Modern leadership: why a responsive management style is the future

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In today’s ever-changing business environment, there isn’t one management style or technique that works all the time – what’s required is a responsive approach to stay ahead. 

The world has changed. As new demands from both the market and employees come to the fore, traditional management styles are being overtaken by a new leadership mindset. This new style of management is responsive and requires leaders to understand how – and when – to use different leadership styles.

My personal experience of taking part in portfolio reviews goes back to around 10 – 15 years ago, when the focus was on planning, predicting the future, creating a detailed project plan maybe as far as 18 months ahead, and then executing and delivering as promised. Both as a project manager and as portfolio lead, I fell into that trap.

Boy, did we learn! We learned that in a world that keeps changing in unprecedented ways, designing for change is key skill in leadership and it’s something we should have been planning and executing in our tactical and practical activities.

The traditional best practice leadership style fell short in the turmoil of the disruptive, modern business world. Something new was needed.

The rise of new practice leadership

In previous decades and during the industrial revolution of the last century, management focused on structure, productivity and efficiency, as companies grew from a handful of employees to thousands, and revenue increased exponentially.

We needed tools for structure, communication, decision-making, and division of labour. Effective leadership and specialist skills walked hand-in-hand. That was good in that period, and we would not be here without that heirloom.

Now, with the first digital revolution, new possibilities and requirements for leadership have arisen. The developments in technology and society have given us the possibility to redesign our personal work/life integration, and we can work anywhere, anytime.

We now have the possibility to talk directly to our CEO via social media – or to the president of France.

The understanding of the long-tail in the market space makes it possible for us to address a volatile customer behavior faster and with new understanding of what the blue ocean strategy is (i.e. the idea that lasting success comes not from battling competitors but from creating ‘blue oceans’, or untapped new market spaces ripe for growth).

Redesigning leadership

All this creates a need for redesigning what leadership is. New practice leadership understands the developments in technology and society and exploits the possibilities.

This leadership style focuses on dreams as well as strategic goals, and on networks as well as hierarchies, and on experimentation as well as planning. It is a leadership approach that is based on people and engagement, both with customers, shareholders, society, and employees.

This new style of leadership is responsive and fuses both traditional and modern methods. Going too far in either of the two opposable directions is fatal for your leadership and for the organisation. 

This kind of leadership is about juggling two apparently opposing elements, e.g. hierarchy and networks. The truth is, new practice leadership is exactly the understanding of how to juggle these, and how to balance and apply those two leadership styles.

It is a shift in gravity point towards something more based on freedom, humanism and sustainability, but still with a responsive approach to mixing it.

Design principles for the future of leadership

From my experience of working with top and middle managers in the past five years, focusing solely on transforming them and their organisations to thrive in the future of work, five design principles permeate the mindset of those modern leaders:

They are people oriented. Not customers or employees first, but people.

  1. They focus on their purpose and ensure that they make work meaningful for all employees.
  2. They encourage innovation and experimentation.
  3. They are driven by results.
  4. They distribute their leadership powers to those who have the will, skill, ability and desire to lead.
  5. This forms a whole new and modern leadership mindset, one that is the fabric of an organisation that can stay relevant in the modern world. These organisations are agile, adaptable and focused on responding to change rather than following a plan.

You might notice that many of these virtues are in sync with the content of the Agile Manifesto.

This kind of leadership does not solely focus on letting go, on self-management and self-leading teams, and on the near-anarchy that follows when you play with holacracy in the wrong way.

The Responsive Org Manifesto, clearly shows that the modern leader is one who understands the dynamics of the organisational development, and is capable of decoding it and responding accordingly.

This new style of leadership is responsive and fuses both traditional and modern methods. Going too far in either of the two opposable directions is fatal for your leadership and for the organisation. In the end, this leads to a lack of buy-in from your employees.

Recoding your leadership style

My clear advice is to start studying your organisation’s dynamics, and the balances you are trying to juggle. You need to understand when to be hierarchical and when to work in networks, and when to be planning versus experimenting.

It’s also important to know when to decide yourself versus when to delegate to others, and when to focus on purpose versus profit.

Only through deliberate and meticulous study of your leadership behaviour can you start mastering the dynamic mix that is needed in the future.

Interested in reading more about management techniques? Read What will leadership look like in the future?

About Erik Korsvik Østergaard

Erik Korsvik Østergaard

Erik Korsvik Østergaard (b. 1973) is partner in Bloch&Østergaard, which he founded in 2013. He holds a degree as Master of Science (M.Sc.) from the Technical University of Copenhagen with a thesis in chaos mathematics, and has an EBA in cross-cultural project management.

Erik has worked with leadership, digitization, strategy, change management, and organizational transformation in +15 years, as manager, project manager, and consultant – and has a burning passion for leadership and engagement.

Over the past years Erik has focused on codifying the mechanisms for the future of work, striving to establish a leadership framework that provides the modern organizations and leaders with a coupling between megatrends, theory, and real-life practice. This has led to a line of correlated models for strategy execution, innovation in daily-life, culture, and the networked organization, which has been justified in a long number of situations in both large, international organizations, and in scale-up companies. Combined, this has provided good, measurable results; especially on people analytics.

The four key findings in his work is gathered in his book “The Responsive Leader”, published February 2018 via LID Publishing, and includes three cases of modern organizations.

In addition, he acts as a mentor, speaker, inspirator, and motivator. He is a regular guest lecturer at Copenhagen Business School (CBS), and is also a keen jazz pianist, songwriter, and singer.

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