Leadership : 21st Century Leadership: Got What It Takes ?


Jim Murray is CEO of Optimal Solutions International, a company that specializes in helping organizations reach their full potential.

Amongst many other things, Jim offers the program “Smart Leaders: Thinking and Innovation Skills for the 21st Century”.

For details, see www.smartleaders.ca

It has been said that, in the 21st century, the very nature, speed and complexity of change will change. If that is indeed the case, then so too will the nature of leadership. What made the leaders of yesterday will not make the leaders of tomorrow.

What will a 21st century leader look like ?

In my judgement, the leader of the past was a doer. The leader of the present is a planner. And the leader of the future will be a teacher. The job of a 21st century leader will be to develop capabilities, not necessarily to plan the organization’s strategic direction. It will be to increase the organization’s capacity to be focused, agile and resilient. It will be to create, harness and leverage intellectual capital rather than to deploy other assets. This kind of leader doesn’t need to know everything there is to know ( because that is a practical impossibility ). On the contrary, these leaders will want to be surrounded by people who know a whole lot more than they do but who will trust them implicitly to weigh their competing claims and advice.

It might be surprising but, in study after study about the purpose of leadership in the new millennium, getting results, i.e., making money, doesn’t even figure in the top requirements. What does figure is getting the process right – making sure the right people are talking to one another about the right things and have the right tools to do what they decide needs doing.

When that happens, good results inevitably follow. This is what focus is all about.

The 21st century leader doesn’t focus on results per se. He or she focuses attention squarely on the things that produce results.

There are really only two ingredients required for organizational success: leadership and culture. And, since leaders know how to build an organizational culture of respect, accountability and innovation, nothing of any great consequence can ever be achieved without leadership. Leaders do make the difference.

Today, more than ever before, we need more people who are willing to lead. I can tell you for a fact that there are positions of executive responsibility awaiting you, provided you have what it takes or are willing to learn it. You heard me correctly. I did say “willing to learn.” The ability to lead others is really a collection of skills, virtually all of which can be learned or strengthened. We are not born with leadership qualities; we acquire them through experience – through observation and listening, and through dedicated, conscientious, continuous self-evaluation and improvement.

Learn to lead.

Not just for your own wellbeing but for those who follow you. As you reach the highest levels of organizational responsibility and success, don’t forget to take others with you to become the leaders of tomorrow. Let them be your legacy.

To be a leader, you have to think like a leader. To understand this basic premise of leadership, you need to agree with two fundamental principles :-

  1. Successful people think differently than unsuccessful people.
  2. We can change the way we think.

In what way do leaders think differently ? In my judgement, leaders are big-picture ( not narrow ) thinkers. They search for wisdom moreso than answers. They are focussed ( not scattered ) in their thinking. They are creative ( not restrictive ) thinkers, driven by an insatiable curiosity for discovery and innovation. They are realistic and strategic thinkers. They are possibility thinkers, reflective thinkers. And they understand the value of shared, unselfish thought.

Your thinking style must be aligned with your leadership aspirations if your potential is to be realized. For example, what if possibility thinking is not one of your strengths ? Then you have preciously few options other than to resign yourself to the reality of self-limitation, not just for yourself but for all who work around you. If you think you can’t do something, then it doesn’t matter how hard you try because your assumptions will be self-affirming. Napoleon Bonaparte was a great general with many physical limitations. But mentally, he saw no bounds on his ability to succeed. It was he who said “The word impossible is not in my dictionary.” 

What other skills do 21st century leaders require ?

Your power and potential as a leader will be founded primarily on :-

  • Your expertise, not your position;
  • Your reputation, which is amassed through consistent and reliable performance over time but which can be destroyed in an instant by a single, thoughtless act;
  • Your personal integrity and credibility – which is predicated on walking the talk every day; and
  • Your ability to negotiate win/win outcomes regardless of the circumstances.

Like everything else, the ability to negotiate is a skill that can be learned and perfected. Trust me, great leaders must be great negotiators – getting your way while convincing people of their worth and dignity ... that they too are winners in your presence.

Beyond the ability to negotiate, leaders must be superb managers of their most precious asset – their time. They must know that the phrase “time management” is a misnomer. For them, time is never a barrier to getting things done. Thinking that it is an obstacle is a self-serving and self-defeating assumption. Self-management, not time management, is the antidote to the reality of insufficient time. Setting priorities, delegating for the sake of empowering others, and knowing what not to do are the attributes of leaders.

