We’re undergoing a technological revolution that is changing how we work, live and relate to one another. Recent studies* indicate that this revolution is unlike any we have experienced before.

Technologies driving this revolution include smart and connected machines and systems, nanotechnology, gene sequencing, renewable energy, quantum computing, 3D printing, driverless cars, digital money, robotics, drones, and biological breakthroughs.

Studies also cite the sharing economy (e.g., AirBnB and Uber) and the emergence of cyber warfare. It is the fusion of all these breakthroughs that makes the Fourth Industrial Revolution different. It’s argued that this is not an extension of the so-called Third Industrial Revolution because of the following factors: (a) its velocity, (b) its breadth and depth and (c) its systematic impact.

These views are shared by prominent business leaders, such as former Cisco CEO, John Chambers. In an interview published by McKinsey in March 2016, Chambers states that up to 40% of the world’s biggest companies will not exist in a meaningful way after the next decade if they do not adequately prepare themselves for this era.

We are conducting a ‘living research’ project aimed at redefining leadership in the context of what has been referred to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The project focuses on how corporations are adapting their leadership style, culture and methodologies in order to innovate and steer the implementations of new business models. In addition to this, corporations are also having to find ways of facing the relentless headwinds of new market realities caused by disruptive technologies and turbulent business conditions.

* Klaus Schwab “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”, World Economic Forum 2016.

Our approach to this research

The living research project will not only seek to identify and describe the new ‘principles of leadership’ in this ear, but also open up the possibility of redefining the notion of leadership itself in this environment. In other words, instead facilitating the emergence of shared meaning by the collective rather than leadership being primarily attributed to the individual.

We believe that traditional leadership mind-sets, styles and ways of working within most global corporations are simply not suited to coping with the speed, volatility, complexity and ambiguity of this new operating environment. We believe that a new approach to leadership learning and leader development is necessary.

The purpose of this ‘living research’ project is to engage our clients, other leading multinational corporations and our global community in an immersive, collective learning experience aimed at redefining leadership in this new environment. The output is intended to help companies more effectively develop and prepare their leaders for this new reality.

We cannot wait until there are massive dislocations in our society to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Robert J. ShillerNobel laureate in economicsYale University


1. In order to adapt and succeed in this VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) environment, it may be useful for leaders to shift their way of thinking about the organisation from ‘mechanical science’ to biology and viewing the organisation as a ‘living organism’

We must develop a comprehensive and globally shared view of how technology is affecting our lives and reshaping our economic, social, cultural and human environments. There has never been a time of greater promise, or greater peril.

Klaus SchwabFounder and Executive ChairmanWorld Economic Forum

2. Under the influence of the machine metaphor organisational leaders were locked into a form of engineering, preoccupied with relations between goals, structures, and efficiency. The idea that organisations are more like organisms could change this by guiding the leader’s attention toward the more general issues of sustainable growth, organisation-environment relations, adaptability and organisational effectiveness. In this case goals, structures and efficiency would become subsidiary to efforts aimed at facilitating sustainable growth and other more ‘biological’ concerns.

3. The Oxford Leadership living research project will explore how this organism metaphor is helping organisations identify and study different organisational needs, which is having an effect on how quickly and effectively adapt their leadership is adapting to the new environment. The project will look at approaches such as:

» Starting with a vision of the ‘whole organisational ecosystem’ and understanding its needs, instead of each separate component and its individual goals

» Organisations as ‘open systems’.

» The process of adapting organisations to environments.

» Organisational life cycles.

» Factors influencing sustainable growth and rapid adaptability.

» Focus on factors influencing organisational health and development.

» Focus on different ‘species’ of organisation, i.e. cultural bio-diversity.

» The relations, between species and their ’ecology’.

Leadership in the 4th Industrial Revolution will be defined by the ability to rapidly align & engage empowered, networked teams with clarity of purpose & fierce resolve to win.

Brian BaconChairman and founderOxford Leadership

Focus area of the research

The companies most advanced in adapting to this new environment have successfully introduced several of the following characteristics into their organisation and have adapted their approach to leadership accordingly:

» Flexible, adaptable, decentralised, empowered networks within a structure of strategic intent.

