Leaders may be lucky enough to stay in their roles for long stretches of time. But if they are trapped in a perpetual present, rather than eyeing the future, they will no longer be relevant

Before I get into the meat of this topic, I just want to drop off a quick phrase that encapsulates what I’m about to discuss: What got us here, won’t get us there. Keep that in mind… you may see it again very soon – and all will become clear! And with that, here we go…

It probably wouldn’t have escaped your attention that Robert Mugabe was recently deposed as leader of Zimbabwe. That watershed – which could easily have been a lot nastier than it was, but miraculously played out within reasonable boundaries – had occurred because, for all his love of power, and his Herculean efforts to keep it over the decades, Mugabe was no longer relevant.

Zimbabwe’s economy has been buckling under the strain of fiscal mismanagement for as long as anyone can remember. And when one considers the headway that is being made in other parts of Africa to kindle the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that thrives in the developed world (see herehere and here), Zimbabweans could be forgiven for feeling more than a little envious.

Robert Mugabe may have been an effective force when it came to fighting his own, personal corner – but he’d ceased to be relevant in an Africa that is changing, becoming more tech savvy and wanting a slice of the economic action that can flow from innovative habits. While Africa was striving to move with the times, Mugabe was stuck in the past.

Pain points

One sign of whether or not a leader is relevant is whether the solutions they are throwing at particular problems are taking effect. One case where that proved not to be so was the final stretch of Andy Clarke’s tenure as chief executive of Asda – a torrid time for the retail chain, in which Clarke launched a turnaround plan on the back of a £1 billion investment to slash prices. Fast-forward two years, to June 2016, and Clarke was clearing his desk. By that point, Asda had suffered seven quarters of falling sales in a row. On that kind of timeline, it’s clear that the medicine isn’t getting to the pain points – and is therefore no longer relevant.

Interestingly, before he stepped down, Clarke had achieved the distinction of being the longest-serving CEO to have led any of the UK’s Big Four supermarkets. However, while it would no doubt be encouraging for any business leader to achieve that kind of record, staying in place for a long time is not, in and of itself, an ideal goal. If it’s going to happen, then it should preferably be a symptom of your achievements – not something that plays out despite your firm’s performance.

Another test of whether leaders are relevant is whether they can spot threats that go to the very heart of their firms’ business models. Back in the summer, Benny Higgins stepped down from his role as CEO of Tesco Bank, following a large-scale cyberattack of November 2016, which siphoned off £2.5 million from 9,000 customers. In Financial Times report on the attack, security experts suggested that senior figures at Tesco Bank had ignored warnings about their organisation’s cyber weaknesses for several months up to the hack, providing wrongdoers with a clear opportunity.

One of the most critical tasks facing any leader is the requirement to keep watch for threats that could shake customer confidence in their organisation’s core functions. On that basis, it’s easy to understand why, in the wake of the attack, Higgins’ leadership was no longer relevant. After 10 years as CEO, he moved on.

Undoubtedly, a huge chunk of personal pride encourages leaders to hang on to their roles for as long as they can. It’s only natural – and, of course, there’s an argument to say that it suits organisations from the perspective of continuity. But in the long run, that will only work with the aid of two qualities: critical self-reflection, and self-evaluation. They are the assets that are most likely to help a leader keep their sell-by date at bay.

Petering out?

You see, the thing about leaders is that they reach certain professional milestones, and bring their firms with them, by overcoming challenges. But what worked for the challenge you faced yesterday is not always what’s going to work for the challenge that’s coming tomorrow. And the danger that looms over each and every leader is that those who don’t put in the groundwork now to prepare for the challenges that are rolling towards them will start to underperform without even knowing it.

In other words (and I can feel you knew the phrase was on its way back!): What got us here, won’t get us there.

While most of us tend to think that competence is the deciding factor in advancement, that notion was fiercely contested half a century ago in Dr Laurence J Peter’s landmark piece of workplace scholarship, The Peter Principle. The book’s title became the name for Dr Peter’s theory that people are promoted to the point where their competence drops off, and turns into incompetence – so for a leader, there’s actually quite a lot of fear attached to being in a senior position, tasked with steering an organisation through test after test.

If Dr Peter is to be believed, leaders are operating on the outer fringes of their abilities. You may have just blitzed a hefty challenge this week, but will your skills and talents be enough to see you through the one that’s on its way? Will you remain relevant?

Switching surfaces

It’s a similar story when, following a spell of success, a leader moves to a larger organisation, and is tasked with applying the talents they’ve demonstrated to a whole new working environment. Of course, a leader who has transferred from one organisation to another would be tempted to do exactly the same things in their new surroundings as they did in their previous milieu, because those things got them noticed in the first place. Why wouldn’t someone have that psychological reflex?

But what was relevant for their previous firm may not be relevant for the one they’ve just joined. Its challenges may be very different – and the reason the leader has been brought in is because the board is counting on them to have the required intellectual and imaginative flexibility to plug into what the organisation needs, in order to fulfil its business goals. That puts a responsibility on the leader’s shoulders to be as adaptable as possible.

The only way that can be achieved is through development – and the type of self-awareness that will help you understand why you need it. Whether it’s through coaching, training or being mentored, you will only be relevant for what is coming tomorrow if you keep yourself fresh, and open to new ideas.

Look at Rafa Nadal. Early in his career, he made a name for himself for being the greatest clay-court player on the circuit, which was fabulous – but experts said he was restricted to that surface and wouldn’t do well at Wimbledon. But then, all of a sudden, he started to get really good at playing on grass. What changed? It was his adaptability, rising to meet the threshold of his ambition, ensuring that he would be relevant not just in one type of tennis – but across the whole game. He was using the foundation of his skillset, but was taking it to new places and adjusting to the demands of his new surroundings.

If you do the same, then you’ll hit a few aces in your career, too.

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Image courtesy of PublicCo, via Pixabay