What worries leaders most?

Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon explain the results of their research into business leaders’ innermost anxieties 

Corporate and political leaders are having to wrestle daily with deepening disruption and uncertainty. The world of which they navigated successfully to get to the top is now undermined by a scale of unthinkables.  

A handful of visionary leaders and risk-takers have adapted successfully. They have shed the instinct of caution in order to thrive on change. But they are in the minority.  

The rest of us are struggling to navigate through this torrent of uncertainty and confusion – but why? The skills and insights that leaders now need to understand, then embrace, are very different to what was needed when most began their careers. The conformity, then seen as a career booster, is increasingly becoming a killer of reputations and careers.

How do we know this? Hundreds of top corporate executives and public servants have privately told us so in one-to-one interviews and follow-up conversations over four years as part of our ongoing Thinking the Unthinkable research project, which has discovered that many leaders are scared and overwhelmed by these new pressures.

A main insight from our new book, Thinking the Unthinkable, is that leaders must view the current pace of change as the equivalent of what happens in wartime. The speed and scale of disruption are destabilising the assumptions of relative stability that leaders are equipped for. 

And it must be assumed that there are many more unthinkables to come. The potential impact – both good and bad – of artificial intelligence and other technologies mean we are only in the early days of major social and economic and political shifts.

Changing leadership

There are no easy solutions. How could there be in a world of unprecedented disruption never before experienced in modern times? 

After working with some of the world’s top business leaders in some of the largest and most successful companies, we have developed a five-step process called the TTU progressions –  a series of sequential stages through which leaders and their organisation can travel to discover their own vulnerabilities and develop individual solutions: 

Status quo. Conformity, short-term thinking, a culture of blame and other embedded  traits in their business culture stop them from understanding and embracing the scale of the disruption. The first step is to recognise this

Audit the external reality. Understand and embrace the new realities of the extraordinary, disrupted world we now live in. This is what has driven the Thinking the Unthinkable project

Audit the internal reality. Understand and define the nature and impact of what confronts you as a leader. What are the current behaviour, cultures, mindsets and structures preventing you and your organisation dealing successfully with the new, fast-evolving external and internal challenges you face?

Address your challenges. Armed with a new awareness,  scope your own ways to deal with disruption and change. Assess your own abilities to embrace and adapt to disruption. 

Thrive on change. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. The process of adaptation must be iterative, loosely structured, flexible and inspiring. It must become a core way through which you and your organisation think and work. 

It’s about having open minds, eyes and ears. There must be a new culture, behaviour and mindset. They must be accompanied by a new courage, and humility, and the realisation that things aren’t going back to the way leaders have assumed them to be.

Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon are co-authors of Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in a Disruptive Age and co-directors of Think Unthink