How leadership is changing in the 21st century

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Written by Blaire Palmer on 30 April 2015 in Features
Features

Today's employees are not impressed with your title or years of experience like they used to be, Blaire Palmer says

If you'd have told me in 1999 when I started my coaching business that, in 2015, many CEOs would be speaking openly about their meditation practice or that a client would be telling me that, before he makes a major decision, he will consider what Mr Bo Jangles would do (Mr. Bo Jangles being the horse he met at an Equine Guided Leadership programme) I'd have guffawed in your face.

But here we are in 2015 and what we think makes a great leader has certainly evolved.

Perhaps we became disillusioned by the great men of previous eras as a result of the ethical, financial and sexual scandals that accompanied (or perhaps triggered) the global financial meltdown. Certainly, levels of trust in senior figures are at an all-time low with the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer reporting that only 18 per cent of people say they trust their boss to tell the truth.

Whatever the reason, today's concepts of what makes a great leader are rather different to those I first experienced when I started coaching executives.  

Fifteen years ago, leadership development was about enhancing skill. Leaders who were interested in developing themselves wanted to be skilled coaches, decision-makers and communicators. They did MBAs, MBTI and NLP.

Talking about people was considered pink and fluffy and the phrase soft skills was said with a slight sneer as if we all knew this was something we were supposed to care about but the jury was still out on whether it made any difference to the business.

Of course there are plenty of companies who still think this and who still believe leadership is about mastering a set of skills that you then "do to your people". To misquote former American President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, leadership in such organisations is the art of getting someone else to do what you want them to do but making them think it was their idea.

But increasingly I'm seeing something different in the best leaders I work with. There's a change in perspective about what a leader's role is and who you need to be to lead.

We are moving from an Industrial Age model of leadership to a post-industrial model. When the only thing that differentiates your business is the unique DNA of the people you have working there (because everything else can be copied) it’s vital that you get the very best from them.

When the challenges you need to address are complex and the solutions need to be sophisticated, you need people to bring their whole selves to work. Figuring out how to do that isn't something you can easily learn in a two-day training workshop.

Plus, in this environment, the leader isn't always going to have the answer. Experience doesn't mean you know what to do since the world of your past has little in common with the world of today. So the idea of the leader as all-knowing superior-being is out of fashion too.

On top of that, in a world where change is constant, leaders need to be able to help people through the pain of change. And people won't go through that pain of unless they trust the people taking them there.

Given levels of distrust in leaders as a species, being someone who can develop authentic human connections with people, someone who is trusted and respected, someone who is a fully rounded person as opposed to a glossy cutout is increasingly important.

Today's employees are not impressed with your title or years of experience like they used to be. They are rather cynical about that actually. They need to see their leader as a real person, which means peeling back the layers of corporate-speak and polish and revealing something of who you are.

This isn't easy, especially if after all these years playing the game you've lost sight of who that actually is. I've heard plenty of delegates realise half way through a programme that they've lost their mojo at some point and forgotten why they went in to the business in the first place. One leader on a programme we ran for the Welsh Government had become so fixated on proving she could become a chief executive that she'd not asked herself what being a chief executive would enable her to do for the people of Wales. The moment that light bulb went on, her whole perspective on herself as a leader was transformed. We can imagine what a difference it made to her people to be led by someone who was motivated to use her influential position to make a difference against someone who was motivated to use her influential position to get another, better paid, influential position.

In addition to this trend towards a more authentic, human style of leadership, we are also seeing a breakdown in hierarchy and rigid team structures. This means leaders need to rethink their role. Rather than being the “boss” of a team they need to create a community of leaders – a gang – who work together to run the business, letting go of their attachment to their own function and thinking more like mini-CEOs.

This requires leaders to dispatch with their ego. I’m not suggesting the workplace has become a spiritual retreat where people go to find themselves. They still have to deliver to customers, to make money, to innovate in their field. And they still need people to make decisions, sometimes tough decisions. Those people will often be leaders. So, there’s nothing fluffy about the new age of business leadership.

But if your desire to lead is borne out of a desire to get all the credit and recognition, or to wield power without the need to engage others, then you will be disappointed. Only those who are driven by something bigger – a sense of purpose greater than their own ego - will be able to truly call themselves leaders in the 21st century. 

 

About the author

Blaire Palmer is chief executive of That People Thing

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