Negotiating the rapids

Today's leaders must adapt the skills of white-water rafters, says Roger Trapp

Everybody knows - chiefly because everyone else keeps telling them - that life in just about every sort of organisation is different from how it used to be. It is characterised by huge and rapid changes. And by mounting insecurity.

The rank and file are apt to believe that only they are affected by this transformation, that somehow their bosses are immune from it. But, according to two management thinkers, there are some fundamental shifts that leaders will have to make themselves in order to develop in the fast- moving world of today and tomorrow.

A key change is to become used to uncertainty, say Phil Hodgson, client director at Ashridge Management College, and Randall P White of RPW Executive Development and the Center for Creative Leadership in the United States.

"Throughout history (and in the movies), great leaders always appeared to know what to do," they write in the latest issue of Directions, the Ashridge journal. "The leadership task was about how to get people to where they had to be."

Now, however, leaders have to learn to move towards uncertainty rather than away from it. At the same time, they must realise that leadership is both a continuous process and the management of distinct projects.

It has been tempting, they say, to think of leadership as a series of battles (or projects), but the decisions made in winning them will have a considerable effect on the ability to carry on the war (or continuous process). As a result, many leaders who have previously relied on a master plan must be familiar with the feeling expressed by Indiana Jones, who when asked in the first film what his plan was, replied: "I don't know; I'm making this up as I go."

Such a seat-of-the-pants approach demands that managers stop doing certain things, as well as adopting new ones. Among those that should be abandoned is copying what has been done in the past.

Mr Hodgson and Mr White point out, for instance, that there has been a lot of talk about past behaviour rather than present and future requirements. "Such benchmarking activity is useful, but the best benchmarking can do is bring one up to date," they write.

Another traditional approach ripe for jettisoning is the need to control. With leaders now finding themselves in the equivalent of inflatable rafts heading down white-water rapids instead of family saloons progressing smoothly down the motorway, they must develop "the ability to read the water ahead, to use the water flow, never pushing against the current, and always being prepared to invent a new technique if the existing ones aren't helping to negotiate the rapids."

Hitherto, according to the authors, leaders have not embraced this wild new world. Instead, they have operated in safety and comfort zones. At least part of the problem, they believe, is down to two assumptions often ingrained in leaders.

The first is that what made you effective in the past will make you effective in the future. This has never been true when moving up an organisation - the skill of being a good general manager is to acquire new skills and leave old ones behind. But for the future, even staying in the same job will mean developing new skills or even deploying old skills in new ways.

The good white-water rafter, say Mr Hodgson and Mr White, views each rapid as a place to enhance the use of the paddle, instinctively recognises the importance of survival and is constantly aware of the saying of the US management guru Richard Pascale: "Nothing fails like success."

The second assumption is that leadership and strategy can be developed and taught separately. Leadership is about movement and strategy about direction. Since the raft cannot be navigated without paying attention to both, solely increasing leadership skills "might only speed up the crash".

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