» Leadership learning through immersive experiences, scenarios and rapid prototyping.

» Acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity.

» Systemic collaboration across functions and business lines (breaking the silos).

» Collective intuition as a valid contributor to clarity.

» Strategic sense-making beyond operational problem solving.

» Uncoupling ‘winning’ from the need for a solution.

» Leadership engagement through a ‘team of teams’ approach harnessing collective intelligence, as a superior approach to dealing with complexity.

Probably 40% of the world’s leading companies will not exist in a meaningful way ten years from now.

John ChambersFormer CEOCisco

Scope and methodology

1. Individual Interviews
In-depth interviews with business leaders, heads of HR, leadership, talent and learning, specialist consultants and luminaries.

2. Case Studies
Investigation and analysis into adaptive leadership styles and ways of working (aligning people and culture with strategy) inside companies that are successfully adopting innovative practices to deal with the introduction of disruptive technologies and other forms of turbulence.

3. Expert Panels – Round Tables
Business leaders, Heads of HR, Leadership, Talent and Learning will be invited to form an on-going expert panel that meets in different cities throughout Europe and North America to extract learning and inspiration from the interviews and case studies, as well as sharing their own experiences and learning. The output from these round tables will be the co-authoring of white papers and an evolving set of principles, for leadership in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

An initial framework for New Leadership Principles:

a. Transforming the Self 

b. Transforming Teams 

c. Transforming the Organisation 

d. Transforming Society

How will this research be used?

» To Develop Leadership programmes and curriculum to develop leaders more capable and confident of steering and growing the organisation successfully through the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

» To Create High Impact, High Performance Teams > How can the senior leadership work more effectively together to succeed in the new market environment (VUCA / Fourth Industrial Revolution) and create a ‘team of teams’ throughout the organisation?

» To Execute Strategy effectively and quickly in a highly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous market environment.

» To Transform the Culture > More Engaged, Agile, Performance Driven > Creating a high performance workplace > Maintaining positive spirit and motivation whilst introducing disruptive new technologies and ways of working, which often need fewer people in critical areas of the business.

» To Inform New Executive & Team Coaching Methods > Developing a new team purpose, vision, mind-set and way of working which results in making consistently good choices, faster together > Develop new understanding about ‘leadership’ > More about creating context > Seeing the organisation as a whole, living ecosystem > Using ‘biology’ rather than ‘mechanics’ as an organising metaphor / principle > A team of teams.

» To Inform Culture Shaping Methodologies > Design and facilitation of the human capital element of strategy execution programmes > Identify critical areas for potential breakthrough performance > Strategic Focusing workshops throughout the organisation > Leading self > Leading a ‘team of teams’, creating breakthrough performance.

Outcomes and outputs

Create Focus
A series of 4-IR Leadership Research Round Tables comprising CHROs, Heads of Leadership and Talent and Learning, in which these insights are shared, discussed and disseminated.

Start the Conversation
Open sharing of experiences and cases by way of blogs, podcasts and video interviews and papers on The Oxford Leadership Journal, and other industry and professional journals.

In-depth Analysis 
Each such round table will feature a relevant corporate case study from a prominent business leader who has successfully adapted to the new market realities in their own business.

Publication of Findings
White papers on specific themes related to ‘Redefining Leadership for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ – compiled into a book and published in 2017/18.

Do you want to take part in Defining Leadership 4.0?

Register your details here. Please include in your message if you are interested in attending a round table event in your area and/or participating and sharing your thoughts in an interview.

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Project DirectorBrian Bacon
Chairman & Founder
Brian is Brian is the Chairman and Founder of Oxford Leadership. As a leading global business strategist, Brian Bacon has been involved in more than 30 successful corporate turnarounds and is the creator of one of the world’s most successful leadership development programmes with over 200,000 alumni from 90 countries.
Profile & Contact Info
Research DirectorDr. Kim Moller
Strategic Partner
Dr Kim Möller coordinates the living research program and ensures the link between the business and the academic approach. Kim is a former business school professor and the founder of Oxford Research. As global partner of Oxford Leadership he mainly works as c-suite mentor with top-level executives of large global companies.
Profile & Contact Info
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Redefining Leadership for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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