I was strolling through the grounds of Sydney University in the dusk after a Sydney Ideas event, and I noticed an electronic billboard saying ‘Leadership isn’t about leaders. Leadership is a culture, not a person’. Recently I’d been thinking about leadership as a collective rather than an individual phenomenon. I love it when something in the environment synchronizes with stuff going on in my head!
At Executive Central we’re coaching people for future leadership as much as anything. Sure, we want to help them be better at what they are doing now - single loop learning.  But we also want to prepare future leaders, and that involves double loop learning: this means not doing the same things better, but rather challenging current assumptions and doing better or different things.
But in order to know what future leadership will be like, we need to first ask what the future will be like.
What will the Future look like?
The short answer is, we don’t know. This is where the crystal ball would come in handy. However there are some directions and trends that most people agree on.
Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School and researcher on future work trends, identifies five forces influencing the future of work.
A low carbon economy – providing both impacts and opportunities for business
Advances in technology – extending human capabilities in terms of health and longevity, work and productivity
Increasing globalisation – changes in dominant economies, production and consumption
Demographic changes – with the transition of the Boomers into retirement, and increased longevity
Societal change – increased urbanisation and lone or small households with virtual relationships, increased remote working arrangements
When you think about it, this is not the future, this is happening now! We already have companies taking up the sustainability challenge, robotic cardiac surgery, global production and consumption shifts, politicians trying to raise the retirement age, and people conducting their relationships online.
So what does this mean for leadership?
We do know that the future is full of change and uncertainty, so we need leadership that is adaptable, flexible and able to function in ambiguity. We need to not only be better at what we already do as leaders, but we need to do better and different things.
We need to lead on thinking
Organisational leaders will need to think differently. Complexity thinking will be essential. I like to think of complexity as a special case of systems thinking. It’s like systems thinking with a few curly bits thrown in. Forget linear cause and effect, the future world is about multiple causes and effects, with attractors and amplification of effects creating uncertainty of outcomes. We already experience this in social media. One person tweets: it goes viral, reaching 2 million people within 2 days. Another tweet goes nowhere, shared by only 2 people, your mother and your best friend. It’s hard to predict where amplification will occur.
We also need to think across boundaries.
Professor Suzanne Benn from UTS talks about the role of boundary objects in organisations. Boundary objects are things – artefacts or ideas – that provide a galvanizing point for collaborative working and learning across disciplines or other boundaries. Think of them like an organising principle. To take a current example, think of the Murray-Darling Water Catchment problem as a conceptual boundary object. Solving this problem involves a multidisciplinary, multi-partnership approach involving farming, township and indigenous community, government – States and Federal, industry, environmental justice etc. There are multiple causes, multiple effects, and solutions that multifaceted, but all centred around this one issue. You get the picture.
OK, complexity, boundaries, - what else?
Leaders need to develop creativity and creative approaches to problem solving across the organisation. Don’t wait till leaders are in the C-suite, you need to start developing leadership early. You will need people who are strategic, trans-disciplinary, creative, and adaptable thinkers.
Working and as a collaborative leadership team is essential. Creativity and innovation are social endeavours. For people to work collaboratively, you’ll need different models of leadership. And this is where the Sydney University catchphrase comes in.
Leadership is a culture, not a person
We also need to think about distributed leadership and decision-making models. This means that everyone in the organisation, at some point, needs the opportunity to shine. I seriously believe that leaders are both born and made. We all have the seeds of leadership in us, and given the development and the opportunity, can let that light shine.
Current organisational leaders have the strategic challenge of creating the conditions for leadership culture to flourish, creating the structures and development within the organisation to make it future-fit. In What is Leadership? Sydney University canvassed a range of students and staff to see what leadership meant to them: and certainly talking to your people is a good place for any organisation to start.
 http://www.uts.edu.au/staff/suzanne.benn Professor Benn has a huge body of work. Try this one: Suzanne Benn, Melissa Edwards, and Tamsin Angus-Leppan. Organizational Learning and the Sustainability Community of Practice: The Role of Boundary Objects. Organization & Environment June 2013