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October 13, 2022 9 min

It’s time for hyper-aware leaders

In a world in continuous transformation, companies need hyper-aware leaders, aware of the changes that occur inside and outside organizations but, first of all, aware of themselves

Santi Garcia

A content by Santi Garcia

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Between October 2016 and January 2017, the Global Centre for Digital Business Transformation, an IMD and Cisco Initiative, and HR Consultancy metaBeratung conducted a research project to identify the factors that differentiate leaders who thrive in disruptive environments from those who struggle. The data revealed that leadership effectiveness in disruptive environments shared many characteristics with leadership in more stable environments, with a few exceptions. Among those differences, research showed that leaders who scored high on being humble, adaptable, visionary, and engaged tended to significantly outperform other leaders in the face of disruption on measures like job engagement and leadership effectiveness. 

In addition, the so-called “agile leaders” exhibited three behaviors that helped them successfully navigate disruptive environments. The authors called one of those behaviors “hyper-awareness.” With this term, they referred to the increased need for leaders in disruptive environments to constantly scan their environments, both inside and outside their organization boundaries, for opportunities and threats. 

Yet, they also emphasized the need for agile leaders to strike a balance between staying hyper-aware and two other behaviors: a) making use of data and information to make evidence-based decisions and b) a willingness to move quickly, often valuing speed over perfection. Because it is of little use for them to be aware of the threats and opportunities facing their organizations and to be able to make the right decisions in front of those threats and opportunities if then they can not execute their decisions as quickly as needed. The same that it is of little use for these hyper-aware leaders to succeed in building high speed organizations if they do not care about making well-informed decisions.

Perhaps due to professional distortion having cofounded an independent observatory of trends in the world of work, the fact is that this idea of the ‘hyper-aware leader’ has resonated with me a lot since then.

This is why, last week at the 56th European Petrochemical Association conference in Berlin, when the moderator of the round table on ‘The Next Gen Leader’ where I was a panelist, Augusto López-Claros, asked me if I had missed something in the list of the main attributes of great leaders he presented in his keynote speech, I suggested he consider adding ‘hyper-awareness’ to his list.

After all, hyper-awareness, as an organizational capability, becomes an essential ingredient for competitiveness, resilience, and survival when playing in disruptive environments is no longer the exception but the norm.

Let’s remember that, according to David J. Teece’s Dynamic Capabilities Framework (1997), in a world in constant transformation competitiveness is no longer a matter of securing the possession or control of valuable, rare, inimitable, and non-substitutable resources that allow a company to follow strategies that are difficult for competitors to copy, but a matter of the company being able to renew its capabilities in line with the changing business environment, adapting, integrating, and reconfiguring internal and external organizational skills, resources, and functional competencies to match the requirements of a volatile, uncertain world.

Teece argued that those dynamic capabilities can belong to three different categories: (1) identification and assessment of opportunities and threats (sensing); (2) mobilization of resources to address an opportunity and to capture value from doing so (seizing); and (3) continued renewal by enhancing, combining, protecting, and, when necessary, reconfiguring intangible and tangible assets (transforming). Yet neither seizing opportunities nor transforming the organization is possible without previously having sensed the outside world and detected those opportunities. Therefore, hyper-awareness can be regarded as a behavior through which leaders develop the dynamic capabilities (and hence the competitiveness) of their organizations.

The value hyper-aware leaders bring to their organizations is also implicit in the capabilities-based conceptualization of organizational resilience developed by Stephanie Duchek (2020) that I refer to in my book La Resiliencia de las Organizaciones (2022).

According to Duchek, a resilient organization responds effectively to adverse events not only after they have happened (reactive action) but also before they occur (anticipatory action) and while they are happening (concurrent action). From this broad perspective, she understands resilience as both a process through which an organization anticipates potential threats, effectively copes with adverse events, and adapts to changing conditions, and a meta-capability consisting of a set of organizational capabilities that allow for the successful functioning of the three stages of the process. The first of which, anticipation, includes the ability of the organization to observe internal and external events and identify critical events and potential threats. In other words, hyper-awareness.

However, when I talk about the need for business leaders to become hyper-aware, I like to use this term with a broader meaning than the one the researchers from the Global Centre for Digital Business Transformation and metaBeratung gave to this concept in their report.

To begin with, when we talk about the need for leaders to pay attention to what is happening in the macro environment (technology, economy, society, politics, etc.) we should not just mean that leaders must be attentive to emerging trends that can potentially have an impact on their company’s operations. Today they must also closely monitor the impact their companies have on their social and natural environments. Among other reasons, due to the growing importance that customers, employees and other stakeholders of their companies give to this issue.

In addition, the world is so complex that company leaders cannot effectively detect, assess, and keep track of all the changes, threats, and opportunities that emerge around them if they work alone. Thus today companies need humble leaders that accept they can not know everything. Second, they need people capable of seeing changes around them from as many different perspectives as possible (hence the importance of a diverse and curious workforce). And third, they need to articulate mechanisms to listen and make sense of all the tensions and opportunities people detect.

Similarly, when we speak of the need for business leaders to pay attention to the markets, we should consider not only the markets for the products or services their companies sell but other markets where their companies compete, such as the financial markets or the labor market. In the same way that when we say that company leaders must be very attentive to what happens within their organizations, it is important for them to go beyond their formal control systems, and, for example, try to understand the social fabric hidden under organizational charts since these relationships condition fundamental aspects for the proper functioning of an organization, such as collaboration, information flows, or the construction of shared meanings.

However, the main difference between the meaning I like to give to the term hyper-awareness and its meaning in the ‘agile leadership’ model produced by the Global Centre for Digital Business Transformation is that, in my experience, hyperawareness needs to start with self-awareness. 

In other words, true hyper-aware leaders need to understand what happens inside and outside their organizations. But first they need to be conscious of their values, passions, interests, aspirations, reactions, and how others perceive them, paying particular attention to those aspects of their personality that often remain blind spots but can derail them as leaders in front of conflict or stress.

References

Duchek, S. (2020). Organizational resilience: a capability-based conceptualization. Business Research13(1), 215–246.

Neubauer, R., Tarling, A., & Wade, M. (2017). Redefining leadership for a digital age. Global Centre for Digital Business Transformation, 1–15.

Teece, D. J., Pisano, G., & Shuen, A. (1997). Dynamic capabilities and strategic management. Strategic management journal18(7), 509–533.

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Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

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