Leadership in a Liquid World

Solid principles for navigating the 21st century.

Earlier this year, I participated in a panel discussion on “Leading in a Networked World” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and made the point that leadership attention is perhaps the networked world’s most scarce resource. In today’s technology-driven, real-time communicating, 24/7-accessible environment, the amount of information we receive, the compressed time frames under which we operate, and the global span of our extended enterprises can all be quite overwhelming.

I liken today’s world to a liquid environment — fluid, continually changing form and adapting to shifting parameters. Liquid situations are inherently less predictable. Yet liquid is able to create strong connections without being rigid, and as such is powerful enough to change the course of time and nature. Therein is a lesson for effective leadership in the 21st century.

The very nature of the world in which we now live, work and play — one obsessed with instantaneous response — demands of its leaders a different, more fluid approach to how they focus their attention and make decisions. In the swirling vortex of e-mailing and text messaging, the leader’s strong inclination is to try to arrive at fast paced, almost immediate decisions. But the fundamentals of solid leadership — clear vision, consistent measures of success, and informed yet timely and unambiguous decision making — haven’t changed. Now more than ever before, thoughtfulness and clarity cannot be compromised.

There are certainly occasions upon which instant response is critical, and it is our job as leaders to be discerning and act accordingly. But more often than not, a thoughtful delay will result in a better considered and much better appreciated answer. And it can save us from unintended and widespread outcomes we might later regret. Today’s leaders must recognize that “less instant” is often “more thoughtful” and “more solid,” especially in a liquid world where every decision has the potential for a far greater radius of impact.

Even the most localized and seemingly innocuous decisions on a leader’s agenda today have potentially immediate and far reaching implications. In a liquid world, immediate global communications and evolving public perceptions are such that even the most minor or temporary veering off course can be devastating for both the leader and organization. This creates the need for a coherent corporate approach to determining what is most important and how each matter must be weighed and evaluated.

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