This article by Finn Jackson is the fourth in a series examining the future of leadership in a changing world. It looks times of radical change, the challenges this brings and how future leaders will identify opportunities in any crisis.

Our search for the future of leadership has shown how defining vision, values, and purpose helps organisations to adapt seamlessly to change. This brings competitive advantage that grows stronger with each challenge, built on courage, enthusiasm, and the passion of the human spirit.

But before future leaders can define an inspiring vision, they first need to choose a way forward. They will do that better if they first identify a wider range of options.

This article describes how future leaders will identify more opportunities in any crisis. (The next will describe how they will choose between them.)

Change Brings Challenge, and Opportunity

A time of radical change brings challenges for leaders. Change increases the pressure for new solutions but it also makes implementation more difficult. A time of radical change also makes our standard approaches to problem solving and opportunity discovery less likely to work.

But a time of change also brings new opportunities. Often these are hidden inside what at first sight look like problems.

When Alexander Fleming discovered one of his experiments had failed (growing mould instead of bacteria) he could simply have thrown it away or made sure it was cleaned properly next time. Instead he looked closer, discovered penicillin, and saved millions of lives.

When bullet train engineers, digging a tunnel through a mountain in Japan, faced a problem with flooding they could simply have pumped the water away or sealed the tunnel. Instead they bottled the mineral water, sold it, and built a $50m brand.

When Georges de Mestral returned from a walk to find his clothes and his dog covered with burrs he didn’t just remove them, he looked closely at how they attached themselves, then invented Velcro®.

And when Travis Kalanick and a friend couldn’t get a taxi in Paris one day they didn’t just complain about it, they founded Uber. The rest, as we know, is history.

We’ve all faced similar problems but not created similar outcomes. The question is, what was it about these particular situations that led to these innovations?

The situations were all different. But the people all shared one thing in common: an attitude that led them to look for the opportunities inside the problems they faced.

This is the attitude that defines leadership. Like any attitude it can be learned.

We will never know exactly what happened in the cases outlined above, but it must surely have been one of three things:

  • Chance, Synchronicity, or Serendipity

Travis Kalanick might have given up hope of ever getting a cab when suddenly he noticed his friend using a smartphone to order something online.

  • Intuition

James Cameron had the ideas for Terminator and Avatar during a dream. The inventor of the sewing machine solved the problem of how to make the needle work in the same way. Perhaps intuition played a role in these examples.

  • Actively Treating the Problem as an Opportunity

If we reframe and generalize a situation we can ask where or for whom it might be an opportunity. Instead of thinking “My experiment has failed!” Alexander Fleming might have said, “Something prevented the bacteria from growing,” then, “Who would find it useful to have ‘something that prevents bacteria from growing’?”

Future leaders will train themselves to develop these perspectives. They will take five minutes at the end of each day to remember the things that have gone well. They will get into the habit of praising or thanking others. They will use various techniques to connect more deeply with their intuition. And instead of simply reacting to a situation they will pause and ask themselves what it would have taken to prevent the situation from arising in the first place or what opportunity it might now present for them, or others, to develop new leadership skills.

Altogether, there are ten different types of opportunity that future leaders will look for and several tools or techniques they will use to find them. These don’t guarantee that they will find a world-changing transformation in every crisis they face. But the more that they develop these skills the more options they will uncover and the more likely they will become to make the best of whatever situations arise.

Whichever way forward these future leaders eventually choose, engaging an attitude that approaches problems as if they contain opportunities will bring them five important side benefits:

  1. Enthusiasm, Morale: Looking for opportunities rather than problems is more enjoyable to be around.
  2. Understanding: Searching for opportunities forces us to understand more deeply what is really going on. This deeper understanding will be useful no matter what direction we choose.
  3. Impact, Durability: When John Cleese was writing sketches with the Monty Python team his colleagues would often stop when they got to the first punchline. Cleese would keep working until he found the second, third, or fifth level of comedy. Looking for the opportunities beyond the quick fix will bring outcomes that are more remarkable, last longer, or work at a deeper level than your competitors.
  4. Control: By choosing to look for opportunities you put yourself back in control. Whichever direction you eventually move forward in, you do so from a deeper knowledge that it is the best alternative for you. This brings more confidence, focus, and momentum to your implementation. 
  5. Antifragility: By combining all these points, choosing to look for the opportunities in a situation makes you more certain of your priorities and more able to put them into practice: it makes you more anti fragile

In a time of change, when all ways forward will be difficult and unpredictable, success depends less on the particular path you choose and more on the levels of inspiration you are able to generate to sustain that direction over time (in customers, employees, and investors). Having an attitude to look for the opportunities hidden in a crisis will make future leaders more likely to find that inspiration.

The approach to leadership being uncovered in these articles takes this attitude and wraps it into a framework and tools that convert it into competitive advantage that grows stronger with each challenges it faces.

The future leader’s next step towards achieving this advantage will be to choose between the opportunities they have identified. This is the topic of the next article.

This is the fourth in a series of articles examining the future of leadership in a changing world. Click here to view all of the articles in this series.

 

Finn Jackson is a consultant and coach who helps clients generate lasting solutions to issues of strategy, leadership, and change.

His first book, The Escher Cycle , was called “A unified theory of business” and “A blueprint for winning any game your business chooses to play.”

His second book, The Churning, Inner Leadership, has been called “The inspiring manual to improve our VUCAbility,” “A book which should be on every change-maker’s bookshelf,” and “an ethical framework for business decision makers, based on emotional maturity.”

 

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