For who and for what – reimagining leadership

How can we review and re-appreciate the process of leading?

Professor Bernd Vogel, Director of Henley Centre for Leadership, explores.

So many current conversations are focussed on the sins of our leaders - we seem obsessed with leadership that goes sour. Don’t get me wrong, it is important to hold people to account and learn from mistakes to prevent negative leadership.

But why don’t we also review and re-appreciate the process of leading?

Good leaders are often hidden, overlooked, or right in front of our nose, but we take them for granted in our hectic lives. They remain unnoticed or lack appreciation. If we don’t notice them, we cannot learn from those leadership processes. We lack role models for those day-to-day leadership activities by employees, managers and senior managers.

That’s why at the Henley Centre for Leadership in the UK and now in Africa, we work on shaping leadership optimism and identifying and recognising leadership processes that work.

We need to take a radical stance and start with a clean slate. We should continue to ask: what leadership do we need today and for the future to make us sustainably successful? Resourcefully re-considering leadership as a key social process and activity in and beyond organisations is essential. It drives positive and regenerative thinking and practice that can ultimately benefit people and society too.

Good leaders are those who start with the following questions:

Leadership for who?

Deloitte’s 2023 Global Human Capital Trends talks about organisations prioritising human outcomes: “Organisations should create impact not only for their business, their workers, or their shareholders but for the broader society as well.”

We have come a long way, but we still need to identify the people and communities that our organisations are reaching and examine why they are being reached. Do we lead for people today? Or do we engage in leadership for next generations and seriously feel accountable to them?

And what is the role of technology today? In our report Work 2028 – Trends, Dilemmas & Choices, on the future of work and leadership, we identified the struggle leaders face when leading hybrid workforces. Leadership increasingly involved managing people-machine ecosystems, and with AI such as Chat GPT, that need to get it right is ever more pressing.

Leadership for what?

If the above is not confusing and/or overwhelming for many managers, the following will be! For years I have asked in various workshops, client conversations or debates with academic colleagues: what should leadership achieve or contribute to organisations? What are we leading for?

Responses are patchy. Short-term financial gain, efficiency, or adaptation and development are often mentioned. In a way the first still seems paramount, although, ironically, so many firms struggle despite a pure short-term financial focus.

Organisations face an increasing range of internal and external stakeholders and advocates who come with different expectations, for example towards regenerative business models, healthy, fair, or inclusive workplaces, or local and global societal challenges like those summarised by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or the World Economic Forum.

Here it gets complicated. Without an agreed organisation’s raison d’être, you as an organisational member and manager start to explore, reason and decide what to prioritise. That can be overwhelming or reinvigorating. We need a renewed debate and consensus to navigate what leadership should aim for and contribute to and for whom.