What will it take to lead the future of work?

The future of work is a major strategic issue facing governments, corporations and communities. Developments are occurring at a rapid pace, and are far reaching. Automation and intuitive technologies are making many jobs and occupations that have been around for years obsolete, and creating new jobs that just a few years ago seemed alien, as well as transforming many existing jobs in unexpected ways. Technology presents amazing possibilities to free us from the drudgery of repetitive work tasks and challenges our perceptions of skilled and meaningful work. It is both exciting and scary.

Technological change is also altering our understanding of the workplace. For many of us, the workplace is no longer just a physical place we go to each day. It may remain an important base to which we return but it is increasingly a mobile place that can change depending on the task, or who we are working with. It could be a café, someone else's workplace, our home, or even a shared work space. Even if we do continue to go to the same workplace on a daily basis, architects are reinventing how workplaces are designed. New technologies facilitate innovative ways of communicating and collaborating.

But the future of work is not just about technology or physical workplaces. We know that people perform best at work when they are given a greater sense of purpose, a range of job tasks that are meaningful and engaging, and when they work with, and for, others who they connect with and share common values.

Not surprisingly, therefore, a key to understanding the people dimension of the future of work is to understand how many of these bigger changes are altering the challenge of effectively leading teams and organisations.

To discuss just what it will take to lead the future of work, I led a panel of inspiring industry leaders at the 2015 Future of Work conference, including Dale Fisher, CEO of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Dan Swinney, Director of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council, Simone Carroll, GM of People and Brand at REA Group, and De Eckersley, Managing Partner of Human Capital at PwC.

The leaders, bringing experience from a diverse range of challenging and dynamic organisational settings, highlighted an enduring cornerstone of effective leadership – providing people with a clear sense of purpose and an understanding of why the organisation exists and why it is a worthwhile place to work. All agreed on the developmental role of leaders as making sense of the external environment, clearly communicating this, and providing a sense of how the organisation can effectively navigate challenges. Leadership also often involves creating space for others to perform and ensuring that the many different performances cohere into something much greater.

Leadership has many enduring qualities no matter what the future might hold, but it is clear that the future will see the task of leadership change. Dale Fisher observed that the very fact that the future is impinging on work and how organisations operate now means that the task ahead is to create an environment for adaptation and reinvention. These, according to Simone Carroll have become permanent features of the business landscape. Increasingly, values become critical assets in managing change and it is these values that provide the guiding principles that enable organisations to navigate change.

Leadership in disrupted environments also centres on building and maintaining collective resilience. Dan Swinney spoke of what has proved to be an amazingly effective program designed to rebuild Chicago's manufacturing sector. Working with government agencies, local community, businesses and unions, the Manufacturing Renaissance Council has created a local environment to enable the city to generate a growing number of manufacturing jobs and opportunities. It has worked with disadvantaged communities to address social issues and build the confidence of business to invest in those communities. The Council has received international attention for this new model of manufacturing, which drives creative solutions to enduring social and economic problems.

As panel facilitator, I learned that leadership is above all a human activity – an act of individual selflessness, enabling other to make sense of an increasingly turbulent, ambiguous world.