No Role Models, No Tools -- Our Best Hope for Recovery?

09/15/2010 11:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Les McKeown Author, 'Predictable Success' and 'The Synergist'

We're about to experience either a period of turgid, lackluster business growth, or an entirely new, exciting phase of corporate innovation and expansion that will be unrecognizable from anything that has preceded it. My money is on the latter.

Why do I believe that despite deep global malaise and economic uncertainty, we will in the next decade see a new era of explosive, creative entrepreneurship? For this simple reason: the next generation of business leaders have no other option.

To put it bluntly, the men and women who will step newly into the C-suite over the next ten years are going in naked. They have few role models -- almost none if you exclude the spunky startup types, and even fewer working tools in their leadership toolkit.

The events of the last four years have carpet-bombed the leadership landscape. We're all aware that the level of trust in business leaders is low in Main Street, and as anyone who works in industry and commerce will tell you, front-line employees and managers alike are more disengaged from top level management than ever before. Beneath the surface of that disengagement lies disappointment at least, and in many cases, open contempt.

So as our new generation of CEOs, COOs and their peers emerge and take their places around the boardroom table, they do so with less attachment to the ways of their predecessors than ever before. In addition -- and even more crucially -- they are bringing with them an almost-empty briefcase. That box of tricks that they assiduously developed over the years in management education: the hard-won MBA, the years of Exec Ed., the grinding accumulation of skills, beliefs, vision and values -- what value can our new leaders place in a toolkit that so obviously failed the very people they are replacing?

Given this barren landscape -- new leaders with few role models and even fewer effective tools -- what will happen next in corporate America? An obvious argument can be made for stasis: that faced with a devastated leadership landscape the next generation will freeze in place and act as neutered stewards of our reduced circumstances. It's possible -- but based on my interactions over the last 15 years with those who will become senior leaders in the next 10, I don't think that will be the case.

Instead, everything I've seen leads me to believe we will see the emergence of three new dynamics, each one lower in the organization chart, which taken together will transform how businesses are run and reignite corporate innovation and growth:

1. The Connected Leader
Probably like you, I have a nodding acquaintance with many of the people who live around me in my local town. Put us on a desert island and take away the comforts of life that we have taken for granted, and we'll very quickly get to know -- and depend upon -- each other in a much more intimate and codependent way.

I see the same dynamic developing in currently emerging leaders. They feel more like they are living through an episode of Lost than Mad Men. And as a result, their willingness to share and co-create, to combine knowledge, insights and experiences, to informally mentor and coach each other -- between organizations as well as within organizations, is higher than it was for any previous generation.

For C-level execs in the future, "being well connected" will have little to do with any old boys network, or what school you went to, and will be much more about who you are actively collaborating with.

2. The Predictively Agile Manager
Our newly connected C-level execs are bringing into the boardroom one deeply seared self-realization that was drilled into them while watching their predecessors fail: that they are highly dependent on their managers to interpret the world around them.

The old command-and-control model -- the one that portrayed the C-level executive as being the master at the wheel, directing the ship while everyone else followed their orders -- was (thankfully) one of the most visible casualties of recent corporate collapses. Our newly emerging leaders recognize that their managers are not just their hands and feet -- there to get things done on command -- but that those managers are also the eyes and ears of the C-suite; that they have a key role in not just monitoring, but interpreting and responding to changes in the surrounding environment, and communicating upward and sideways, rather than working in ensconced silos.

In the future, the C-suite and the SVP / VP / manager group will work much more hand in glove than ever before -- with highly positive effects on the growth of the organization.

3. The Innovative Employee
Our newly emerging leaders are bringing with them not only connectedness and a new perspective of the importance of their manager group, they are also highly aware that in order for their businesses to grow in a stagnant economy, they must innovate. And it is here that the most interesting side effect of the "empty briefcase" emerges.

Faced with the bankruptcy of old management models, many new leaders are looking deep into their organization to renew innovation, creativity and (controlled) risk-taking as an institutional skill. Knowing that they in themselves don't have all the answers, the new C-Suite will be more active than ever before in mining the well of knowledge and experience that lies further down in the organization. New ideas will be encouraged and accepted more readily, employees will re-engage and will refocus their energies to help the business grow, and we'll see an explosion of innovation.

So even though (in fact, because) the next generation of leaders is emerging with no role models and no toolkit, I believe we are on the cusp of the most exciting era of corporate invention, innovation and growth since the days of Edison, Tesla and Ford. What say you?