If you weren’t born into Leadership, you’d start on the “Shop Floor,” maybe sweeping the dust, debris, and sweat of failed dreams out onto a cobbled street. Eventually, you might move up to the “Assembly Line,” learning every cog of every machine of every product, until you felt like you were surely becoming one, too. From there, perhaps “Machine Operator” or “Shift Lead,” looking back down at the tired but grateful workers straining through everything you’d had to do to trade in the overalls for that prized collared shirt.
Only after years of painstaking service, you or one of your generation might make it to an office of Leadership.
It’s why barely a generation or two ago, people could work in one company their entire lives. It’s why fabulously industrial expressions like “work your way up,” “doing the dirty work,” “paying your dues,” and prescriptive military idioms like “moving up the ranks” are so entrenched in workforce and leadership culture. It’s why we picture a career “Ladder” because …
You couldn’t get anywhere near the top unless you’d done every job on the rungs beneath. How else would you know how to lead?
One generation of Leaders would solemnly endorse their successors directly from those next-in-line, those leaders-in-waiting, from Generation Same-Same, on the second top ladder rung. They, too, knew every nook, cranny, and role in the factory. They’d hit the right long-service milestones, and been to enough corporate Christmases without disgracing themselves by leaping onto a table after too much champagne to scream…
Why do Leadership roles have to take so long to earn!?! I’m ready NOW!
No doubt monarchs-in-waiting have felt this way, living a lifetime before their turn to rule. When the boardrooms of the world adopted the regal concept of next-in-line succession planning, they were no more innovative about where new leaders would come from. The laminated company org chart was ripped from its Velcro on the HR Managers wall and a scribbled “… & Leadership Path” was added to the title. An entire generation of workers dutifully read the memo and aligned their leadership aspirations to that structured diagram of the traditional plan.
But no one told Technology, Social Trends, or Workforce Shifts.
Those three weren’t at the leadership succession planning meeting and didn’t read the memo. They were skipping down the street, happily re-imagining things like process, efficiencies, even entire industries! They were out on the town with Generation Different; innovating, solving things, building stuff, and not really giving a hoot about the traditional path to leadership. They were already leading!
Generation Different, empowered by Technology, Social Trends and Workforce Shifts, is dreaming up tech to clean oceans, disrupting historic institutions and legacy industries with fin-tech and crypto, and skipping straight past brick-and-mortar retail with digital in their pockets.
Without an office full of workers behind them, they’ve had to be impressively resourceful. Generation Different leads by solving their own problems, getting things done, and making it up as they go along. Got a great idea but you’re not a business executive? There’s an app for finding people like that. Want to understand anything? There are online courses packed with knowledge it used to take years to learn. Need to build a collaborative team to help? There are start-up communities for this. Got a product in mind but didn’t spend three decades working in a factory? No worries, there are linked up innovative supply chains to manufacture literally anything you can think up.
Generation Different hasn’t been following traditional leadership paths. They haven’t been building the skills and knowledge to work every single job on the Org Chart in sequence. Instead, they’ve been crafting the ability to Get Stuff Done. Literally, thinking outside the (Org Chart) box. They are becoming the Jedi’s of innovation, problem-solving, sustainability, people power, and resourcefulness … and aren’t these the real required leadership skills of the future?
An almost celestial convergence of digital technology, social shifts, and the knowledge economy has enabled the rise of leaders in Generation Different, well down the ladder from Generation Same-Same.
With skills and expertise now available as a service, the need for decades-earned intrinsic experience has been massively diluted. Tomorrow’s Leadership is less about the dictatorial all-knowing commander and far more about the enabling servant-leader, getting collaborative teams to work in more agile ways for more innovative outcomes.
The lightning speed of change in Technology, Social Trends, and Workforce Shifts has massively outpaced the subtle changes between one generation and the direct next.
To align with what’s already happening, will Leadership skip a generation, just to catch up?
Governments know it. Countries from New Zealand to France to Canada to Ireland have some of the youngest leaders ever, governing their entire countries on the world stage. They skipped entire generations of potential leaders. People elected those they felt were best equipped to lead them through contemporary challenges and change, and from within the very ranks of those driving the change.
Leadership skipping a generation (or two!) and throwing the doors open to broader generations means a richer wider talent pool, opportunity for those who are ready to lead, and the very real possibility that tomorrow’s customers will be served by solutions dreamed up, enabled, and led by one of their own. Customers don’t care about keeping the torch of leadership following traditional generational succession, but they do care about connection, and they are cheering, singing and dancing down the street with Changing Technology, Social Trends, and Workforce Shifts.
Despite technology being a prime driver, automating processes, and facilitating new on-demand knowledge economies, it’s the human connection that will be the real driver of progress.
Leadership is, after all, a human rather than a digital trait. There is no option to…
Run Leadership v4.0? Your business may need to reboot several times during install.
Rather than apps and Org Charts, we’ll need authentic human connection and true curiosity to find and enable our next leaders. Today’s leaders must see and acknowledge where those who possess the uniquely human traits of initiative, imagination, resourcefulness, and collaboration are actually sitting in their businesses and brands. We must wave goodbye to the assumptions of succession plans past and smile a big warm welcome at the opportunity to center human capability, knowledge, and savvy, regardless of generation, at the leadership tables of the future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
AJ Moore is an Australian-based business writer, analyst, and company director, and comes from the innovation and talent sectors. Driven by technical and people-enabled business sustainability, she is focused on helping enterprises thrive in an increasingly digital world.