Leadership in Uncertain Times – What Does it Take?

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Professor John Metselaar

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Leadership in Uncertain Times – What Does it Take?

Leadership is easy when the wind is in the back. It’s during trying, volatile, uncertain times that poor leadership comes to hurt, and strong leaders get to shine, riding the wave of challenges, and opportunities, with their people.

These days, leaders have plenty opportunity to prove what they’re worth – and whether they can even be considered “leaders” in the true meaning of the word.

This book compiles a set of essays that help inspire aspiring leaders become the best version of themselves – from envisioning driving purpose into effective strategies, to enabling to execute with excellence, delivered through engaging the people, and empowering the teams, the organization.

Our Open Access Book “Agile Strategies for Volatile Times” aims to explore this new world and fill it with new insights and perspective. The book chapters are expected to advance the current knowledge of purposeful agile strategies, innovation and transformation, and even reinvention in the new “VUCA @Steroids” world in which digitalization and sustainability have emerged as such defining new forces.

Chapter 1: Learning into the Future

In this kick-off to the book, the inimitable John Bessant dives straight into one my favorite topics: leaders need to be (chief) learners. As we’re entering into a whole new reality it’s critical that we internalize “what got you here won’t get you there”. This learning needs to center, in particular, on Innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship (ICE) skills. The leaders need to set the example in their companies bringing the learning culture deep down into their organizations. And the need then trickles down into executive programs and business education, and eventually earlier school curriculums.

To bridge past to future, John followed the VISION forecasting and futures process – in a sense the architecture of the bridge and its core components. Research that covered 200 interviews and 8 workshops led him to extract a framework with nine core components, each of which needed to deliver on the shift from what we see today. They are the following:

  • Purpose: Dealing with big problems and grand challenges
  • Structure: From disciplinary-centred knowledge transmission to problem-based learning and challenge-driven innovation.
  • Collaboration: From expertise-centred to inter- and trans-disciplinary and cross-sectoral collaborations
  • Spaces: From traditional classrooms and lecture halls to flexible spaces and the real world
  • Skills: From hard skills to soft skills and beyond
  • Teacher: From lecturers to coaches, facilitators and learning designers
  • Learning outputs: From writing to doing & making
  • Evaluating learning outcomes: From exams and papers to evidence-based learning
  • Technology: From using to collaborating with technology


Don’t miss out on designing the future, leaders, and take note of the VISION process!

Chapter 2: Creative Leadership – Shaping Complex Challenges Creatively

Here, Jörg Reckhenrich and Patrick Furu argue that, in order to generate that highly desired “return on inspiration”, leaders need to master both art and science along these four dimensions:

  1. Mastering complexity
  2. Orchestrating creativity
  3. Emotional commitment for change
  4. Anchoring organizations in society.


And they then go on to illustrate these through historic expressions in different art forms.

The first concept of mastering complexity they bring to life through the complex cosmos of Velasquez “Las Meninas” – the multitude of analyses of what the paining in fact represents in the artist’s mind shows us how important it is to initially accept complexity and to open up for a broad range of different perspectives. When we start having a dialogue about our own perceptions, without passing judgement, we are able to expand our opinion and build a broader understanding of a situation.

Mastering complexity doesn’t mean at all to take a too early direction and simplify things to quickly. There are organizational situations, which are innately complex. However, collecting information, experience, observations and ideas is the very beginning and leads almost inevitably to new insights – Crucial in achieving this is the precise observation, listening, the ability to be surprised and a learning attitude.

From this basis we need to orchestrate creativity, which they illustrate through Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew”. Orchestrating creativity is the ability to structure the flow of creative ideas, until a composition, as tangible artwork, emerge. We may think that structure and flow are a contradiction in the creative process. Does creativity need total freedom or is it a myth? In fact, the creative process needs a good portion of a frame. Often an artistic experience is, that creativity unfolds its real power through the tension of a clear setting and a free artistic movement. The story of Miles Davis and the production of the album “Bitches Brew” shows how a tight composition setting and the free flow of musical styles, lead to an innovation in jazz music.

Emotional commitment to change is the next pillar. One of the major issues with change is the way we handle the transformation from the emotional side. Our ability to give a changing situation a direction depends a lot on the images that we are able to find for the situation. Images capture complexity. They generate a focus, set an anchor and provide us with guidance. Such images, if they are strong enough and capture the nerve of a situation, can become a part of our collective memory. A remarkable example is the picture “Guernica” painted by Pablo Picasso which artwork has become such powerful icon and a statement against war.

Importantly, the emotional commitment needs to be firmly rooted in truth. The truth of the author, the truth to the audience, the truth to the moment, and the truth of the statement.

