Being sufficiently knowledgeable and skilled when there was relative stability in the workplace, when products and services didn’t change much, when companies did essentially the same work for their entire existence (e.g., Ford Motor did assembly-line manufacturing of internal combustion vehicles for over a century), and when entry into a mature market was very difficult and costly, is challenging enough. Being sufficiently knowledgeable and skilled in times of disruption can seem nearly impossible.
And here we are - in a time of tremendous disruption. According to Annmarie Neal and Daniel Sonsino, 40 percent of the jobs we know today will be disrupted by technology within the next five years. Uber and Lyft
have disrupted urban transportation, online banking and investing have disrupted the financial services
industry, self-driving cars are disrupting the automobile industry, drones are threatening to disrupt the package delivery business, specialty drop-in health clinics are disrupting health care, Fiverr is disrupting the creative services business, Warby Parker has disrupted the retail eyeglass business. I could go on and on. Nearly every business has or will have a disrupter. The barrier to entry in most markets is very low; all a competitor needs today is a good idea and an app.
So, what is a leader to do? JD Dillon, of Axonify, writes…
An organization’s long-term viability is not solely determined by the quality of its product. It’s now highly-dependent on how quickly the company can evolve in the face of disruption. Just look at what happened to Blockbuster, Polaroid, and (most recently) Yahoo. Organizations must be learning constantly to ensure survival. This extends to all employees, who are being asked to flex in their roles and handle more and more responsibility.
It’s not a question any longer if a business or industry will face disruption, but rather, when it happens, will leaders and managers know what to do. David Dotlich and Raj Ramachandran, in an article for ATD titled Leading in Time of Disruption and Ambiguity, write:
Leading well, gaining followership, and delivering results in the next 10 years—in which change, volatility, and industry disruption are the constant, and periods of stability and predictability are unusual—will be the challenge that underlies all else for executives and those who help develop them. Effective leaders will need to be able to adapt to such a wide variety of different contexts, conditions, and situations that it will be increasingly difficult to simply teach "how to lead." What we can do instead is develop leaders who have the skills to flourish in complex, ambiguous, and uncertain environments.
So, what are the leadership skills for “…complex, ambiguous, and uncertain environments”? Annmarie Neal and Daniel Sonsino, in their ATD blog post titled “Challenge Your Assumptions About Learners” argue that the new, digital generation of workers are tech-savvy, collaborative and connected, want flexibility in how they work, learn, and play, and have an “I can do anything” mentality (Sounds a lot like my generation!). Leaders of digital-generation workers will need similar qualities or at least be comfortable supervising employees who have these qualities.
In a time of disruption, leadership has to be about continuous development of the people around you. Everyone needs to continually learn fast, learn collaboratively, and learn flexibly. Leaders need to be agile in the face of new technology, new competitors, new expectations, and new goals. Leadership today is less about learning a specific set of skills and more about an attitude that embraces the challenges that come from disruption.