Fourth industrial revolution: Implications on leadership

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RECENTLY, Professor Peter Dzvimbo, the chief executive officer of Zimbabwe Council of Higher Education (Zinche), did a presentation on the operations and functions of this higher education quality assurance body at Arrupe Jesuit University recently.

During his presentation, he touched on something which caught my attention: the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the need for institutions to gear themselves towards this new phenomenon which is characterised by artificial intelligence. It was quite insightful and it got me curious to understand further the implication of this emerging disrupting industrial revolution on current leadership trends in the various sectors.

Fourth industrial revolution

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a term coined by Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. It describes a world where individuals move between digital domains and offline reality with the use of connected technology to enable and manage their lives (Miller 2015, 3).

A brief background to this includes the First Industrial Revolution which changed our existence from an agrarian and handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and machine manufacturing. The Second Industrial Revolution was characterised by oil and electricity, which facilitated mass production of goods and services. Then came the the Third Industrial Revolution which saw the emergence of information technology which facilitated the automation of the means of production. Although each industrial revolution is often considered a separate event, together they can be better understood as a series of events building upon innovations of the previous revolution and leading to more advanced forms of production.

New leadership paradigm

The advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution presents new challenges to organisational leadership today and therefore requires a new leadership paradigm. It calls for leaders to transform their organisations so as to stay relevant and competitive amidst the unprecedented change. However, they must do so in a manner that guides the people in their workforce to opportunities and prosperity. How is the leadership landscape shifting? What behaviours most effectively drive organisations and society to a more sustainable, inclusive future?

Putting people at the centre means investing in the knowledge, skills and mindsets required to navigate the complexities of today and tomorrow.

As I pointed out in my previous installment on strategic leadership in the VUCA environment, leaders today no longer have the luxury of preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Its disruptive forces are already upon us and can be felt across all organisations as unprecedented technological advances drive seismic shifts. These are amplified by associated trends, such as protectionism and nationalism, increasing environmental constraints and rising inequality. Can today’s leadership cope with this technological upheaval?

New economies, globalisation

In his article Grappling with Globalisation 4.0, Schwab, the founder and chairperson of the World Economic Forum, states that the Fourth Industrial Revolution has introduced a new economy and new globalisation that require innovative forms of governance to protect the public good. The human condition, he proposes, is in the hands of leaders from business, government, civil society and academia—and its future well-being depends on their timely adaptation to these changes.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution presents leaders across production value chains with the opportunity to drive transformation by elevating and enabling their workforces. Manufacturing has traditionally supported economic growth and prosperity in both developed and developing countries. By putting people at the centre, production leaders can catalyse the next wave of economic growth to the benefit of over a billion workers, according to Schwab’s report.

Adopting new behaviours

The way forward involves adopting key leadership behaviours. Crucial to this are new partnerships among businesses, governments, educational institutions and labour, and social partners, which help ensure positive outcomes for people while enabling production workers.

Leadership is no exception. For organisations and individuals to thrive—indeed, even to survive—leaders must adopt new roles for themselves and their people. The scale, complexity and urgency of today’s challenges call for responsive and responsible leadership.

People at centre

Bob Chapman, chief executive and chairperson of Barry-Wehmiller Companies and co-author of Everybody Matters, asserted that true leadership is the “. . . big difference between understanding the value of the people inside an organisation and making decisions that consider their needs”. A new mindset and key behaviours aid in solving complex problems. This, however, brings to the fore compelling questions on how leaders can balance the delivery of short-term results with good stewardship of people and resources? What takes primacy: shareholder and market expectations, or long-term impact upon people, families and communities?

The complexity of the transformation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution demands new forms of multi-stakeholder collaboration. To drive the next wave of economic growth and promise for workers, leaders from business, government, labour unions and academia must forge a new partnership.

Robert Mandeya is an executive leadership coach, trainer in human capital development and corporate education, a certified leadership and professional development practitioner and founder of the Institute of Leadership, Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw/www.lird.co.zw.

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