The last step then is to anchor organizations in society. In the processes of globalization and digitalization organizations have to deal with a more critical observation of their business activities. More than ever before, organizations have to ask what kind of contribution to society they offer and they have to argue for their position with their stakeholders. Anchoring organizations in society goes far beyond the classical discussion about CSR activities in companies. How do services or products help to improve social situations and challenges in society as a whole, is the leading question. The artist Joseph Beuys asked how art helps to improve society and put that question in the very centre of his work. He declared provocatively that creativity is the genuine social capital and not money. Thereby he developed the extended understanding of art (Erweiterter Kunstbegriff). He stated: “Every human being is an artist” and argued creative thinking for all social area.

What powerful recipe to lead creativity and turn it innovation producing value for company, consumer/customer, stakeholders, and society!

Chapter 3: Leading FOR Innovation – It’s All About Ownership, Drive, and Contribution

Cris Beswick tackles the subject of Innovation Leadership in his typical no-nonsense style – direct and compelling. In this essay he starts from the premise that generations of executives have been trained in business thinking, which centres on what are now, outdated command-and-control methodologies. And then they rise to a general management position that includes responsibility for innovation – and find that that their current strategies, skills and practices are not suited.

Cris introduces his framework of OWN-Drive-Contribute which I find particularly powerful and illustrative.

Figure 3.2. The own-drive-contribute framework

How can leaders learn to own defining and establishing an innovation culture deep into the company, or at least business unit. How can they have their managers drive the innovation efforts, and how can they maximize participation of their full organization, their people, and their contribution to the tangible results.

He then goes on to help leaders on their “owning” responsibilities, along mindset, physical leadership with “presence” and ensuring to meet the psychological needs of the people:

  1. What ‘mindset’ does a leader need to create an organisation in which innovation is a core driver of growth? Do you have an expansive view of the company’s future? Do you think possibilities vs. “just playing it safe and my time will last….”. Do you have a growth mindset obsessed with learning rather than a fixed one that plays it safe and does “innovation theatre”?
  2. What ‘physical presence and principles’ needs to be put in place so others can play their part? Do you own and live purpose and strategy, but also rolling up your sleeves to help your people achieve excellence in execution. And, last but not least, do you embody the learning culture you need to grow, and want your people to develop? Oh, and do you communicate this effectively – abundantly and effectively, day in day out?
  3. What ‘psychological aspects and elements’ needs to be true so that others feel safe to act? Are you creating a culture where your people feel safe to bring their real self to work? To speak up, or “have voice”. To experiment smartly and welcome (early) failure as a way to learn, and constantly get smarter and better, with no fear of repercussions?


Lots of room for reflection, internalization, and learning here to get you ready to “Lead FOR Innovation”!

Chapter 4: Leading & Living Innovation – An Integrated Recipe , or How an Executive MBA Essay Became a Book Chapter

This chapter started at the Executive MBA course “Leading & Living Innovation” I teach at the Solvay Brussels School. My “exam” is an essay on “What did you learn from my class and what will you apply into your new post-EMBA life, and how”. Ricardo Oliveira was one of my students a couple of years ago, and his essay blew me away – so insightful, so well written, so excellent. In a flash of creativity and connection I suddenly figured “hey this is worth a chapter in my Proudpen book!”.

So here we are and I have the proud pleasure to present you Ricardo’s take on my course, and how he has elevated it with a compelling integrated framework he calls the “three circle innovation stream”.

Figure 4.1. Three-circle innovation stream

The first, outer, circle connects my (and his) concept of Generative Leadership – an integrated approach of leadership for the new world that embraces mind (by a growth mindset), heart (living authenticity behind vulnerability) and gut (establishing psychological safety) – to the organization through a “Love of Learning Culture”, grounded in deep curiosity and knowledge generation and application.

The second, middle, circle flows over the four quadrants that sustain “disciplined creativity” and “creative discipline” (courtesy of these terms to my old friend and former P&G colleague Brett Evans). The four quadrants are:

  • VUCA Strategy for the Innovation Portfolio
  • Continuous Innovation Process for New Product Innovation
  • Dual Portfolio for (New) Product Innovation
  • Agile Team Operational Discipline


The third, central, circle addresses the measurement of innovation to support organisations to track, monitor, and assess innovation performance. Innovation activities often compete for resources against routine work; therefore, measuring innovation is essential to improving innovation outcomes and overall performance. Measuring innovation requires a unique approach in corporations that is different from standard financial assessments as profit or ROI – in fact, putting standard financial tools onto your early breakthrough innovation efforts is a sure-fire way to kill ‘m. Instead, the approach needs to be able to measure competence, capability, and progress against milestones/gates, and do so at management, organization, and team level.

