The Challenges Leaders face

Over the next weeks, I will outline a multi-dimensional leadership model categorising talent and development paths. The first and foremost question before developing a model must be, which very basic challenges corporate leaders face in today’s reality.

In a day to day corporate environment staff face tasks and challenges which are reoccurring or very similar to previous ones. Well trained members of staff will be very able to easily deal with them and the corporate environment, such as tools, processes and strategies are well outlined to match these tasks. I would suggest to group them under the heading operational challenges. As per my definition, an organisation is typically well set up to deal with operational challenges. Should it lose this ability, the operational challenge will become an adaptive challenge or even a critical challenge. 

Markets are changing at an ever faster pace hence companies constantly need to adapt to new environments or identify new attractive product lines. The corporate environment also constantly experiences changes in society with significant impact on their workforce, such as motivators for generation Y versus baby boomers. I would suggest grouping all medium to long-term challenges under the heading adaptive challenges. If management fails to address adaptive challenges this could threaten the company’s medium-term success and eventually these challenges will become critical.

Lastly, there are major incidents companies have to react to, immediately. This might be a major macroeconomic effect such as the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008, the emerge of a disruptive competitor, significant change in legislation, major accident, major disagreement with a union and so on. All these challenges fit under the heading critical challenges. If leaders are not able to deal with critical challenges this could threaten the company’s immediate success or even existence.

These three categories of corporate challenges exist on all levels of hierarchy. They are faced by a worker as much as by an executive leader. The failure to deal with them can have significant bottom up and top to bottom effects.

You could argue from a leadership development point of view that you need to equip entry level staff mainly with operational skills, they then learn adaptive skills while gaining more experience and will add skills to deal with critical change when they reach senior leadership roles. I though strongly argue, that skills to deal with all three are needed on each level just in different shapes. Following this basic principle of my leadership model challenges do graduate from operational to adaptive to critical if you don’t solve them. Hence any operational problem – regardless how unimportant it may seem today – might be an existential problem tomorrow.

The challenge in leadership development in today’s world is the realisation that everybody has to be a leader. Since the demise of Lehman Brothers, businesses face constant uncertainty which can only be met with consistent leadership across the entire corporate spectrum.

These three challenges can be seen as fractals. Every challenge consists of operational, adaptive and critical elements; every operational element consists of a further set of the three and so on. As this works indefinitely it represents the complex challenge of leadership very well.

The question for further articles will be to bring this basic principle in context with management and leadership levels and career path.