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What can we learn from King Alfred about change leadership?

Would you believe that you could learn about transformational change leadership from a Netflix series? No? Well, frankly I am not sure I would have done either, but then I watched The Last Kingdom. This series, which in my view is a majestic tapestry woven from the threads of historical fact and creative fiction by Bernard Cornwell, follows the life of Uhtred Ragnarson during the 9th Century. This was a period when the land was divided by different rulers ; was being ravaged by the Danes, and when only one man (King Alfred of Wessex) had a vision of a united kingdom, called England.  A time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity (VUCA) and transformational change for sure!

What can we learn from Alfred about change leadership?

As a leader, Alfred had a strong and compelling vision that he articulated repeatedly. He worked hard to make sure he had accurate sources of data to inform his decision making and achieve quick wins. He was also open to different views and perspectives even when they challenged his core values and beliefs – especially when considering solutions to complex problems. Whilst I certainly don’t encourage anyone to manipulate others to quite the same extent as he did, his ability to create a coalition of supportive influencers and recognise the qualities and behaviours in others that were needed to drive the change was a great trait. Indeed, without this the change would likely have failed (check out John Kotter’s article about why transformation efforts fail).

What can we learn from Uhtred as a catalyst for change?

When we consider Uhtred and his role in supporting Alfred’s desired change, it is interesting to note that he battled with both hating and loving Alfred as a leader. Despite this, he believed in the vision of a united land and was able to suspend (at least most of the time!) his own agenda for the “greater good”. In addition, his naturally authentic leadership style (showing his passions, his strengths and his weaknesses) meant that he was able to generate engagement and support from many, even when resistance was high. Such authentic leadership is a balance that is hard to get right, especially when facing unexpected / challenging situations, but can be hugely valuable in building trust (for a more work-related perspective on that check out this article on the Uncertainty Paradox. Uhtred’s approach helped him to understand the mindset and perspective behind the resistance, allowing others to speak openly about fears and concerns and enabled joint problem solving to remove barriers. These are hugely valuable traits in helping others through the emotional journey of change (the change curve, based on analysis by Kubler-Ross in 1969, is often used to describe this).

What do we know about leadership in VUCA times and transformation?

Whether we are leading our own destiny or the destiny of others, it is true to say that leadership looks different in times of uncertainty and transformational change, compared to times of stability.

  • Think broadly: During uncertainty and change we need to be able to see the patterns, understand the environment and extrapolate to create possibilities. Connectivity and open-mindedness are key.
  • Focus on outcome: You can’t plan in the same way or to the same extent in a VUCA world. You need to move forward with a trajectory in mind, knowing you will adjust as you go to remove barriers and respond to new information.
  • Expect some failures: You can’t expect everything you try to work. Innovation requires an approach of experimentation and taking calculated risks. Failure is expected and acceptable as long as you learn and rapidly adapt.
Is destiny all?

Uhtred’s mantra throughout the series is “Destiny is all!”. I am a strong believer in the fact that we can and should take accountability for own choices and decisions and that we can influence our own destiny – even in a changing and VUCA world. Uhtred’s story is one of war, weeping and wonder that shows us that transformational change is a journey that is often filled with both highs and lows. I haven’t read the books, so I don’t know whether his mantra helped him succeed. However, what I can say is that the mindset we take in making our decisions and choices during transformational change, can influence how smoothly that journey plays out.

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Written by Chris Williams.