Henley Business School. Picture: Henley Business School
Henley Business School. Picture: Henley Business School

Covid-19 may be changing the way everyone works but wasn’t the world already heading that way, asks Bernd Vogel, founding director of The Henley Centre for Leadership at Henley Business School in the UK.

A pan-European study of likely working trends in the year 2028 found that while technology may improve many jobs, it will make others obsolete. He says: "Medium-level jobs may be subsumed by automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning."

Vogel, who is in Joburg to create a leadership centre at Henley Business School Africa, says society will become more physically disconnected. "As individuals, we will have to get used to working from home or nontraditional workplaces and learn new ways of working as the old nine-to-five boundaries continue to blur, along with traditional leadership roles."

The concept of lifelong learning — continuous education to keep pace with a rapidly changing work and leadership environment — will no longer be optional. "This will bring with it unbelievable opportunities but also incredible insecurity and the associated danger of burnout as we manage life-work integration," says Vogel.

Those who study or aspire to leadership will have to understand a new set of rules. The traditional hierarchical structure, in which people spend years working their way up the management ladder, won’t apply. Managers will no longer be the all-powerful, "patriarchal" figures of the past.

Vogel says: "Technology will herald unprecedented transparency about how employees, managers and collaborators are involved in leading. The successes in leadership, but also our shortcomings, are clearly visible for everyone else to see, making it difficult to suppress your limitations as an individual manager or hide the contributions to success of your colleagues."

Top management will become "enablers" ensuring disparate teams are moving in the same direction and overseeing long-term risk-taking.

The problem with all this is that leadership education principles are still stuck in the early 20th Century, says Vogel. "Key subjects like responsibility, judgment, risk and learning to fail are wholly underrepresented in the curriculum. There’s a lack of support for the more flexible nature of work, organisational structure and leadership."

Do we even know what leadership is, he asks. "Do we really understand what a healthy, robust, meaningful and impactful leader should look like? Leadership is the result of a network. You shine through others and you enable their light to shine through you. How do we democratise leadership so that it permeates the entire organisation?"

Disruption caused by Covid-19 lockdowns will transform business models, he says. Some trends identified for 2028 have already been implemented.

Vogel says: "What was unthinkable in terms of disrupting hierarchies and work practices has become the new normal within weeks — and the process has just begun."

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