Then Ricardo goes on to illustrate application of his integrated framework on a successful example of Innovation, as well as a failed attempt, analyzing the whys of both. Pleasure to have had you in class, Ricardo, and thank you again for the powerful insights you extracted in this impressive piece!

Chapter 5: The Future Is Visual Management

In this chapter with its provocative title Gordon Fletcher explores how visualization can become a primary artefact for planning and decision-making rather than a secondary aesthetically pleasing representation of a concept or of some available evidence.

The origins of visual management are arguably older than literacy and coincide with the beginnings of written numeracy, and Gordon takes us through a journey from how the proto-Sumerians used tally marks that were pressed onto the outside of sealed clay beads containing the corresponding number of tokens inside, to European heraldry’s use of distinctive coats of arms to enable rapid identification of individuals on a battlefield, all the way to development of GUI and incorporation of charts and graphs in Lotus 1-2-3 and later Excel.

Laddering all these capabilities up to real “Visual Management” needs to reconcile the qualitative models of academics and practademics with the quantitative reporting drawn out of organisational data – to make complex data come to life, and ready to be decided and acted upon. Ultimately visual management represents the challenge of transforming the volumes of every present data through the creation of information and knowledge into the rarer commodity of wisdom in a way that is continuous and can build productively on previous learning – and then connecting this operational level to strategic management and decision making. And, critically, be truthful and ethical in the process linking nicely back to the four dimensions of truth in Chapter 2.

Chapter 6: Impactful Leadership in the Green-Digital Age

In this chapter, Jim Fitzhenry, one of our Senior Fellows at The Conference Board, introduces the Green Digital Age (GDA) we’ve come to live in, and discusses how leaders need to tap into its opportunities, volatility, and challenges with and for their organizations, taking care of themselves in the process. A very timely exploration indeed…..

Jim introduces the concept of “Industrial Social Impact Innovation (ISII)” and argues that companies that embrace this approach in today’s GDA grow individually, multiply collectively, have a significant impact on society, and generate the needed profitability and adaptability to thrive into the future.

He continues to submit that leaders of these corporations have a plethora of responsibilities. How do they:

  • create an ethical and strategic vision while living a meaningful life?
  • bolster their strategy with an aligned digitally savvy project portfolio?
  • master daily information management?
  • lead the vision to inspire game changing talent?
  • offer a resonating customer experience?
  • deliver on digital decisions that transform the organization and the community – by being digitally savvy?


Jim’s article is rich – full of wisdom on leadership principles but also their supporting lifestyle; on strategy but also getting the right talent and empower them to execute it; on data (the new gold) management but also on how ensure “digital savviness and authenticity” for credibility and impact; and, on delighting your customer but also, critically, ensuring the supporting ethics and integrity – something at a premium these days in many categories…..

Thank you, Jim, for sharing your wealth of experience and wisdom with our readers!

Chapter 7: The Most Powerful Leader is a Servant Leader

What pleasure to have my old friend and colleague from the Solvay Brussels School and now full-time professor in Strategy at emlyon business school Vincent Giolito take on the topic of Servant Leadership and tackle the perennial challenge on this subject and put it to bed once and for all: “how can a leader be a servant?”.

Vincent is an absolute authority of the notion of servant leadership and he starts off provocatively with “Even in our post-modern 21st century, the phrase “servant leadership” sounds like an oxymoron, a contradiction in the terms.” He continues to share the history of the philosophy, and then gets, critically, to “what servant leadership is not”. While the conventional, and may I say old-school kind of “visionary leadership” is all about the leader and his (most often) charisma, strategic and analytical thinking, and intellectual challenge, servant leadership is NOT about the leader, nor is it about the organization as a whole; what matters first and foremost to servant leaders is the people under the leader’s responsibility.

An important misconception is that servant leaders are “nice” and “soft”, and that their people are now in charge having free rein. Servant leaders very much retain their responsibility and accountability and are able to make tough calls as needed, at any time.

So, what and who are they? Vincent pulls research from Robert Liden at University of Illinois at Chicago who has compiled a powerful set of characteristics:

  • Servant leaders put people first, and demonstrate it with their teams, day in and day out.
  • Servant leaders help subordinates “grow and succeed”. Leaders pay attention to their people’s careers, aspirations, and needs.
  • Servant leaders attend to the emotional states of their people. They are here for their teams in bad times, they help people “heal” when facing setbacks, be it on the professional or personal sides of their lives. They also share their joy and celebrate accomplishments.
  • Servant leaders provide teams with ample room for autonomy and learning. Here we find the dimension of empowerment.
  • Servant leaders are ethical leaders – more precisely they demonstrate a process of ethical behavior. Confronted to difficult decisions with ethical dimensions, they recognize the dilemmas, they investigate, they ask questions, they share their interrogations and doubts with their teams before coming to “doing the right thing”.
  • Servant leaders building on strong, personal, conceptual capabilities that they nurture and develop by constantly learning from the situations and the people they encounter and interact with.
  • Servant leaders see the big picture in the form of the communities in which the organization is embedded. Servant leaders make a point of serving those communities, working with partners and stakeholders to make a difference in the world.


