The 7 steps to Frontier Leadership

Today we are at a frontier that is challenging our received wisdoms about how to work, where to work and what to work on. The Coronavirus pandemic is a genuine, never before experienced event, that is disrupting everything. All leaders are in uncharted territory. How they respond will determine the success of their ventures for the next decade or more. What is certain is that leaders cannot wait for this crisis to be over before acting. They need to start shaping the new normal.

Our research two years ago into how leaders were thinking, acting and operating, led to the first version of The 7 Steps to Frontier Leadership. We found too many leaders operating in their comfort zones, often because they didn’t know what else to do. They were far from the frontier where they needed to be. Our contention was that leaders needed to be at the ‘frontier’. The pandemic has done nothing to change this view and in fact Covid has accelerated some of the changes we predicted. Here’s what else has changed.

Pause

It is too easy, when so much is changing, to feel the need to do something, anything. In fact, it becomes even more critical to stop and reflect first – to pause and really challenge yourself and crucially to examine your purpose.

Taking the time to really understand the context of your organisation and the challenges it faced was always important and two years’ ago we highlighted how infrequently and narrowly organisations do this. Despite the pandemic, globalisation and technology still mean your next competitor could be based anywhere in the world. Or the face-to-face services you deliver, could be replaced by an app. We challenged leaders to critically examine the extent to which their beliefs about their operating models and how they behaved as leaders were genuinely suited to these challenging times.

But a new question has arisen in this necessary moment of reflection – does your organisation’s purpose still make sense in the emerging world? So many people have been forced to stop and pause and really think about what they want from life. Yes, there is huge pressure for the economy to re-start, but people don’t want to work the way they did, they don’t want to buy the things they did, or interact the way they did. As society re-examines its values and as change continues around us, it is only those organisations whose purpose resonates with this new emerging paradigm that will survive.

So ask yourself – does your purpose still make sense and keep on asking it.

Choose

Then you can choose – initially how you want to behave as a leader. Then there are other choices that need to be made: your vision – where you really want to get to; and the values by which you want to work. Both will help you create the future you want.

Choosing your leadership style is crucial. Evidence suggests organisations can’t exceed the action logic – the way of working – of the CEO. If the CEO chooses to be an opportunist exploiting the world around them, the chances are the organisation is unlikely to survive in the long term. If, however, the CEO chooses to stand back and take a strategic view, engaging in genuine enquiry with a wide range of stakeholder communities and continually challenge themselves as well as others, they will enable the organisation to grow and adapt.

By building a shared and motivational vision and values that reflect the internal dialogue and hopes of the organisation, and of those you serve, you will start to create solutions that will ensure your organisation flourishes.

Leadership also means recognising times are challenging for colleagues. That means developing a voice and narrative that excites the organisation, being visible and being prepared to show vulnerability. Explaining how hard you are finding it, and how creating the future together is the only way to succeed. And above all to remain versatile – flexible and adaptive.

Act

Once you have chosen, you can act. The previous steps will have helped you set yourself up for success by starting to shape the three remaining domains you need to focus on – Culture, Strategy and Resourcing and enable you to put in place an evidence based, structured process to deliver your vision.

Your culture matters, now more than ever. Consider how organisations have responded to the pandemic. Some have continued to keep their employees using schemes like the furlough, while others announced redundancies almost straightaway. Those organisations that have shown care and compassion to their employees, have already seen the payback in increased productivity. And they will reap the benefits in future employee loyalty, which will translate into future customer satisfaction and spend. How actively are you building the culture you need to succeed?

Covid has made traditional strategy making redundant. Strategy is about setting boundaries and defining what your organisation is and isn’t going to do in pursuit of your vision and purpose. Furthermore, it is rare in any organisation that there are enough resources to do everything, so choices need to be made. Facilitating choosing what you are and aren’t going to do, and the boundaries in which you will operate, is a prime responsibility of Frontier Leaders.

If the purpose is clear and the culture aligned, then everyone in the organisation will understand where the organisation’s resources need to be focussed and will work to make that happen – even if it disadvantages their area or function. Indeed, that is a good sign of an organisation that is well led – probably by a Frontier Leader. That those who work in the organisation continuously change to meet the evolving needs of the organisation and its context – change isn’t a project or something that is done, it’s a way of being.

After all, why would someone who is engaged with the organisation’s purpose, not want to evolve so they can deliver that purpose? There is no need for ‘empire’, only to work collaboratively to deliver the purpose. Of course, there will be disagreements about the best ways to deliver the purpose, but with a good culture those discussions will be constructive, not destructive.

The real challenge in allocating resources is to ensure that intangible resources such as power and authority are allocated as well. Frontier Leaders know they are not in charge, but rather custodians of the organisation’s purpose and culture; alchemists that challenge the organisation to re-invent itself. So Frontier Leaders are very careful about the systems, processes and authorities they put in place to support the culture and the delivery of the why, where and how. They understand such things are not about empowering people, but about not dis-empowering people in the first place.

The pandemic hasn’t changed the underlying challenges of being a Frontier Leader – a leader who can help an organisation successfully navigate the turbulent waters we all find ourselves in; it has just increased the need for such leaders and for organisations to have frontier leadership capabilities woven throughout them.

Adrian Spurrell
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Adrian Spurrell

Adrian has a strong belief that people have the capacity to change and excel but frequently their existing beliefs and habits get in the way. His focuses on attitudinal and behavourial change by getting people to explore their current context, their belief and the behaviours those beliefs drive. His experience is extensive and broad including: working on a one-to-one basis leaders; top team coaching and development; facilitating leadership development workshops, developing the management skills of line managers and broadly based culture change projects for public and private organisations, with people at all grades and from diverse countries.