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New leadership concept re-shaping NZ

The days of CEOs leading from the front are over, experts say.

New leadership concept re-shaping NZ

The pandemic and climate change are good metaphors demonstrating why – and how – New Zealand business leadership has to change, according to a leadership expert.

Professor Brigid Carroll, the Fletcher Building Employee Educational Trust Chair in Leadership at the University of Auckland Business School*, says the two global issues have shown how the gap between old leadership thinking in New Zealand businesses and organisations and a successful future can be bridged.

“These are times of unprecedented complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty,” she says. “There is constant movement in all the factors affecting a business. If you blink, you miss the next technological innovation, and the impacts of unparalleled global connectivity.

“The war in the Ukraine, the pandemic, even the heat waves in Europe – we are not little New Zealand at the end of the world any more; those things have a direct impact on us.”
It is the same for businesses and the old model of a leader sitting at the top of a chain of responsibility. Pulling a company along with the strength and depth of that leader’s knowledge, personality and vision has gone, Carroll says.

“What’s happening now is too much for one person, even a talented one. They can’t see far enough ahead; there are multiple points of conflict, needs for development and things which need attention. Now leadership can’t belong to a person in a position of responsibility – we need leadership which travels up, activates at the frontline and operates horizontally.

“It’s dispersed across different people at different levels and at different places within an organisation. It’s known as distributed or adaptive leadership; it’s the art of instilling that sense of leadership and strong sense of purpose across people, teams and systems within organisations – making the leader now more a facilitator and connector, rather than someone ‘in charge’.”

This style of leadership empowers more people to act and to be more cohesive, with those at all levels having the potential to be crucial leaders in solving the issues and taking the opportunities facing a modern business or organisation.

“It’s the notion of a collective mind,” Carroll says. “It’s like having the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle with different people; what you have to do is get all those people round a table and get them to put their piece of the jigsaw on that table – and then engage in collective action.”

“It’s about learning what we don’t know – and being okay to fail at first – and finding a way through all the problems by collaborating and using the collective strength of the people in an organisation – including groups who traditionally haven’t had much to do with a business’s direction, like the largely untapped resource of young people.”

Carroll says the pandemic and the response to climate change also offer instances of adaptive leadership at work.

“Look at the pandemic,” she says. “At first, we knew very little about it. What happened was a series of adjustments and leadership from different areas – the government led, yes, but so did the health authorities, the epidemiologists, the universities, local government and community groups and figures. It wasn’t just about the Prime Minister.”

New Zealand tried different approaches – lockdowns, closed borders, working from home and masks as the context changed and we learned more. Even though the pandemic is far from over, with issues still to be addressed, there have been potentially lasting breakthroughs. They include working from home/hybrid or flexible working, an outcome that proved that people “did not need to be in a direct line of sight of management to be productive.”

All New Zealanders had thoughts and opinions on the pandemic response which helped shape the current outcome: “Our society listened and learned and then put its point of view. Because we are so different, there were often vastly different responses; it was powerful but also messy at times but it helped us get to where we are now.”

Climate change was another example of adaptive leadership at work and the pursuit of collective cohesion: “We know our response to global warming can’t just come from one person, one country or one organisation.

“We need activists, young people, companies and organisations to collaborate with governments and other leaders and to sustain it – leadership from multiple places. That’s the only way it can work.

“While there are – and will continue to be – positive steps in engaging with the environmental crisis, it will rely on a world committed to sustained learning together.”

It is difficult to measure this kind of leadership, given it always involves messy periods and divergence of opinions, she says, but one way is to note changes already beginning to make a difference – like people now paying attention to carbon footprints, buying more electric vehicles, not taking so many plane trips and curbing the use of plastic.

Those warm us up to further and larger changes and give some confidence they can be accomplished if we continue to calibrate against the larger purpose: “Change is possible,” she says, “but it is change that requires a different understanding of leadership to achieve it.”

9 August 2022