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How Is Leadership Changing?

We speak to David Ahlstrom, leadership professor at CUHK Business School, to find out


Wed Mar 20 2019

The world we live in is frequently described as ‘VUCA’—Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. The business world is markedly different to the way it was only a few years ago, in large part due to the rapid development of technology and the way it’s impacted the way we think and work. But how does this mean leadership is changing?  

Professor David Ahlstrom, a lecturer on the MSc in Management at Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, says that the changes over the last three decades have significantly changed the way that leadership operates.

“It’s much more difficult to order people to do things now,” he says. “That might seem an obvious statement, but it’s worth reminding people.

“[Organizations] are starting to accept that there are behavioral and psychological approaches to leadership that are very important now—10 or 20 years ago, it was harder to get people to accept that, especially in traditional industries.”

“People are just a lot wealthier today”

Where does this independence come from? There’s a case to be made for the Internet broadening people’s access to information, of course, but there’s a very solid material change that David thinks plays a key role.

“People are just a lot wealthier today,” he explains. “Extreme poverty still exists unfortunately, but it’s reduced considerably, even since 1960 or 1980.”

It’s true; even in the last thirty years, global extreme poverty has shrunk from nearly 36% in 1990 to 10% in 2015.

“The middle class has a lot more money today,” David continues, “not just income—which has gone up in the last 30 years—but also wealth.”

David cites the rise in property prices, and particularly the example of Asia.

Hong Kong was home to the most expensive real estate in the world in 2018, and David theorizes that much of that is falling to single-child households who, when they inherit their parents’ property, are not burdened by having to share their wealth with siblings or extended family.

“This material change is changing the way you manage these people—they’re more flexible, they quit more easily, and they look for more international work,” he says.

“What are the millennials going to do? It’s anybody’s guess!”

When you combine these shifts with technological change, the result is a much more nomadic workforce, who demand more flexible hours and working locations, are more clued-up on what their colleagues are earning, and what career alternatives are out there for them. It’s no wonder that this presents a challenge for leaders.

David can’t make any firm predictions of how this will play out long-term—“What are the millennials going to do? It’s anybody’s guess!”—but he does believe that global wealth will continue to increase, with emerging economies experiencing growth.

“To me, that would continue to extend the current trends, and as people get wealthier, they have fewer children—the trends we see in Hong Kong and China could extend into India, and lead to a shrinking or levelling in the population.”

“Hong Kong is a good laboratory”

David says that Hong Kong is home to a range of firms that are tackling these issues—from traditional multinationals, family businesses, and government organizations, to younger and more exciting startups.

“Hong Kong is a good laboratory, because it’s pretty good at trying out new things,” he says.

This sea-change in attitudes to work is key to the way that David is adapting his teaching on the MSc in Management at CUHK Business School, equipping them with the skills that are emerging as the most important in the future of work.

He emphasizes that there is a difference between leadership and management—and that a good Master’s program will incorporate both.

“I try to teach at the behavioral level,” he explains. “That’s a very important part of leadership, because it’s heavily about organizing people and their efforts, whereas management gets more into resource management, scheduling, and control.”

How do you change people’s behavior to direct them toward a common goal? How do you create and direct social influence, and how do you do it ethically? How do you avoid being tricked by it in others?

These are some of the questions that David and his students tackle in the core courses on the MSc at CUHK Business School, and he believes that they are the key to a long career in the future of leadership.

“I teach a lot about emotional intelligence—that’s become a very important topic over the last few years,” David says. “Employers repeatedly say that they want emotional intelligence and understanding from their employees.

“In the old days, we could run and hide from some of these things, but today it’s a heck of a lot harder—there’s a range of soft skills you want to learn, and a good way to do that is business school programs that teach you some of them, and point you in the direction of others to stay in touch with.”