“When a society tries to shape the 21st century with the methods, mechanisms and yardsticks of the 20th century, failure is guaranteed. In order to be able to consider new ideas, you have to be prepared to let go of those ideas that no longer serve you.”– Nilofert Merchant.

Transformational Leadership: How to make a difference in a rapidly changing world.

A little while ago, a colleague recommended me Transformational Presence by Alan Seale. The central theme of this book – how to make a difference in a fast-changing world – is very relevant. What probably is less obvious, is the author’s suggestion on how to make this difference: he talks of, amongst other things, the 4 levels of involvement (Drama, Situation, Choice and Opportunity) as attitude towards a given challenge. Whereas Drama and Situation center around the status quo, short-term thinking and preserving our own comfort zone and previously taken decisions – the challenge is perceived as a problem that needs to be solved asap – it requires courage to approach a situation through Choice and Possibility. By drawing upon our full mental ability (intellect and intuition) and consciousness to sense the energy of a situation, we can see what is truly going to happen and which opportunities present themselves. This way, we then have the choice who we want and need to be in order to let that potential emerge.

Sounds fluffy, somewhat soft? For me, though, there was a clear parallel with the theory of emergent strategies (Mintzberg & Waters) upon which Clay Christensen – one of the most innovating thinkers of our era and renowned author of, amongst others, the groundbreaking The Innovator’s Dilemma – builds to help us become the best version of ourselves, both professionally and as human beings. This theory states that challenges and opportunities present themselves almost on a continuous basis but that we often miss them because we stubbornly cling on to our strategy. Instead of being open to these opportunities and maybe adapt our strategy appropriately, we miss out on them because, wearing blinkers, we follow the only truth of the incumbent strategy. Focus and direction are absolutely necessary to achieve success – regardless of how you measure success – but a strategy, whether it’s your corporate strategy or your life plan, should be a continuous iterative process that repeatedly evolves in function of the challenges and opportunities that we come across, rather than a truth carved in stone.


Needless to say that these opportunities and challenges nowadays are faster, more frequent and more disruptive that a couple of decades ago. After all, we’re living in a – apologies for the acronym that I’ve become tired of myself – VUCA-world. What both Alan Seale and Clay Christensen are actually saying, is that we don’t really know where we are going and that we’d thus better prepare for different possibilities. Predictability no longer exists – one of the main characteristics of a complex environment. Our incumbent models and tools, based on data (the numbers tell the tale), logical causal relations and predictability – plan & execute – are no longer sufficient and companies are struggling with the frustrations and uncertainty brought along by this changeability. We realize that we need to prepare and weapon our organizations to cope with this. Hence, adaptiveness and flexibility are hot topics; learning organizations with entrepreneurial employees that embrace and display a growth mindset will indeed provide a competitive advantage. But, what does a leader need to do to facilitate this? What is the impact of this complexity on our leadership?

Just as much as Nilofert Merchant’s quote refers to how we run our society and our businesses or do politics, it is applicable to the way we approach leadership. The traditional leadership models and theories center around understanding and categorizing situations and people. They are the playground of the intellect where predictability and causal relations reign: I analyze and label the situation, through which I act in this way, which gives this result as a consequence. The aim, in this case, is always to find and give an appropriate answer or solution to the problem or situation; it’s about knowledge (and showcasing it). These models were then almost evangelically proclaimed by management gurus and consultants and blindly followed by many of us as being the truth – just like a strategy carved in stone. It almost became a fashion statement: who knew the latest model? The problem with this, however, is that in a complex world there are practically no causal relations nor predictability. Because of the complexity, it’s often impossible to comprehend and label a given situation – which makes our traditional leadership models fall short.

There’s no such thing as the model or the theory

Instead of looking for salvation in a new model that can provide an answer to the challenge of leading amidst complexity, we might be better off accepting that this is a utopian dream. When we’re not really sure where we’re going, when logic is hard to find and intellect alone doesn’t serve us much, how then can we possibly know which theory is most suitable? The model and the theory don’t exist – fortunately, as this offers us the perspective of continuous learning and growth! By acknowledging this and by letting go off the slight neurotic trait of always having to provide a ready-made answer we as leaders tend to have, and seeing the ‘not-knowing’ as an opportunity for surprise and learning instead of a weakness, we take the first step in transcending our paradigms and ingrained beliefs. By allowing ourselves the time and chance to truly sense a situation, unbiased and without the assumption that we already know what’s going on, and only then act from within our full mental capacity (intellect and intuition), we are shaping the kind of leadership a complex world requires. 21st Century leadership is an attitude, an approach for dealing with complexity and uncertainty – an exploratory navigation, not a quick-fix.

Children will follow your example, not your advice. If we want to build an organization with resilient and flexible employees, who are not paralyzed by complexity but adaptively move along with the waves of changeability, then it’s up to us, leaders, to lay the foundation stone and start building ourselves. Before we can take off our paradigms, beliefs and our worldview, that simultaneously shape and narrow down the way we look at the world, just like a pair of glasses with blinkers, we first need to start realizing that unconsciously, we’re always perceiving the world through personally colored glasses. This is by no means easy. After all, we observe and judge almost simultaneously. Conditioned by evolution, our brain analyzes and categorizes based on our worldview. In order to transcend this pitfall and truly have an open mind that allows for all opportunities to emerge and for us to become better leaders, a higher level of consciousness is needed. Conscious leadership, the realization that through our observation, we are already interpreting, judging and shaping the world. This would then allow us to think in terms of possibilities and chances, instead of problems and threats. After all, the frustrations and resistance in relation to change often originate from the fact that things don’t turn out as planned or because the uncertainty of not-knowing get’s a hold on us. Our attitude as leaders, not our answers nor our decisive actions, will illuminate the path for our employees and show them how they, themselves, can deal with the complexity of today’s world in a better way. By being a tower of strength ourselves, unbiased and curiously embracing a mindset of not-knowing, allowing for doubt and seeing opportunities to learn and grow, we, stone by stone, build an adaptive and learning organization. More than ever we can state that before we can effectively lead others, we first need to be able to lead ourselves.

“In times of change, learners inherit the world, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world than no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer.


Nicky Van Belle is in charge of our Summerclass: Strategic Leadership.