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Compassionate Leadership in the 4th Industrial Revolution

Regardless of how the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is defined, it will most likely include the following themes: a fundamental shift in how we work, connect, and engage with one another; rapid technological advancement; breaking down barriers between our physical, digital, and biological worlds; and it is happening faster than any other revolution before it. In a nutshell, the 4IR represents a tremendous upheaval in how we work, play, and live. It is an enormous opportunity to rethink growth and development and how we interact and construct companies.

It will require an entirely new set of leadership abilities. With so much change happening around us, not to mention the mounting worldwide crises, the demand to perform, adapt, and deliver grows daily. Long-term sustainability requires bold choices to pivot promptly, built on a culture of continuous learning, reinvention, and innovation in business, organizations, and society.

However, increasing competitiveness and pressure will not result in success in the 4IR. The primacy of competition is a 20th-century concept that gradually gives way to the importance of collaboration, as Hutchins and Storm make clear in their work on Regenerative Leadership. Margaret Heffernan makes this point about our worship of outstanding performers. "...We infantilize everyone else, conveying that everyone can – even should – be passive in the face of towering ability...the focus on business leaders as winners conveys the dispiriting message that others don't count". With change the ability to be human and display compassion will set you and your organization apart and motivate people to cooperate with you.

I reflected on this recently, speaking to the CEO of a small charity that is in the process of scenario planning for changes to their environment. The question wasn't whether they should plan for good and bad times but how to do it in a way that built their organization and gave their people, mission, and purpose the best chance of success. It is not straightforward, and it's worth remembering there are no solo climbers in successful adaptation.

Individuals who successfully create the leadership abilities necessary for the 4IR, in my experience, have actively worked to improve competency in three areas:

Built Outsight: Herminia Ibarra's excellent concept of outsight emphasizes expanding your knowledge base, being interested, and looking beyond your immediate surroundings. Effective Leadership in the 4IR begins with outsight, with the development of new muscles that allow you to think differently. Achieving this means being willing to accept your knowledge gaps, developing your comfort level with having difficult talks (the ability to dispute), and actively trying to broaden your network. All of which I am constantly struggling to achieve.

Practice turning information into insight: "Skate where the puck will be," practice turning knowledge into understanding. To develop a 4IR strategy, leaders must be aware of the signals, leading indicators, and trends impacting their environment. How do you interpret the current and future developments (for example, the role of AI, Gen X, demographic transitions, and climate change)? Understanding how to interpret these trends is essential leadership ability. It doesn't mean doing it alone; rather, it means fostering connectivity, establishing spaces for idea generation and harvesting, and devoting time to analysis - don't just read articles from the same sources. Remember Steve Jobs' quote: "Creativity is simply connecting things... [creative people have] had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people...[to] have enough dots to connect…".

Leadership and followership go hand in hand: the hierarchy isn't gone, but it's a lot flatter than it used to be. Effective leadership in the 4IR is empathetic, dynamic, and found at various organizational levels. It will become increasingly vital to persuade people to follow you and demonstrate that you can be a good follower. There will be change with the 4IR, and the only way to create an atmosphere where everyone thrives is to construct diverse, flexible, and dynamic teams that can cooperate across boundaries.

Building capability in these areas takes time and doesn't come naturally to many of us (certainly not to me). Take Herminia Ibarra's idea that to think like a leader, you must first act like a leader. This means you must dive into new initiatives and activities, engage with people from all walks of life, and try new methods. As individuals in leadership roles, we need to plan for different scenarios to compassionately help move our organizations into the new reality of the 4IR.

Fortunately, "there is no one organizational paradigm that works all of the time; rather, think of a pendulum constantly in motion...". The leadership challenge is allowing this flexibility while assisting others in growing and developing. Put your mask on first. Successful leadership and followership require you to build your skills and practises first. We will only have the abilities we need to prosper in the 4IR if we act today.


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If you found this blog engaging, have questions about ordinary leadership or want to chat about leadership in general, it would be great to connect.


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