Albana Vrioni: Leaders who shape the future don’t just solve problems

What it means to be an effective leader is evolving almost as fast as today’s world. Albana Vrioni, a business transformation practitioner, coach, and consultant with 20 years of experience across multiple countries, spoke with a group of high-level managers at BMI Executive Institute about the challenges of leadership in our era of rapid change and innovation. Here we summarize some of her insights and recommendations on management, leadership, and personal growth.

Future-makers versus future-takers

Amid changes in so many areas that are ever more rapid, interconnected and complex, the ability to lead change and innovation has become a hallmark of leadership in the 21st century, Albana Vrioni notes. “Leadership is about shaping change, envisioning a purposeful destination, motivating and inspiring others to reach an aspired future, and getting to that aspired future first,” she stresses.

The mentality of seeking to shape the future in one’s interests – what she calls “future-making” – contrasts with a “problem-solving, future-taking” approach where one simply solves the problems caused by the approach of an externally imposed future, aiming to keep current systems functioning and maintain short-term performance.

The first, focusing on potential, seek transformative change, to build a better world. It sparks creative tension, openness to experimenting and partnering with others. The second, focusing on problems, adapt, insofar as needed, to protect what one has today. It is cautious and defensive.

Leadership is what we emanate

Neuroscience research has shown that the conversations we hold prime ours and others’ brains to be operate in a problem-solving protective mode or in an aspirational, creative mode, the change-leadership expert notes. “We have the power to direct our brain more towards an aspirational future and collaborative modes of working. By showing hope, enthusiasm, commitment and courage, leaders can create and increase people’s emotional engagement in shaping the future.”

Thus, among the most important elements in a leader’s toolkit, Vrioni lists “aspiring conversations” – where one mobilizes people to move forward, and not get bogged down in fear, by deliberately focusing on future-making with one’s team as opposed to problem-solving.

Highlighting potential and a culture of learning and growth helps, as does acceptance of uncertainty and a leader’s willingness to admit not having all of the answers and knowing all the solutions.  

Crowdsourcing change

At the core of leading change and innovation is the future that we aspire to. The source of the creative tension that drives transformative change is precisely the fact that people’s hopes and desires are directed to achieving something. So the people involved in an organization or initiative need to be involved in defining its aspired future. Not to mention the value of collaborative thinking, involving the diverse insights of many people when plotting an optimal future destination.

“Transformative, generative growth is very much about crowdsourcing change, collaborating to develop a vision for the future, for how we as people want to grow, and understanding what we in fact aspire to,” the business change consultant says. “That takes leaders who are open to being challenged about where they want to take the organization and to reimagining the future.”

Picking a place on the continuum

In real life, Vrioni notes, managers obviously need to give attention both to problems and potential. While growing in their ability to function effectively as future-shaping leaders, they do also need to “manage” – to solve problems and adapt to external change to ensure performance today.

“There is a duality of roles, that of the leader and that of the manager, and their perceived opposition generates creative tension and can drive very innovative solutions,” she explains, adding: “One needs to consciously position oneself on the continuum between managing and leading, and to develop your own future-shaping narrative.”

She describes the ownership of one’s personal approach as “becoming an enterprising leader of self” noting that “in chartering your own leadership journey, you develop your own ways to reinvent yourself, reimagine the future for yourself and your teams, and develop critical skills to handle the dualities and paradoxes of leading through complexity.”

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