‘In business, politics, and in our communities, we need to learn to be authentic and flexible, what I call “shapeshifter” authenticity’, says Joseph Grenny, best-selling author and a social scientist for business performance.

Most people, and executives especially must be able to access and develop a fuller range of their possibilities. Leadership today means being better and being different, working wiser, and in full integrity.

In today’s demanding 24/7 world, building and maintaining resilience is an essential leadership quality, especially amongst the ever-shifting uncertainties around us politically, financially, environmentally, geopolitically, in business – all manner of social and economic forces. This is where shapeshifter leadership comes into the journey.

And for us, the tech industry’s combination of high-velocity competition, complexity, global talent, and interdependence among rivals makes it a truly unique environment, requiring a distinct set of leadership skills.

The unique nature of the tech world doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. What can change—and quickly—is a leader’s ability to manage the idiosyncratic challenges that come with the territory. Together, these recommendations will equip leaders to excel in a world that outpaces even the best and brightest. Leaders who build the norms of dialogue and accountability create organisations that are substantially more likely to thrive in the long term. And a company that doesn’t embrace diversity in terms of innovators and the flexible authentic leaders (shapeshifters) is a company that loses ground in the market, gradually or suddenly.

There is a flexibility, curiosity, empathy, fluidity and a freedom that being the best shapeshifter can give us – and we find we can operate in true authenticity to adapt to the challenges in this era.

Shapeshifting as a collective

In the study of insects and animals that swarm or swim together as a collective, such as a school of fish, or a murmuration of swallows, scientists have found that the way individuals work together may actually be more important than the way they work alone. Through a model of emergence they self-organise into something new by aligning their responses with their neighbours, and are united in a ‘scale-free’ way because of the quality of the information they get. So, when one bird, or one fish responds to danger in one part of the swarm or school, instantaneously another on the opposite side will react in perfect timing even though the danger is not near their side. As a collective, they make an imperfect estimate about where to go, and by interacting and staying together they get the best direction. All the while they shapeshift as a collective to avoid danger.

“Shapeshifting is the capacity to shift the shape of an individual’s story and that of the collective through transitions – in essence purposeful shifting, purposeful change.”

Shapeshifter leaders are better leaders’ the benefits of doing two things that come naturally to shapeshifter leaders – playing and experimenting with new roles with visionary pragmatism.

Three First Steps to Developing Shapeshifter Leadership Skills

There are three steps to cultivating effective shapeshifter leadership.

First, leaders need to assess — honestly, fearlessly and without ego — the areas where their habitual leadership style fails their community. These are the areas where they need to learn to be “nimble,” and it’s nothing they can announce in a meeting or accomplish with a leadership buzzword or pep talk. This may be the hardest step, because it means a leader must know what he does very well and acknowledge that those skills don’t support growth in every situation.

Second, leaders need to find, develop and learn to value those skills, stretching outside their comfort zones, and building new alliances, living new stories in their communitiesThis step is about taking steps to learn and change, moving past the comfortable surface authenticity of leadership lore. Shapeshifter authenticity means the different performances of our identity, skills and values are nimble and sincere. We can perform different roles to meet the diversity of our organisation’s needs. A leader willing to embrace the shapeshifter’s leading edge is visible in many different situations with many different ways of being present.

Third, leaders need to identify the people in the organisation who have those skills, and encourage their participation on core teams. This last step may seem to contradict the second, but let’s face it — some skills can’t be learned. Once we tackle the learning curve, we always find there are some things we aren’t learning fast enough, or even that we may not be able to master with enough nimbleness to function well in that role/skill. A shapeshifter leader is confident enough to build a team that supplements his or her skills, valuing and cultivating diversity in followers.

This one seems easier, and in fact it is, but there’s a challenge — the leadership skills we don’t have are often under-represented in our hiring and team building, because they’re the skills we don’t see as valuable. We like followers/employees who share our skills and values; we isolate or don’t even hire the people whose skills and values we don’t share. So even team-building requires some shapeshifter leadership, because an effective leader has to have the flexibility to invite challenges into the central team, building relationships that push him or her outside the box of dominant habits of thinking and acting.

These are fundamental steps; skilled shapeshifter leaders move into deeper, more playful strategies that go beyond these basics.

“To lead is to walk at the edge”

Compiled by Karin Dubois, Network Group