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March 2024

"Tomorrow's leader is a confident bridge builder"

by Anja Spans and Frans Haarmans from SDH Executive Search & Leadership Development in Nijmegen, the Netherlands

The leader of tomorrow makes a difference through his or her personality, not through knowledge and skills accumulated over time. Our rapidly evolving world and its impact on people inside and outside an organization require the explicit application of soft skills such as self-reflection and empathy to successfully lead organizations into the future. Here we see a fundamental difference from what used to be considered the gold standard. Technical knowledge and management experience are still important, but "who you are," "where you come from," and "how you connect with your environment" will ultimately determine the success of a leader, and therefore the success of an organization.

The world is evolving on so many levels and at a pace that is almost impossible to comprehend. From climate change to war, from increased robotization to the rise of artificial intelligence, and from growing polarization to the pressures on people’s livelihoods. Organizations are under constant pressure to recalibrate their license to operate in order to stay relevant. And this recalibration cannot be taken for granted. The inability to predict what the world will look like in, say, one year, let alone five, is a major challenge. The term VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity & Ambiguity) aptly sums this up, forcing organizations to move away from linear growth expectations based on their own beliefs. The kind of "this is the way it should be and the world will go along with it" attitude is hopeless. Strategy development and decision making therefore require bringing in the outside world so as to connect with relevant trends, developments and stakeholder perspectives.

Building bridges

For a leader, this means being aware of what the outside world looks like, what’s happening in it, and who is moving in it. What we call “networking” isn’t enough here. It’s not simply about building and maintaining relationships to gain a (commercial) advantage, but also about building connections with groups that can directly or indirectly influence your organization's reputation. Listening to the voices of society and connecting with social needs undoubtedly offer the greatest opportunities for profit, but the trick is to capitalize on them.

At the other end of the spectrum are our employees: people with families, monthly expenses, increasing financial pressures, and a need for purpose and self-development. That the outside world is characterized by the essence of VUCA is all well and good, but the potential risk that this adds to everyone's individual situation cannot be underestimated. Every person needs certainty in order to have control over their daily functioning and to grow accordingly. That security comes from being seen, being heard, and being given structure where it's needed. Those who experience recognition and have space to be themselves have the greatest chance of acting upon their strengths and thriving.

Openness and empathy

This is highly relevant to leadership today and in the future. Whoever leads an organization is inevitably caught between the unpredictability of the outside world and the need for certainty on the inside. This is not a clear-cut position, and the responsibility it entails for the success of the organization goes beyond what used to be expected of a leader. You can excel in expertise and overflow with management experience, but if you don't have a backbone and can't really connect with others, then things get tricky.

As a result, leadership will be driven much more by trust and inclusiveness than by hierarchical principles. Openness, listening, observing what's happening, seeing what's possible... these are factors that will have to be part of every leader's approach. And it goes even further. Opinions about social trends and work ethics differ from one generation to the next. Younger people, for example, have a different view of work-life balance, purpose, and social engagement. It is more important than ever to connect with people and their world of experience to get them on board. Doing so will ensure a good reputation, an attractive position in the job market, and sustainable development.

Self-reflection - an essential tool

The task seems almost impossible, but it's not. It could be called paradoxical. After all, courage is not found in boldness, but in vulnerability. Self-reflection and self-awareness are the keys to success, and many leaders have much to gain from them. A contemporary leader needs to look often in the mirror, and dare to see the dark side of himself. Who am I? What do I stand for? What influences me? What am I good at? What am I not good at? What is the environment in which I work? What is expected of me? Do I know what needs are out there? Am I really listening, or do I only feel the tendency to justify and defend? But also: Am I the right person in the right place? Or is it time to pass the baton on to someone more suitable?

Asking these questions is easier than answering them, and acting on them is another bridge. Therefore, it’s a huge challenge dealing with this on your own as a leader. You have to plan your self-reflection in the form of regular sessions with a good sparring partner, someone who not only listens to you, but also dares to tell you where you stand. Lack of time is definitely no excuse for not doing this. Investing this time makes everyone richer, both you and the entire organization you want to lead into the future.

As a leader, if you are connected to yourself and to everyone around you, you become a self-confident bridge builder and can excel at creating a healthy direction for your organization and everyone connected to it.

Anja Spaans and Frans Haarmans are both partner/owners at SDH Executive Search & Leadership Development , Nijmegen, the Netherlands. SDH is a long-standing member firm of AGILIUM WORLDWIDE executive search group.


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