As more members of the Baby Boom generation leave the workforce, the design professions are losing their most senior leaders. For many firms the change is coming without clear succession plans in place. Generation X and Y professionals hold far different ideas and expectations of leaders and leadership than their predecessors, further complicating the issue for those who head firms and organizations.
In recent years the leadership literature has touted the rise of “soft” skills like listening and consensus building that help foster collaboration in their organizations. Nick Petrie of the Center for Creative Leadership wrote that the complexity of current problems calls for collaboration between various stakeholders “who often cross geographies, reporting lines, and organizations, need to collaboratively share information, create plans, influence each other, and make decisions.”
But the model of a consensus-building, people-centric leader may not be applicable in all settings and situations. Like the traditional, hierarchical and directive model it replaced, the soft-skilled leader may not have all the qualities it takes to succeed.
In a HBR blog article titled “Command and Collaborate,” INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra observed that discussion of leadership had changed from reinvention to “adding elements to the new model.” She asserted that to be successful, future leaders need to have the best traits of both models.
Peter Grauer, chairman of the board of Bloomberg, gave a talk at Wharton called “The ‘And’ Factor: Embracing Contradictions to Develop Great Leaders” in which he talked about the need for leaders to be both assertive and humble, big-picture thinkers who mind the details, and loyal to the company while putting clients first.
Hard or soft skills aside, the new model of leader seems to require tremendous flexibility and foresight.
Ronald Heifetz, co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard, wrote in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership that the “improvisational ability to lead adaptively relies on responding to the present situation rather than importing the past into the present and laying it on the current situation like an imperfect template.”
Bob Fisher is a contributing editor to DesignIntelligence.