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The 21st Century leader

tiles

If you want to be a successful corporate leader what abilities will you need over the next decade or so? Andrew Leigh looks at the skills tomorrow's leaders need. 

There are many contenders, ranging from handling complexity to the skill of inspiring others, from business acumen through to managing risk. No single ability is likely to count above all others. As now, great leadership will hinge on achieving a unique mix for each person, and as the particular situation requires.

Nor are competency frameworks much help. They mainly draw on existing leadership success to suggest what successful leaders need. But past success is no prediction of what you will need in the future. We can, however, glimpse the horizon and make some sensible guesses about what sort of things future leaders must be able to do. For example, the environment in which you will lead is likely to be full of complexity, ambiguity, risk and the impact of numerous innovative technologies.

Similarly, the once all-conquering demand for profits and growth will almost certainly be tempered by an environment in which the leader is expected to show that the organisation is more than just a money-making machine. This is already shows up in the flourishing corporate responsibility movement and is likely to be even more relevant to the future.

Another clear sign on the horizon is about availability of talent and how best to exploit it. At one time this issue could be safely confined to the local environment of a company. Now talent is increasingly mobile and able to contribute from anywhere, using new media technologies some of which are still in their infancy. So future leaders must be particularly adept at managing talent and the best companies are already deep into this challenge.

With the above in mind we can identify some important leadership capabilities for which there will be strong demand, almost regardless of the sort of company you lead. These abilities are both learnable and teachable. The less good news is that they require time and resources to achieve and will require insightful companies to invest in them for the future.

Five key leadership abilities most likely to be required will be the ability to generate are trust, respect, integrity, inspiration and innovation. These look hard to beat in any beauty parade of what to look for in leader and the first four might fairly be summarised in the catch-all label of leadership character.

Trust

Without the ability to create trust few leaders can expect to function effectively and in particular to get the best from people. Since trust is earned not mandated, learning how to generate it will almost certainly be a prime leadership requirement in the coming years.

In both US and UK employees have a poor opinion of their managers and this view has deteriorated since the economic crisis began. In the US for example, only 17% of Americans trust what their chief executive says.

To build trust as a leader you need to develop enhanced listening skills, be able to build relationships with important stakeholders, generate openness, and know how to create and use an active network of supporters who in turn influence others.

One particular leadership behaviour that helps develop trust is the determination to build  a culture that supports candour, creating norms and structures that sanction truth telling. For example, ensuring the company has open door policies, protection for whistle blowers and clear ethical standards.

Respect

Most of us believe that respect is an important value and that it is good. We do not normally think of respect as an action but as a feeling or judgment about other people. Like integrity this can be hard to nail down but like leadership itself you know it when you see it.

Why will respect matter so much in the future? Because it is through generating a culture of respect that leaders start to extract the best from people.

There is nothing moralising or sanctimonious about this leadership requirement. In a highly competitive environment that will face most companies in the future, it makes absolute business sense to be able to convincingly demonstrate respect for diversity, differences, the environment, and talent. It allows collaboration to flourish and indeed empowers talent.

Integrity

This too is likely to be a significant aspect of any successful leader’s armoury for the foreseeable future. It has been brought into much sharper focus by some of the illegal, questionable or poor practices in recent times of both leaders and their organisations.

In essence, integrity is discerning what is right and wrong and acting on this, even at personal cost. It also means saying openly that you are acting on what you understand to be right and wrong. Putting it slightly differently it is a commitment to:

  • Character over personal gain
  • People over things
  • Service over power
  • Discipline over impulse
  • Mission over convenience
  • The long view over the immediate 

Inspiration

We tend to associate this leadership ability with people of great charisma. Yet recent research into outstanding companies shows that often the most inspiring leaders can be almost the opposite of the cliché of the charismatic individual. They are often, modest and humble yet also persistent and fearless.

Again being able to inspire people is something that is learnable and teachable. Leaders who learn to inspire release people’s potential and tap into their commitment and energy. These make the difference between merely running a competent company and one that excels.

Innovation

Every half competent executive knows that innovation is essential to success. But it is not simply about being able to handle creativity and the long term. It is equally about discipline, ensuring that the organisation has a focused approach to developing new products or services.

Companies are far more likely to fail from too many initiatives than too few. One of the key leadership skills is therefore being able to steer the organisation so that it get its priorities right and concentrates resources where they will produce the best result.

The X Factor

While these five leadership abilities can be strongly tipped as essential for future leadership success, something entirely unexpected may still emerge as critical. What are your guesses about what this unknown may be and why?
 


Andrew Leigh is a founding director of Maynard Leigh Associates and a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. He is also author of a number of books on management including most recently: The Charisma Effect

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