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Leadership development in a flatter world


Flat worldWhat leadership qualities are essential in the current economic climate and how can training professionals help develop them? Professor Sharon Turnbull of The Leadership Trust reports on the findings of a global research project that may help.

Leadership is and always has been about winning the hearts and minds of people to achieve a common purpose, a definition we have used at The Leadership Trust for many years. It is, however, becoming increasingly important to think about what leadership qualities are needed in today's turbulent economic global context, and how training and development professionals can prepare their leaders to deal with the challenges ahead.

Globalisation, the war for talent, digital communications, societal changes, the changing shape of organisations, and the aspirations of the next generation are all challenging trainers and developers to develop leaders able to act in new ways. The quest for more sustainable and ethical organisations, prompted by the business scandals of the 1990s and the growing realisation that we cannot continue to raid our world's natural resources without considering its future sustainability, are also putting extraordinary pressures on today's business leaders to perform against a range of criteria that go far beyond those of successful business performance.

Photo of Professor Sharon Turnbull"Perhaps one of the most marked shifts in thinking about leadership today is the renewed emphasis we are now placing on mentoring and team development."

Developing leadership must increasingly include the capability to address questions of the longer term common good: socially, ethically and globally, at the same time as responding to the pace of change in a world where today's ideas might already be doomed to obsolescence. This sounds like a tall order, but in the rest of this article we suggest an agenda for developing talent and leadership in today's turbulent world.

Developing talent for today's flatter world

Many successful companies have started proactively finding ways to turn globalisation to their advantage. By both deploying and developing their capabilities in different parts of their organisation as efficiently as possible, successful companies are now actively managing their talent, capability and the specialist know-how to respond to the challenges ahead. They are asking, for example, where is their best creative talent? Where are their best software engineers? And where are other examples of best practice and leading thinking.

Clearly this recognition of expertise is not enough on its own. The next step is of course to decide how this know-how and capability can be strengthened, developed, and disseminated across the organisation. How can this knowledge be transferred? How can this creativity be transferred to others in the organisation? Where is the raw talent that can be developed for the future? And how can this potential be harnessed?

These are leadership questions of course. To address them, successful companies need to develop a leadership capability across the organisation that impacts positively at all levels, in different ways, in different cultures, and in different businesses, at the same time as building a leadership culture that is strong enough and flexible enough to ride the waves of even the most unforeseen economic storm expected during this global economic recession.

Coping with the global challenges ahead

What makes an effective leader in today's business world? The following qualities emerged from research (see below) with 52 leaders from many parts of the globe. We believe that leadership developers who focus on recruiting, harnessing and developing these qualities will be laying the long-term foundations for an organisation that is truly able to call itself a successful global organisation.

Visionary and inspiring - mentor, guide and role model

Perhaps one of the most marked shifts in thinking about leadership today is the renewed emphasis we are now placing on mentoring and team development, as well as on growing the next generation of leaders. Today's visionary leaders focus on growing deep organisational engagement and leadership capability amongst their followers, and on generating a shared and common understanding of a dynamic and evolving vision for the future.

Integrity, humility and wisdom

Three of the most common words we hear today associated with good leadership are integrity, humility and wisdom. These timeless qualities are rare, but increasing in importance in today's business world. Assessing your leaders for these qualities is difficult, but creating a culture that values and rewards the behaviours that reflect these values is a good start, and it is never too soon to start.

Authentic and courageous

At The Leadership Trust we have been focusing for many years on helping leaders to know and control themselves, as being an essential starting point for successful leadership. Today, more than ever, it is essential for leaders to understand themselves and their own values first. Only then can they decide how they will serve their many stakeholders.

"Three of the most common words we hear today associated with good leadership are integrity, humility and wisdom. These timeless qualities are rare, but increasing in importance in today's business world."

In his book 'The World is Flat' Thomas Friedman argues that the competitive playing field has now levelled between the developed and developing economies, thus opening opportunities to more players than ever before, presenting both opportunities and challenges to organisations and their leaders. Add to this the unexpectedly volatile nature of the global recession, a 'credit crunch' that has already led to the collapse of major airlines and banks, and we see a global economic landscape that is being buffeted on the waves of constant change. It would be all too easy for leaders to feel helpless in the face of these problems. As development professionals you can ensure that your organisations continue to focus relentlessly on recruiting, harnessing and developing the right talent, wherever it is located. It is also essential to grow and reward those timeless leadership qualities outlined above. They will enable leaders to take the balanced decisions needed to survive today's global challenges, and to inspire their followers to look beyond the short-term challenges to the longer term future.

* This research was conducted during two cohorts of an international leadership development programme which involved senior leaders from 16 nationalities. They were to write down what the word leadership means to them, and then their 'rules of thumb' for being a 'good leader'. No further guidance or explanation was given, and they were asked to email their thoughts to us independently. Their definitions were then analysed thematically. Not surprisingly, many of the responses given were framed as competencies, thus echoing the dominant literature, although, as in this literature there was little consensus on the core competencies required. At the same time, however, an alternative focus was found in their descriptions, indicating that their understanding of leadership in many cases went beyond the identification of competencies

Professor Sharon Turnbull is the director of The Centre for Applied Leadership Development at The Leadership Trust Foundation


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