One of the key organisational capacities that makes a difference is how we embed leadership “mindshare” in the organisation.
This relates to also how we embed visionary thinking and enable broader mindsets across the whole organisation, including how we invest in individuals.
According to Johnson and Suskewicz in Lead from the Future, “Visionary organisations create structures that incentivise collaborative learning at every level” (p. 175).
But how to shift the mindsets towards more visionary thinking?
First steps are to understand that leadership is a skillset, assess the five attributes of leadership potential, and build a learning culture.
Leadership mindshare is the long-term game
Leadership is not just about training your senior managers to look after their teams but really increasing the capacity of individuals to think differently, innovate, and push the vision forward.
Soon-to-be leaders should be mentored well in advance to make sure that there is a pipeline of leadership talent that is flowing through the organisation.
Johnson and Suskewicz note in that some companies already recognise that these are actually transferable and learnable skills:
“strategy, innovation, and leadership could be learned and taught by a combination of successful practitioners and conceptual pioneers” (p. 172).
Simon Sinek sums this up really nicely in the latest Coaching for Leaders podcast, that leadership development does not just happen during off-site retreats: it is a dynamic continuous process that is based on and requires practice.
Investing in long-term programs that really embed leadership qualities works because these skill sets are learnable and no one masters the whole set the day they are born.
If we move to think about leadership and innovation as skillsets to be learned rather than innate qualities, we open up more opportunities for change and growth.
Then we can be much more strategic about how to invest in this long-term process of enabling a shift in mindsets how people treat others and how they lead especially during crises just like the one that is sweeping the globe as COVID-19.
5 qualities to screen leadership talent on
When looking to evaluate people’s existing leadership skills, Johnson and Suskewicz suggest using the five attributes as outlined in The Innovator’s DNA:
Associating: “the ability to make unexpected creative connections among seemingly unrelated things, to cross-pollinate ideas by combining and recombining them” (p. 173). People who have this skill just “see” solutions and ideas and are able to foster innovation.
Questioning. Questioning is also a unique skill that enables often people to see new perspectives. Asking the “what if” questions is highly useful as this lets people to question the existing assumptions and find new solutions instead of just letting things proceed in status quo.
Observing. These people are interested in understanding practice; they visit the places where products are used, they observe how something is used and talked about because they want to understand the customer and his/her needs. Lots of new insights can be gained just from being able to observe.
Experimenting. People who experiment “use the world as a laboratory”. They travel and work overseas and immerse themselves in different cultures and ways of thinking and living. Having a diverse set of experiences increases one’s knowledge and understanding and enables making new connections between ideas.
Networking. People who network “drive to test ideas by exposing them to peers and people from other walks of life” (p. 173). They work across different sectors, visit conferences and seminars outside of their own area of expertise, and increase their exposure to new ideas.
Leaders will have to have broad range of knowledge and experiences in order to lead diverse groups and learning these skill sets is crucial.
Build a learning culture
The balance between feeling successful when ideas succeed and doing mistakes when experiments go wrong is a fine line in most organisations.
Building a learning culture where the experience of learning is valued more than succeeding gives employees signals that innovation (read= learning through trying) is more important than just ticking off the normal performance metrics.
If people are afraid to try something new because it might fail, this has a direct bearing on their willingness and capacity to think outside the box:
“No one should ever feel they are putting their job in jeopardy by trying to solve a problem or develop something new that might not pan out” (p. 176)
At Microsoft, this is managed by focusing on shared metrics where “performance” measures what is currently happening (e.g. yearly revenue, profits) and “power metrics” that are about “future-year performance”.
Microsoft’s CEO Nadella notes that for Microsoft, it is more important to understand that they are on the right path rather than just focus on the immediate results that are most easily measured.
Bringing together people from diverse backgrounds fosters also a learning culture where new questions can be asked and learning can become a stable process that builds on the rich insights emerging from diversity.
Some companies do for example reverse mentoring where younger employees are paired with older colleagues to enable both to learn from each other and share their views and experiences.
This again enables different kinds of knowledges and worldviews brought together and helps everyone to keep up with new innovation and older ideas and practices within the organisation.
Lessons for climate change adaptation
Many of these skillsets are highly applicable across many fields, such as climate change adaptation.
In our field, we often talk about adaptive capacity of organisations (how they choose to adapt to climate change) but this is more focused on decision processes rather than the broader sets of skills that people need.
The fact that we are entering an unprecedented times even more in the future requires us to start embedding mindsets that can handle rapid pivoting but also learning to question, to experiment and to learn.
But the very skills of what makes great leaders great are what can make climate change adaptation great as well.
This requires long-term commitment and investment in people’s capacity to think differently, act collaboratively and develop a leadership mindshare on how to structure and plan a better, safer world in a changing climate.