So what do you do if you don't have a vision? After Lou Gerstner took over IBM in 1993, he observed: "The last thing IBM needs now is a vision." He knew that the company had a huge amount of talent within it, but he didn't really know what the talent was capable of or what opportunities there really were. What happens if you aren't ready for vision yet? What happens if, like Jeff Bezos when starting up Amazon.com, you really don't know what could be sold on the Internet? Could you have a clear vision of the future?
In such cases, people in leadership roles face huge levels of inherent ambiguity. They feel uncertain and stressed. However, the more effective leaders then move towards the uncertainty, not away from it. There is a third style of leadership emergingthat of learning leadershipand its defining feature will be leaders noted for their tendency to head towards uncertainty and ambiguity.
We don't include visionary leadership with learning leadership because in visionary leadership the leader is normally quite clear and quite certain about what the vision should be. Of course, there is still much uncertainty in interpreting the vision of the leader, but this now becomes a communication issue, not a direction issue. The visionary leader says to the followers "Let's work together on how to make my vision happen." Whereas the leader in ambiguity says "Let's work together on how we can learn what the vision should be."
In my 1996 book, The Future of Leadership, the leader's role was defined as "identifying productive areas of uncertainty and confusion and leading the organization into those areas to gain competitive or other kinds of advantage."
I see today's executives facing the same situation. Many of their instincts are to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty, to install certainty by making clear and firm statements. The problem is that today's organizational world is in such a volatile state that it is much harder now than it was 20 years ago to accurately make such clear and firm statements.
The pressures on this new kind of leader will be immense. First, to what extent can they really admit to their followers that they don't know?
An equally tough requirement for learning leaders is to recognize that learning from their mistakes needs to be at least as public as learning from their successes. Everyone in the organization has to engage in continuous learning, and some of that learning may challenge existing concepts and require genuinely original solutions. Here, the leader's job is again to take the organization towards things it doesn't know in search of fruitful new ideas and original learning.
If you are a learning leader, you are going to want to spend most of your time and your organization's time doing things that are difficult to learn but are of high value to the organization. The only thing that guarantees your success if you want to spend a lot of your organization's time in that arena is the quality of learning your organization can muster. Because you don't know how to do the things that you will come across, you must be able to learn very rapidly under the toughest of conditions to survive and prosper. It is certainly not for everyone. But people who do operate at this level will describe it as thrilling, exciting, and challenging. Certainly not boring.
Do you want to test how much your organization is using the third model of leadership? Try this. Ask your people to name five important products, services, and production techniques now taken for granted but which a previous generation of managers would not have known. Now list five trends in products, services, and production techniques the next generation will take for granted, but which you can hardly fathom. The pathway to installing those trends so that they become real is the amount of difficult learning facing you and your colleagues. If it is substantial, then develop your difficult learning skills or get out of the business.