‘Leaders of the 21st century shouldn’t play boss’

“Rapid technological change is the biggest threat to businesses that do not respond as quickly as they should. Organisations and governments that do not take timely action will eventually lose their right to exist”, according to futurist and top speaker Richard van Hooijdonk. “You can already witness that the relevant lifespan of companies is rapidly decreasing. To turn the tide, extreme efforts are needed and a new form of leadership is crucial.”

Text: Jacques Geluk

“Until 1990 companies could exist seventy years or longer easily, according to research conducted by the University of Yale in 2016. That was at the end of an era when changes occurred at a slower pace. At that time, bureaucratic governance with long decision lines and various layers of management was still a safe option.” Richard van Hooijdonk explains that it is precisely this system of formal organisational structures that, a quarter of a century later, is the greatest enemy of organisations. “Early 2015, the lifespan of companies that are stuck in what I would call ‘bureaucreation’ and do not embrace technological developments, had already fallen to less than twelve years, unless change cycles accelerate extremely fast. As I see it, within two years’ time, that will be no more than six years.” This is partly because one hundred year old company structures have a demotivating effect on the staff, who are therefore less productive and inspired.

“These organisations are unable to change in time and lose their right to exist. Organisations of the future are adapting faster. These hyper-connected companies and institutions not only employ talented people, they also work together with experts and scientists in a kind of ecosystem. Learning, experimenting and being able to work together, that’s what it’s all about. Skills that are very important in the 21st century are passion, curiosity, creativity and resilience.”

Leaders of tomorrow

New leaders must inspire, be the hub of their organisation and at the same time be open to all the members of their teams, who should be able to operate autonomously in order to own what they do. They must learn to stop telling their employees exactly what to do. Today’s bosses just can’t control everything anymore. Problem-oriented communication is outdated too, because it takes a lot of time and therefore limits decisiveness. What should tomorrow’s leaders be like? Richard: “Team players who give freedom and trust to the people around them and prefer networking and communities to hierarchy. They inspire, coach and guide their employees in the right direction. It would be all about facilitating the leaders of the future, explaining why they do things and giving team members all they need to be successful. After all, it is not about THEIR ego, it should always be about their employees. Treating employees as robots who do what they are told to do without talking back does not contribute to healthy business operations.”

Leaders should not only adopt a different attitude within their organisation and always be aware of the latest big (technological) changes. Their greatest challenge will be changing the way managers and employees think into a disruptive mindset. “The power to drop old values and adopt new ones determines the success of tomorrow’s organisation”, says Richard, who immediately explains that we are not good at unlearning what we have learnt. “We like to stick to the old and are not used to rapid changes. To change that, the new leaders must also be able to inspire and amaze employees and win their trust. If this succeeds, they can absorb new knowledge and skills, which makes it easier for their organisation to adapt much faster to a new vision.”

20-something leader

“Do you know what would be good”, Richard suggests, “if leaders start managing their organisations together with a 20-something manager. Young adults already know the future, they got educated in the digital classroom. Older people know today’s world and have earned their spurs in it. Together they form an enormously powerful unit based on equality, which can make use of two worlds.” It all seems simple, but it certainly isn’t. Richard: “Switching to a new form of organisation adapted to the 21st century is often difficult. In many cases, it starts wrong when the director immediately begins telling the team how to operate autonomously. Then the self-determination is already nipped in the bud. The director must realise that all those involved, including themselves, are going through a learning process and that everyone must be given the opportunity to do their own work as they see fit. The employees should be motivated then,but that isn’t always so easy. There is another challenge. Organisations and their leaders may be able to adapt to rapid change, but they must be aware that they can’t turn back.” What tomorrow’s world will really look like is extremely uncertain.

According to Richard, uncertainty is the new normal, but he is afraid many organisations will keep focussing too much on short-term solutions. “Leaders have the important task of managing this uncertainty by means of future scenarios in which they must invest heavily. As a result, profit maximisation should not always be their first objective. Discussions about shareholder value and its significance are also interesting at this stage. Does shareholder value mean a lot of money in the bank and high revenues on their stocks, or that their company still exists ten years from now because you decided to invest a considerable part of your present profit in future business directions?”

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Leaders as role models

“You could say that today’s leaders must serve and be role models for the generation that is just maturing. These young men and women, and the youngest group of the generation before them, need successful examples – think of Bill Gates, Jack Ma, Steve Jobs and Dutch ‘ocean cleaner’ Boyan Slat – and a holistic approach. They are happy to work for an organisation where they are sure that people are more important than profit, where a good work-life balance is standard and where there are adequate solutions to social problems. The new leaders must also take into account that the current generation is cautious and cynical and has no affinity with most of the current leaders, who, according to the young adults, do not have motivating qualities.” Richard keeps an eye on all developments and takes into consideration how others think about the changes that already exist and will occur. “Most people agree that we are at a crossroads. Some companies that already support autonomously operating employees, return to classic hierarchical leadership when cuts are necessary. Some say that for many leaders,dialogue is the most important means of getting some grip on things, because what is fine today, could be obsolete tomorrow. In any case, they should always know what is going on and what would be a good reaction at that moment. A leader must listen to all opinions – especially those of their employees, take them seriously and then follow up immediately to whatever the outcome is, even if they may not agree.”

Servant leaders

In summary, leaders serve their company and its employees without compromising the quality of their leadership. They must certainly have a number of skills. As said before, they must be able to listen to and communicate well with their employees and not be afraid that some of them might be smarter than they are. That is a good thing. Being empathetic is another good characteristic, which means that the leaders must be able to put themselves in the shoes of their employees. Leaders can also be expected to have a vision on the future of the company and be able to analyse it based on past and present events. They must also be prepared to take responsibility not only for success but also for failure. “Jack Ma, the leader of AliBaba, explains that in an article on the website of Penn State University in the United States. His vision is the reason that many young people see in him the role model that they are looking for in determining the type of business for which they want to work.”

Richard van Hooijdonk is one of the most sought-after trend watchers and futurists in the Netherlands, and an international top speaker. His lectures have already been attended by over 420,000 people. He also advises multinationals and other ambitious organisations. He is a guest lecturer at various universities. Previously, he worked as a strategic advisor, marketing director, advisorand member of the boards of directors and management boards of various banks, insurers, publishers and technology companies. His book, which has now become a bestseller, ‘De Wereld van Morgen’ (‘The World of Tomorrow’) was published by Bertram+deLeeuw Publishers. ISBN: 9789461562432

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This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

Trendwatcher, futurist and international keynote speaker Richard van Hooijdonk takes you to an inspiring future that will dramatically change the way we live, work and do business.

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