that, mindfulness is critical. Mindfulness also means being mindful about having a purpose. That means, helping people see the significance and relevance in what they do within a larger purpose.

The leaders we remember are those who stand out as individuals. But they are of an older generation and I wonder if, as we progress further into the 21st century, we are going to see less of individual leaders and more collective leadership; groups of people inspired by one thing. We will always have individual leaders but it is what the individuals do that will be different.

Maybe the word “leader” itself is simply too loaded in this day and age. We have come to see leadership as an entitlement, a place for the few elite at the top of the organisation. Increasingly flatter and networked organisations are starting to challenge this view. In the 21st century, leadership is about becoming the person we can be, a continuous process of self-discovery. And certainly I am always trying to create the best version of myself – whatever that might be. I believe there is room for every single one of us to be a leader but to do so we all have to change our very notion of leadership.