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Filling the Leadership Vacuum

While the credit crunch and ongoing recession have generated much in the way of government, economic and legal commentary, there is a vacuum when it comes to corresponding conversations around leadership, human capital and talent management.

June 3, 2009
Related Topics: Strategy and Management
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While the credit crunch and ongoing recession have generated much in the way of government, economic and legal commentary, there is a vacuum when it comes to corresponding conversations around leadership, human capital and talent management. This vacuum, or gap, offers both a point of reflection for practitioners and stakeholders and also sews the seeds for potential opportunity.

Reflecting on the highest-profile casualties and some of the walking wounded of the current downturn, attention is drawn to organizations as diverse as Lehman Brothers in banking, GM in automobile manufacturing, Woolworths in retail and AIG in insurance. This recession has struck far and wide, and further victims may be added to the list.

What is striking about the above group is not only their relative diversity, but their apparently excellent reputations. At one time, all had an aura of blue-chip authority. This notion is complex when one considers each organization’s qualities from a leadership and people management perspective.

To expand on this lack of input and guidance, consider the following. During recent months we have seen the emergence of a number of economic and legal commentators whose foresight and response to circumstance have help shape the debate and agenda going forward.

This relative consensus and discussion about the response is the very definition of thought leadership. But the relative silence from those interested in leadership, human capital and people management is stark, if not deafening. In other words, we are experiencing a leadership vacuum.

This leadership vacuum offers the potential for new thinking and an opportunity for practitioners. But one must ask, to what extent are academics, consultants and practitioners in a position to genuinely influence the ongoing debate and actions taken by the stakeholders that leadership work impacts? With regard to the recession, the financial debate can be seen in terms of a bailout and stimulus or not, but to date, a simple choice has yet to be presented from a leadership standpoint. And as someone once said, never let a good crisis go to waste.

While there may be no magic bullet, there is little doubt about the need for new thinking, and there has never a better time for new approaches. One example of this is the ongoing fascination with the Web and the rise of social software in its many guises.

Perhaps the area of greatest promise comes from recognizing approaches that advocate systematic, dynamic interconnectivity. Contrast this with much of the linear-based thinking that has seen many financial risks mispriced and identified a glaring inability to spot systemic risk.

While economic arguments may evolve around costs, efficiencies, profitability or more favorable business environments, perhaps the most salient call for a new system around people comes from Dave Snowden, who, back in 2003,  called for “[a model] of human behaviour able to encompass multiple dynamic individual and collective identities acting simultaneously and representing all aspects of perception, decision making and action.”

Developing a holistic approach that takes into account many complex and interlinked variables is easier said than done. However, there are a number of interesting perspectives and ideas emerging. These include Snowden himself who offers his Cynefin framework for sense making and organizations such as John Caswell’s Group Partners  and Denis Bourne’s Informal Networks have introduced a systemic approach for dealing with “wicked problems.” Kim Warren’s work in applying system dynamics to strategy and HR also is worth exploring.

Rather than suggesting a single approach or idea can fill the leadership vacuum, a variety of concepts can be moulded to fit specific organizations and contexts. For this, organizations will have to develop a far greater level of self-awareness and understanding of the intangible aspects that govern performance.
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