The ACORN Approach to Leadership in the Fourth Industrial Revolution


The Fourth Industrial Revolution is looming, truth be told it’s already here, and it would be time well spent if you decided how you were going to approach this as a leader of people.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, digital transformation, AI and the future workforce have become topical issues. Leaders are preparing themselves for what the next few years will hold and are looking at what will be required to remain relevant in this fast-changing world. They have realised that digital transformation is here, being agile is the new norm, change is fast, decision making faster and upskilling is imperative for future success. There are so many uncertainties, and the practicality of it all has been slow to emerge.

There are however two indisputable certainties; the Fourth Industrial Revolution is here and so is the continued requirement to successfully lead a breathing, feeling and thinking workforce.

The leadership approach we choose to follow needs to acknowledge that we will require a different way of approaching how organisations and their people do business and that people are apprehensive and wary of that which they do not know and do not understand. The workforce of 2020 will not be the workforce of 2030, both in terms of new entrants and the impact of change on the workforce.

Taking these changes into account, we still need to ensure that we keep the approach simple, adaptable to any environment, easy to understand and that it conveys a language that speaks to both the logical and analytical as well as the expressive and thoughtful. It must appeal to all, and more importantly, it must be practical and easy to implement.

The ACORN Leadership Approach or ACORN is a simple approach, which is easy to remember and linked to an analogy that paints a clear picture.

The proverb “from little acorns come mighty oaks” rings true with ACORN. Every revolution has brought about the kind of change that its predecessor could never have imagined. The same can be said for the acorn. When seen laying around, who could imagine that it, when planted, grows into a sapling and then a giant oak tree that stands for hundreds of years? Once the oak tree is felled or reaches the end of its life, its fallen acorns continue to grow into new oak trees, and so the cycle continues.

ACORN is an acronym with words that appeal to both left and right brained dominants. The focus is not on artificial intelligence, big data, cyberspace or robots; instead, it is about the people.

Activate team members, get them thinking, and EnAble them. Create opportunities to share changes that can be expected and educate on new technology and thought processes. Allow and encourage discussions and question asking. The culture of your organisation should be one where people are enabled to think and own their thinking, to ask questions and to offer ideas. This will allow the workforce to think quickly and move swiftly once they are switched on. They will be agile.

Create an environment of collaboration with a shared purpose. Break down the silos and encourage and nurture the sharing and combining of skills. Greater creativity allows for new ideas and concepts; it allows for innovation.  Collaboration helps make decisions faster, and in real time, the role players are all present with a shared purpose and clarity of direction. Creativity will come from the diverse role players, arts and accounts will meet. While it must be acknowledged that it will be difficult at times, ultimately the rewards reaped will far outweigh the initial setbacks.

A conductor orchestrates. The orchestra is only as good as its conductor and the orchestra members conducted. They cannot play alone, and they cannot be out of sync. They must be in harmony. There are individual expertise and levels of skill in an orchestra, similar to an organisation, and each member is clear on their role. Within their role, they can make decisions and adjust their playing based on the roles of the members around them. Be clear on the role of the members within the organisation, be clear on the rules of engagement and the process but be clearer on the shared purpose and goal.

Review and re-invention are the only alternatives in an environment with rapid and ongoing change. Feedback loops need to be in place, allowing team members autonomy to review, reinvent and implement change within a collaborative decision-making framework.  Encourage team members to learn, unlearn and re-learn to remain relevant and competitive.

Navigate the constant change, nurture team members and make sure they understand the “rules of how”, and not only the tick boxes required to make short term changes. Change must be sustainable, and one must navigate for success. The future workforce will need an environment that nurtures team members. An environment that actually cares and acknowledges that “we’re all in it together,” will create conditions that allow for growth and upskilling, yielding a purpose-driven team.

ACORN is both practical and operational and can be implemented in any environment, with add-ons to suit organisational needs. Each word within ACORN is interlinked and intertwined like the branches of the oak tree. The tree adapts to changing conditions, just as organisations do. Plant a little acorn, nurture it, and grow a mighty tree!


Author: Alison Boruchowitz

HR Executive – Omni HR Consulting

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