With their focus on people, they help people to “flourish” – enabling a climate of joy and contentment, rather than anger and frustration. They add meaning to life in the workplace. They help getting people in “flow”. Laddering this up, fundamentally, servant leaders invest in the long-term health of the institution they serve. They invest in leaders of the future. They create a culture of leadership that introduces humanity, agility, and resilience into the company as basis for sustained success in the “VUCA-on-Steroids” environment we’re living today, and be ready for tomorrow.

Chapter 8: Achieving Ambidextrous Innovation Leadership: Driving Perform and Transform Innovation for Step Change Business Results

This chapter emerged from a piece of research Chris Gentle and I carried out for The Conference Board Europe following a conversation in one of my Innovation Council meetings from the company. The subject was triggered by Olivier van Duuren and zeroed in on “How do I become two-handed as Innovation Leader. How will I be able to both “Perform” to meet the short-term business needs through smart incremental innovation AND how do I, at the same time, get ready to “Transform” the business to get ready for the future?”. Or in other words, how do I become an “Ambidextrous Leader” able to be deftly two-handed so to speak in leading, and managing “Perform & Transform” at the same time.

This proved to be a hot topic for our members so we followed up with a number of interviews to better understand the challenges, and identify opportunities to address them – and then publish a report to close the loop back with the members. It turned out this need for ambidexterity was, indeed, a major challenge for the vast majority of (innovation) leaders – to perform (doing more of what you know how to do today and doing it better, and driving efficiency, essentially) and to transform (creating something totally new and different, often from scratch) require totally different attitudes, competencies, and skills.

We identified five core interventions for leaders to become more ambidextrous in their work. They are the following:

  1. Realign Performance Metrics to transform not just perform innovation activities. Few firms have a balanced, tailored approach to metrics – yet. Perform often has established financial metrics; these tend to work against entrepreneurial Transform projects.
  2. Hitting the Innovation Sweet-Spot within the boundaries set by the innovation leader. First, the boundaries for the innovation focus must be set by the leader. Second, creating the best mix of management sponsorship, operational autonomy, and team priorities provides the optimal conditions for ambidextrous leadership to take root.
  3. Integrate to Identify Solutions. The innovation leader needs to break through organizational silos, integrating business unit priorities with innovation efforts early. Adding diversity of experience and thinking can ensure honed, consumer-relevant solutions.
  4. Think and Live Outside! The ambidextrous leader should refocus internal linear innovation processes towards more agile, strategic, selective external ecosystem management. As corporate boundaries blur external partnerships, expertise and insights are critical to powering integrated customer solutions. The innovation leader must adopt brave and courageous external relationships to enable this deep organisational shift.
  5. Empowered Small, Focused Teams. The leader must play a vital role in shifting towards a “safe” learning culture. Creating a new norm across the innovation community which embraces (early) failure toward transformational innovation should be top of the leaders’ agenda. This shift in mindset can move the needle on embedding innovations across the world.


Figure 8.1. Five Steps to AIL (The Conference Board (Europe), 2019)

The report discusses them in more detail. But there is more. The gap is so great we additionally captured three core, underlying enablers to support this 5-point drive to ambidextrous leadership, and they are:

  1. Entrepreneurial Mindset. Take the, often intense, R&D efforts beyond technology, into the business. Recall, the (or a) definition of Innovation is “Converting Knowledge and Inspiration into New Value” – without business value extracted from R&D, there is no (successful) innovation!
  2. Psychological Safety. Enable a shift towards what Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson calls, a ‘fearless organization – providing psychological safety for all people in the team, toward a safe learning culture, grounded in deep curiosity.
  3. Resilient Teaming. Today’s business world is extremely volatile, and full of uncertainty. Recoding team behaviors to do the right thing in upholding ethics and policy can create greater resilience, beyond getting better results. It also requires better sensing of organizational dynamics. Functional silos need to be broken through and agile, multi-functional teams with the appropriate autonomy and empowerment need to become the norm. As Steven Johnsonhas noted: “innovation does not just come from giving people incentives, it comes from creating the environments where their ideas can connect.”


Summing this all up, it was a true pleasure to serve as editor for this book. I hope my intro has convinced you there is a lot of richness and wisdom in here, courtesy of a number of great thinkers with years of business and/or academic experience who were very keen to pass this on to you. I wish you enjoyable and insightful reading.  


John Metselaar


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Book Information
Published: Monday, 4 Sep 2023
ISBN: 978-1-914266-38-6
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