How can leaders navigate this new era of protectionism?


As seen from recent seismic geopolitical events, the era of globalization and free movement of people and trade is being readily challenged by the western world. A world without borders, once deemed the epitome of progress and diversity appears to have collapsed as illustrated by both the current US presidential mandate and UK vote for Brexit. 

Added on 08 February 2017 by Kerrie Fleming

Inspiring leadership

These events, although staggering for some, in no uncertain terms suggest that certain populations in societies are craving the restoration of borders to maintain a sense of safety and stability in order to preserve their own culture, values and identity. Some sociologists would suggest that such creation of boundaries is a natural way for humans to express themselves in the world. However, in recent years demands for protectionism by these populations was often denied real opportunities for public discourse and so instead they used their democratic right to voice how they truly felt. The outcome has ignited abhorrent divisiveness between opposites all determined to triumph over one another, each respectively advocating the building or tearing down of walls, real or imagined. 

Emerging from these spectacular events, the discipline of organizational behavior, in particular leadership both in theory and practice, must now seek out means for people and organizations to navigate and eventually thrive in this new and potentially divisive environment. Whether in agreement or not, the economy and organizations must find a way to survive this new protectionist approach and examine how personal and professional relationships can survive this new paradigm. At Ashridge we have and will continue to equip individual leaders, followers and their organizations with the means to recognize, respect and understand those boundaries between those at work, but we must now go further and assist leaders to create a more harmonious and respectful understanding of difference in the creation of a new world order.  

Navigating these boundaries

The latest Ashridge book, ‘Inspiring Leadership’ edited by Fleming and Delves, is a collection of insights from some of our leadership experts, and offers a focus on the role of human and leadership capacity for these tumultuous times. This book aims to help organizations and their leaders to deal with such boundaries, real or imagined while getting to grips with why both sides may have moved so far apart. The book examines the changing role of leadership while highlighting the importance of creating and sustaining personal leadership during this time and offers some novel approaches to leadership. We now offer three insights from the book for the world and its leaders to reflect upon and execute as a means to navigate this new terrain. The first insight suggests that recognizing hubris may help to reduce the need for one side winning over another while the second insight challenges leaders to understand their values to create a solid foundation in which they can welcome difference without compromising their beliefs. The third insight demonstrates how leadership intelligences can be channeled as a leadership capability to manage such polarities and create collective success as opposed to both sides perceptibly losing their position.

  1. Recognizing and managing hubris

Section one offers a study of hubris by Nixon who suggests that those leaders who are unable to hear or heed internal or external critics end up merely servicing their own increasingly narcissistic needs, which often outweighs the need to serve other more appropriate stakeholders. He warns that a combination of external events and increasing psychological pressures, such as the increasing trend towards the leader as celebrity and towards heavily leveraged reward systems and perverse incentives of a leadership culture in organizations, can lead to a ‘perfect storm’ of pressures such as the financial crash in 2008. He suggests that inspirational leaders who can combine the power of individual trust and confidence with the virtues of humility and purpose beyond self can be role models for success in their organizations and industries. They embrace collective difference and channel it into constructing sustainable eco-systems for the long term benefit of stakeholders as opposed to shareholders. 

  1. Finding your True North

In section two, Delves suggests that being real and authentic will help emerging and established leaders to identify and explore their authentic selves and subsequently lead to increased self-awareness. He along with Fleming suggest that humanizing leadership using such awareness will instil followership across all divisions and boundaries. The medium of emotional intelligence and authenticity offers leaders a glimpse of their fallibility which in turn enables them to keenly understand their values and what they stand for. Furthermore, understanding and living such values offers leaders an anchor to allow a continuous questioning of self and others during times when they are being compromised.  This will ensure that leaders can stand firm in their beliefs whilst being open to understanding and really listening to opposing views with an aim to reaching a more mutually beneficial and perhaps more creative compromise. 

  1. Developing a new capability of leadership Intelligence

In section three, Olivier and Hölscher challenge leaders to use other ‘intelligences’ in order to reformulate or reframe the problems posed by boundaries and reframe them as paradoxes or polarities to manage instead of problems to solve. They suggest that leaders should seize this opportunity to practice such specific meta competencies to allow them deal with transcending boundaries and polarity. They examine how ‘leadership intelligence’ enables leaders to embrace volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) as opportunities for transformation and growth rather than as a dangerous threat that should be avoided. They suggest that it is these exact demanding environments, these fires of experience, that cause so many leaders to lose their grip on their values, lose their sense of true north, lose their determination to ground their behaviour in ethical decision making.

So what now?

While the real world challenges proliferate with alarming speed, it is now more important than ever for leaders to spend time on reflection in order to promote understanding and acceptance of difference in self and others. There is no shame in wanting to feel protected and safe with familiar boundaries, so let’s allow people to have their say and find merit in their argument. Innovation and progress may be unlikely outcomes of such perceived chaos and perhaps the world has leaned too far in one direction and needs recalibrating. Painful for most but perhaps necessary for differences to rest easy alongside one another, offering a means to expand our ability to cope with ambiguity using our magnificent human capabilities.  

Inspiring Leadership is now available to order. 

If you are interesting in learning more about leadership, take a look at our open program the Ashridge Leadership Process