Industry 4.0. Means Recoding Leadership

Five or six years ago, as we realized how crazy the world was becoming, the acronym VUCA was born, short for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.  The impact of climate events, (Australia) and the ongoing struggle to contain viral infections (COVID-19) have since shown us the unfortunately reality of living in a VUCA  world.

On the positive side, technological disruption, accelerated by a growing appetite for entrepreneurship in the world, accelerated by China’s growing share in the world economy and Gen Z’s push for impact investment, all bring a story of hope to bring solutions where we need it most.

All these events should raise our awareness that it is timely to re-assess how we define leadership and develop it. Do you know what it takes to lead in the digital (networked) world, conditioned by increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity?

Here are eight significant observations about what is happening today that in our view shape what we need to be ready to lead in these extraordinary times


First observation: The brain is more than ever THE critical resource. Where in the past, managing (lean) processes and people to execute for results was key to success, today this is important but far from sufficient to excel in and sustain performance.

Rather it is the organization who can unleash the collective potential of its ‘brains’ that will build a formidable competitive advantage and will continually adapt successfully to an exponentially changing world. As such, the key resource in industry 4.0 is the brain and the ideas it will produce.

Impact on leadership? Leading ‘brains’ is significantly different from leading processes and merely engaging people to ‘execute’. A brain’s creativity peaks when motivated through engagement and provided a sense of freedom. Brains want to be empowered and not controlled. They want to be treated fairly and with respect. They want to continually learn enhanced by their ‘connectedness’.


Second observation: Continued technological disruption with the creation of new business models, markets and new value networks. Impact on leadership here? Joint IMD – Cisco research revealed that in order to cope with disruption, the agile leader must show humility and adaptability to accept new reality, vision to overcome daily challenge and engagement to ensure powerful collaboration. In our view that could collectively refer to more ‘wise’ leadership.


Third observation: The rise of Artificial Intelligence and the importance of ethics and trust to ensure its purpose is for good. As we deploy AI in organizations and solutions, our agile mind will require to un-learn what we learn as new information becomes increasingly available and what is ‘knowledge’ today may no longer be tomorrow. AI also thrives on We-Q rather than I-Q: It’s power to deliver ultra-information lies in cross-discipline, cross-functional, cross-organizational collaboration and information sharing. Silo-thinking here is counter-productive.


Fourth observation: In the networked world of Industry 4.0, ACCESS to resources rather than CONTROL of resources brings power. In other words, ‘Protection of our territory’ is counter-productive”. As such, organizations will need to review how they structure themselves to maximize information sharing and stimulate collective development and response.

Our well-known matrix organizations with ‘silo’ based thinking and target setting is unlikely to be the right approach to address this. ‘Swat’-like intervention and agile project teams building on core competencies across functions and markets are possibly an answer.


Fifth observation: Going back to the very start of this article, socio-political and environmental shifts resulting in a more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world are the new reality. The recent events of the Coronavirus, the Brexit, tensions in the climate events are all testimony of how unpredictable our world and its economy have become.

For leadership this requires more than ever agility, resilience and creativity to meet the challenges ahead. Ambiguity and complexity also demand solid self-awareness (to recognize what we don’t know) as a starting point for understanding of the new reality emerging.


Sixth observation: China continuing its quest to be the leading economic power. Apart from a predicted conflux of Western and Eastern values in leadership, we see China as an accelerator of all previous events with its massive population and purposeful motivation to solve challenges in healthcare, environment and urbanization.

China is already leading the way in electrical vehicle introduction, mobile based payments, virtual reality and has a tremendous resource of new entrepreneurs all vying to be the next unicorn in a digital world.

The impact on leadership here is simply that it’s time for the Western world to wake up and corporate (and political) leadership will play an increasingly important role to bring people out of their comfort zone and adapt to a new reality where China is directly shaping how our world will look like in the next decade.


The seventh observation is the emergence of GenZ in the workplace, raised in a mobile world with a desire to have impact on a better planet and freedom to find purpose and passion in life. Attracting and retaining the best possible GenZ talents will require from leadership increasingly fair process and a ‘servant’ leadership approach based on humility and strong values, inspiring them with purpose and passion.

GenZ also experienced over the last decade the failure of leadership through so many scandals and will demand increasingly integrity, diversity, inclusion in the workplace. To avoid ambiguity, ‘servant’ leadership is a stronger rather than weaker leadership as it is built on humility and fairness, with a desire to lead from a position of respect rather than ‘title’.


Eighth observation:  GenZ is also an accelerator to the emergence of the social enterprise where a leader’s window moves beyond profit with value-based decisions and passion for purpose.

Also here the social enterprise will require more ‘servant leadership’ where the leader engages the team bottom-up, provides access to resources and inspires teams with purpose to drive high performance. Moreover, a leader’s window should broaden beyond ‘money’ and include ‘impact’ as a critical measurement of performance.

Recoding Leadership is a ‘Must’

Reflecting on these eight observations, let’s review the original question: Do you know the way to lead in the digital age? What is recurring impact on leadership that we observed? … and what does it mean for leadership development?

All eight observations refer to leaders needing to be humble, showing integrity, having passion for purpose, being fair and respected, having an agile mind…based on a good dose of self-awareness.

These are not your typical soft skills but rather refer to the CHARACTER of leadership… That’s exactly why RECODING leadership and leadership development is a must!

Character cannot just be ‘trained’ but leadership development can have significant impact by focusing on:

  1. Increasing self-awareness as a basis for unlearning and change, using assessments, coaching and equipping leaders and their stakeholders with feedback and deep listening skills.
  2. Providing structure and tools to make quality decisions and communicate them in a way that will improve their effectiveness with new models on leading change in a VUCA context, fair process of decision-making and to stimulate WeQ@work.

Last but not least, Recoding leadership also implies a new look at how we deliver on leadership development.

We can see here three core trends emerging to have the right impact:

  • Learning shots for continual learning rather than one-time workshops or off-site training delivery, applying instead different and combined ways of learning (e-learning, webinars, coaching, action-learning, etc). In essence, providing a leadership journey over time to close both individual and organizational gaps.
  • Customization via personal learning clouds starting with an assessment and self-awareness as a basis for bespoke design of learning resources.
  • Mobile applications (e-learning APPS) to support the learning journey as we learn on the go and our concentration span is getting increasingly limited.

Recoding leadership is timely to get ready for industry 4.0.

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