How responsive leaders balance old and new

Modern leaders balance old-school and new-school leadership. Here’s how, as explained by Erik Korsvik Østergaard

Modern, responsive leaders understand balance. They know when – and how – to balance hierarchy with networks, planning with experimentation, and results-orientation with value-creation. They tread the line between delegation and control. They mix old school and new school leadership styles.

Black and white is dangerous

Seeing the world in black and white is dangerous. The past decade has seen a lot of justified debate about how the business world is changing in an unprecedented way, driven by the developments in technology and society. This has led to notions of a paradigm shift in leadership styles and the way we design and develop our organizations.

With such rapid change, we have the opportunity and obligation to redesign our approach to leadership, with yesterday’s ‘old-school’ leadership being replaced by today’s ‘new-school’ leadership, typically characterized as purpose-driven, non-hierarchal, based on distributed leadership and delegation, with emphasis on emotional intelligence.

However, practising new school leadership without balance leads to new challenges, problems and breakdowns in the fabric of the organizations, resulting in slow – or no – decision-making, stress, lack of psychological safety, and loss of traction and direction. Going too far with personal transformation without reality checks is dangerous.

Modern leadership is a constant balance

Achieving balance requires proactive testing, probing, and experimenting with the options – and then a response to the feedback, fast. The responsive, modern leader knows when and how to deviate from the new style, and mix, match, and dose it with selected mechanisms and elements from the old, traditional, more hierarchical and predictable style. This requires an experimental and innovative hypothesis-based approach to strategy, organizing, and execution, all rooted firmly in a culture of empowerment, engagement, no-blame, and trust.

Understand how the world is changing, and why. Then, to understand how this works in your context, in your market, in your business, in your organization and in your business unit.

The great, modern leaders I’ve met and observed share the same behaviors:

  1. They establish frequent and fast feedback loops with their peers and their employees, daily and weekly. Inspect and adapt, as we say in the Agile/Scrum world
  2. They decode which of the dynamic levers in the organization are fruitful to work with: hierarchy vs network, planning vs experimentation, result-orientation vs value-creation, and delegation
  3. They have a 1:5 ratio between old-school and new-school leadership

There is a clear and very important lesson in understanding that leadership styles should not be black-and-white between old-school and new-school, but lies somewhere on a spectrum between them. Modern leadership is about applying the style in a responsive way; hence the notion of responsive leadership.

The birth of a modern, responsive leader

The strongest and most successful new practice leaders I’ve met in the past decade have all mastered the ability to ‘mix-and-dose’ the leadership style, according to their short-term development and long-term transformation. They shift their centre of gravity to the new practice leadership, but at the same time, they know when to be controlling and demanding, either to ensure culture, progress or to deliver value.

The manifesto of Responsive Org. ( is a really good starting point for that development, putting light on five opposable dynamics of the organization, and starting to understand how they are not either-or but sliders or scales between the extremes. It’s a game of ‘mix-and-dose’.

This is the first step in the big shift: shift your centre of gravity to this new practice of leadership. Have the willingness and determination to do something different, and to try it out. The second step is just as important, namely the actual transformation into a responsive leader of the future. This happens when the behavior becomes a habit.

All this requires honesty and involvement from your peers and your employees. You need to tell them that you’re trying something new and that it might be awkward or hard for the first 6 – 12 months. Establish daily or weekly feedback loops, for example via weekly polling or retrospective sessions. And be willing to try new stuff, evaluate fast, and only keep those things and mechanisms, that work.

Be determined to change your habits, learn what balance you should have and what dynamics you have in your organizations.

Inspect and adapt, mix and dose.

Be patient. It takes time.

– Erik Korsvik Østergaard, is the founder and partner of Bloch&Østergaard. He holds qualifications in chaos mathematics and cross-cultural project management. Erik has worked with leadership, change management, and organisational transformation for over 15 years and has a burning passion for leadership and engagement. Connect with him via LinkedIn or Twitter