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Taavo Godtfredsen

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21st century leadership


Taavo Godtfredsen looks at how leadership values have changed, and what it takes to be successful in the modern world.

The world is changing, and those changes are accelerating rapidly. The explosion of online, social and mobile technologies is driving a 24/7 worldwide workplace, while the current economic climate is pushing organisations to do more with less. In this difficult environment, good leadership skills have never been more important. But is the pressure of working in the fast-paced globalised business environment restricting the development of leaders?

Leaders are seen as drivers of performance throughout an organisation. The higher the leader and the broader the scope of his/her responsibility, the greater the leverage that the individual can exert. However, while there is little debate about its value, there is a wide range of ideas on what defines good leadership. And with businesses under increasing pressure, many organisations can lose sight of what’s really important when it comes to being a successful leader.

So what skills must leaders possess in today’s challenging environment and how does this differ from ten years ago?

Key skills for successful leaders

Ten years ago, the qualities required by a good leader were decisiveness, intelligence and above all competency. However, fast-forward to 2013 and it’s clear to see that the business landscape looks very different. Increased economic pressures and advances in technology means that leaders have had to adapt their style to cope with the demands of today’s workplace and stay one step ahead of the competition.

Today’s leaders need to drive success and inspire a workforce to all pull together for the good of the company. This is evidenced in a recent study published by the Korn/Ferry Institute [1] which found that the ability to manage vision and purpose ranked third in the competencies of a good leader.

"Changing the culture of an organisation and its leadership style can be a hard nut to crack, with time constraints and an unwillingness to adapt often seen as big hurdles to get over."

Taking a more collaborative and creative approach also ranked highly in the Skillsoft own leadership survey in 2012 [2] which found the top six leadership characteristics for the 21st Century to be: the ability to look at things from a global perspective; a forward thinker; a relationship-builder; have good integrity; take a collaborative approach; and be open-minded.

This is a far cry from the traditional attributes of a leader evidenced a decade ago and shows just how much the business world has changed and what companies now need to do to keep up with each other. The leader of yesterday was about the individual as a hero. The leader of today is about amplifying the intelligence and capabilities of their team and the organisation. Great leaders understand that people want to be led, not managed, and choose to facilitate, not command.  

Moving a mindset

Changing the culture of an organisation and its leadership style can be a hard nut to crack, with time constraints and an unwillingness to adapt often seen as big hurdles to get over. In today’s fast-paced, globalised environment, demonstrating the following skills will turn a good leader into a great leader and ensure they can get the most out of employees.

  • Be a good listener. The power of listening and the ability to understand and react to how people are thinking and feeling is a key attribute. Leaders understand this, but they unwittingly don’t take the time to truly listen and hear the unspoken, which can create a huge problem. How can leaders build relationships, energise others, and adapt to a changing world if they aren’t listening to where people are and what needs to be done?  If leaders can step into the shoes of their followers and see circumstances as they do, they will know how to help their people win and re-align resources and strategies to fit the situation.
  • Reading body language. I mentioned hearing the unspoken. Many leaders don’t even realise that communicating with their staff isn’t just listening to what words they’re saying.  Content is only 7% of the message they’re trying to communicate to their managers. Research undertaken by Albert Mehrabian interestingly shows that gestures from staff in meetings or one-to-one discussions count for 55% of the message they’re attempting to communicate and voice tone counts for 38%. Being a good listener isn’t just about hearing what your employees have to say but looking out for clues on how they’re feeling through their behaviour and how they express themselves. Too many managers also lack the ability to empathise and instead try to drive staff through a mixture of fear and enforced deadlines. Those who do take the time to listen and make themselves approachable, will be the ones who inspire and motivate staff to succeed. 
  • Be energised. Reflect on the manager who energised you the most. How would you describe her/him? Passionate? Open-minded? A great listener? I am sure they had all of these attributes and, probably most important, they genuinely cared about your success and development, having your best interests at heart. If I asked about your worst boss, the opposite would be true with many operating to use your talents for their own gain.
  • Build trust. Having the respect and trust of staff is key if leaders want to drive and build a successful business. If your staff look up to you and buy into the vision and direction of the company, then you’ve won half the battle. A leader who fails to build relationships or understand the needs of their staff will fall at the first hurdle and struggle to get everyone on board. Leaders diminish trust the most when their stated values do not correspond to their actions. Of course many intend to live their values, but they can be completely unaware of their true impact. They may intend to be a great listener but they come up short as they try to navigate a demanding job. 

Developing leadership skills

While it is clear what skills leaders must possess to succeed to today’s challenging environment,  knowing what skills are needed and having the time to develop them are two very different things. As businesses continue to move apace, it can be difficult for leaders to stay one step ahead and see how best to adapt their style and, in many cases, change the habits of a lifetime. However, the ability to make this change can prove the difference between a business that just survives and one that thrives.

Many organisations understand how leadership is changing, but their cultures have not yet adapted to encourage these new leadership traits. Training can play a valuable part in enabling this shift in skills, by helping managers to be better mentors and listeners and giving staff the opportunity to develop key skills and gain advice in other areas which might be affecting their productivity, such as stress or a lack of confidence.

Staying one step ahead of the competition is no longer just about bringing out the best product or working in a high-tech office. Good leaders need to understand and help staff deal with the pressures of today’s working environment to enable them and the business move forward. These simple changes in leadership style can make a real difference and have a huge impact on the success (or failure) of a business.

Taavo Godtfredsen is an executive producer for SkillSoft’s Leadership Development Channel. Taavo has spent more than a decade putting the best minds in business on film (many through direct interviews) and has collaborated with over 200 of the top executives, business authors and political leaders including: Jack Welch, Benazir Bhutto, Stephen Covey, Howard Schultz, Jim Collins, William Ford, Terri Kelly, Rudy Giuliani, Renée Mauborgne, Bill McDermott and many others

[1] “The New European Executive - Leadership for recovery and growth”, January 2013, The Korn/Ferry Institute.

[2] “Actionable Leadership in the Creative Age”, Skillsoft White Paper, June 2012.



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