Five rules for leading in a digital world (MIT Sloan Review)

In a rapidly changing world, people need to know who is leading them — that must be clearly articulated. Those leaders must possess the skills to track an ever-shifting environment and cultivate those skills in others. They need to create flexible teams that collaborate effectively with both internal and external partners. They must inspire their organizations to solve big problems. And they can’t do all this alone — they need to bring in adaptive leaders at all levels, giving them autonomy to innovate but providing guardrails to prevent chaos. In our research at the MIT Leadership Center, my colleagues and I have found that executives and managers who do these five things in particular are best equipped to navigate what lies ahead

Let’s take a closer look at each new rule in the emerging leadership model.

Communicate your leadership signature. When things change, people crave leadership. They seek stability when they fear disorder. They want to feel confident about who is at the helm, steering through treacherous waters. But the romantic notion of the leader who is there to take control isn’t enough to assure them. They need to know your leadership signature: who you are as a leader and how you view and approach the job.

Be a sensemaker. In a rapidly changing environment, sensemaking is more important than ever. A term coined by organizational theorist Karl Weick, sensemaking refers to the process of creating meaning out of the messy world around us. This activity is triggered when something in our environment seems to have changed. We then try to make sense of what has happened by collecting data, learning from others, and looking for patterns to create a new map of what is going on. From there, we experiment with new solutions to learn how the system respond.

Build X-teams. When asked what makes for effective team performance, most executives talk about the ideas spouted in team-building courses and written up in bestselling texts: setting clear goals, defining roles, establishing trust, improving interpersonal relations, and so on. But research shows that such guidelines are only half the story. In a fast-paced world where organizations are trying to shed their bureaucratic chains, leaders should also build a new kind of team, X-teams, to foster speed, innovation, and execution.

Replace toxic tendencies with challenge-driven leadership. Toxic leaders are becoming increasingly common. You know who they are. They denigrate subordinates and have a reputation for being hypercritical. They can be aggressive, immoral, and insensitive. They hoard information, blame others, and promote themselves. Over time, other people and teams in their organizations begin adopting these same behaviors, which erode trust and reduce effectiveness.

Build the systems to make all this possible. Successful leaders in our changing times will need to construct, or “architect,” organizations in which the above steps can take place. This will involve hiring and developing three types of leaders — those who are entrepreneurial, enabling, or themselves architecting — and giving them room to draw on their signature strengths as they carry out these functions.

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