3 key leadership shifts to unlock a future-fit strategy

11 Sep 2020

Yesterday, as part of London Tech Week 2020, I had the pleasure of speaking with Clare Barclay, the new CEO of Microsoft UK and Dr. Chris Brauer of Goldsmiths, about UK competitiveness.

UK competitiveness is critical, and the best way to achieve it is to take an even wider and more ambitious view. I believe that the next decade will be the most important in human civilisation, let alone UK competitiveness.

We are experiencing deep systemic conflicts between human and nature; the few against the many; and the short versus the long-term. If we are to continue to thrive on this planet, as businesses and as people, we need a new type of growth. We need a different type of collaboration between business and governments. And we are running out of time.

By going through the challenges of Covid-19, what I have seen through our clients and at our own company, Xynteo, is that when we really need to change, we can. Covid-19 has acted as a spotlight, shining a harsh but necessary light on the stains and brokenness of our economies and societies that were already with us. And what we focus our attention on, we can change - at speed and scale.

By looking at our challenges in a new light, we can unlock our human superpower of collaboration and meet our goals. But to unlock this, we need a shift towards leadership that can create a future-fit strategy. For us to reinvent a new type of growth – as people, businesses and as a society, there are three key leadership shifts we need to go through:

First, we need leaders who explore the future as a discipline. We have been talking about black swans and disruption for decades, but our leadership practices have not caught up. Our relentless pursuit of efficiency makes us brittle – there is little excess capacity to pivot when the unexpected hits. I think we have seen this very clearly with the pandemic. As an example, we saw how supply chains from electronics to parts of the food chain seize up when the pandemic hit. We are all reassessing our global supply chains, and understanding the role of local focus, and local supply chains to decrease risk and increase flexibility.

Now the word on everyone's lips is 'resilience' - but will we actually do what is required? Will we start the hard work of building the future we want, instead of reacting into one we don't, comforted by five-year plans?

Second, we need leaders that can think long-term, but act now. We have no time to lose, and we know more than enough to get going. In just 10 years, Ørsted transitioned from being one of the most fossil fuel intensive utilities in Europe to one of the most sustainable energy companies in the world. Its leadership did not wait for a 100% consensus nor a 100% certainty before exploiting into action. We all need to act, even in times of uncertainty.

Third, leaders must become immensely skilled at systems collaboration. And this means a sharp pivot away from the kind of leadership we have become used to. The so-called heroic leader who knows it all. Leaders should instead use their positions to 'host' potential partners from all parts of the system to collaborate on seemingly intractable problems. Unconventional, powerful partnerships are required to create the new systems we need to serve us – from energy, food and farming to health and more. These new systems will not be shaped by one strong hand alone, but rather evolved by coalitions of diverse leaders.

If these leadership shifts are fully realised, I believe the UK can grow, and become more competitive, while making the systemic changes that society needs.

To learn more about how we equip business leaders to reinvent growth and transform systems, see our latest insights here. You can also see the full recording of this event here and a full copy of Osvald's speech here.