A new era of leadership

Management thinkers believe we are entering a third era of management that requires more heart than head

I do a lot of thinking about the future of work and the future of leadership and in my exploration, I came across this Harvard Business Review article by Rita McGrath. In it, she suggests there have been three eras of management. The first, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, was execution. The second, in the knowledge era, was expertise — when knowledge was power. Now, she says, we are entering into a third era characterised by empathy. I’m a sucker for the rule of three and a bit of alliteration, so it resonated with me.

It also echoed something I heard in a talk by London Business School professor Julian Birkinshaw a couple of years ago, summarised in this slide:

Julian explained that this post-knowledge era we are entering requires two new leadership qualities:

  • Decisive action (in the face of too much information and analysis paralysis); and
  • Emotional conviction (to counter the overemphasis on logic and sterile decision making of previous eras)

Or, to employ our friend alliteration again, these three eras can be summarised as: hands, head, and heart. But Julian is also quick to point out that this doesn’t mean ditching the tenets of management or leadership that have served us in the past altogether.

In “The Positive Organisation: Breaking Free from Conventional Cultures, Constraints, and Beliefs”, Robert E. Quinn talks about mental maps that influence management:

“Supervisors, managers, and executives have a mental map that guides their choices and actions. Most are led by the common, conventional map. When leaders are only familiar with this map, they are “simple-minded”… This only means that they haven’t internalised assumptions that allow them to think in more complex ways about their organisations.
There is another map, the positive mental map, which offers the language of possibility. Most people don’t look for or find this map unless they have experienced a crisis of some sort, which breaks down their conventional assumptions and allows them to be more open. When they do this, they begin to evolve into a more complex thinker. Acquiring this positive mental map is a lot like becoming bilingual. It is a journey, not an instant transformation. It involves taking risks, failing your way forward, and having the confidence to keep trying. Learning a new language doesn’t mean forgetting your native language; rather, it adds a greater capacity to communicate and learn.

I’ve been learning Spanish for the last few months and I’m currently in the groan zone. I can understand it pretty well but when I’m put on the spot to respond in a conversation, I freeze and tend to default to English, rather than try to communicate, however clumsily, in Spanish. But I also know that mastery is the ability to be in the space between where you are and where you would like to be. It will get easier with time. I won’t forget my native language (English), but Spanish will give me a greater capacity to communicate and learn.

Whatever we choose to call it, I believe that we are entering a new era of leadership. Both managers and employees need to look for and find a positive mental map. Only when we acknowledge that we have a native language, and that there is a compelling need to learn and practice a new language — not to replace but to complement our mother tongue — can we thrive in this new era.