Understand the importance of the Pareto Principle :if you focus your attention on those activities that rank in the top 20% in terms of their importance, you will have an 80% return on your effort. Anything that is not necessary for you to do personally should be delegated or eliminated. Reorder your priorities – activity is not the same as accomplishment.

Leaders simplify. Peter Drucker tells us that "If it is not simple, it won't work" The key to organizational success lies in focus. And this cannot be achieved without clarity. With clarity, borne of simplicity, comes understanding. With understanding comes focus – knowing what’s important among all the distractions, disagreements and myriad choices available. With the right kind of focus comes the right kinds of decisions and actions – the right judgements and behaviours that drive the organization to accomplish great things and thereby realize its vision. Leaders must find the simple, compelling phrases that make sometimes complex but empowering notions understandable by those who must "carry the ball."

Let me suggest two other very simple notions that leaders understand. One is the truism that people will act on their own ideas before they will act on yours. The art of leadership is to get people to believe that your ideas are really theirs, and then to agree with them. Not only are people empowered, they are more strongly committed to ownership and follow-through.

Because leaders understand the power of simplification, they also see through the fads and concentrate on the fundamentals. They are not seduced by quick fixes and instant panaceas for introducing needed changes. They understand that building organizations and teams requires a knowledge of some simple truths which are easily understood. For example, leaders don’t get caught up in the rhetoric and promise of systems replacing competent, motivated people driven by a commitment to an overarching vision and values that encourage individual empowerment, productivity and accountability.

How do you build a leadership resume ?

For starters, seek out positions that will equip you with personal resilience, not job security. Be an entrepreneur, not an employee. Chart your contributions to the organization and the customer, not to your position or title. Take a solution focus, not a problem focus in everything that you do.

Point the way, not the finger. Challenge assumptions and old ways of doing things. Ask when you don't understand ( and especially when you think you do ). Measure your progress through the ranks, not by the size of your paycheque, but by the richness of the work you do and its impact on others. Find nutritious work and resist work that does not add to your skills.

Learn the art of self-promotion.The day you stop promoting yourself and your interests is the day you stop advancing. Opportunities rarely go to the most qualified but to those who promote themselves the best and who are in the right place, at the right time. This may seem unfair but it is not accidental.

Become a teacher. Indeed, be your own best teacher. To teach yourself, you must first learn how to teach others. Noel Tichey advises us that “Leaders are first and foremost teachers.” Pick one of the skill areas in which you believe you are proficient and build even further on it. Go considerably beyond your competency – become a master. In so doing, you will become recognized by others for your acknowledged expertise.

Never stand on the sidelines awaiting an invitation to the game.Step forward and get involved in new projects and challenging assignments.Get up to bat as often as you can, and practice your swing whenever and wherever you can.

Take responsibility for your failures, then move on. True leaders blame no one but themselves. They learn through conscientious self-evaluation of their performance. They learn best from adversity and negative outcomes, such as being demoted or fired. The key to your advancement is to learn from your setbacks. Crisis has a way of revealing who we really are.

All of the above attributes of leadership are skills you can learn – from the writings of others, from professional development courses, from focused observation and, ultimately, from conscientious and constructive self-assessment.

I have been privileged to work through leadership challenges and issues with people holding positions of executive responsibility in the military, universities, the health care and education sectors, professional associations, large multi-national corporations, and small entrepreneurially driven companies. In my judgement, the concept of leadership has become debased by its overuse, much like such related notions as excellence and quality. We often regret the absence of leadership, yet we frequently fail to detect its presence. And to generalize is to lose the essence of what we're seeking to describe.

Adam Urbanski, co-founder of the Teachers Union Reform Network, has observed that “Leadership is increasingly being used as a synonym for administration” and that “we have always been sloppy in our talk about leadership and management.” Indeed, many people are wont to suggest that there is little difference between leading and managing – that management is simply another form of leadership. All this does is lead to role confusion.

One difficulty in understanding what it takes to be a leader is that most definitions tend to rely on a leader's characteristics, not on what leaders actually do. The conventional literature reminds us that leaders are intelligent, hard working, competitive, caring, flexible, trustworthy, and so on. But we all know people who possess these characteristics who are not leaders. Focusing on leadership attributes is therefore not overly helpful. ( Holding a high position is not synonymous with leadership. The incumbent may simply be the chief bureaucrat. )

I personally like the notion that leadership is knowing where to go, whereas management is knowing how to get there. I think leadership, simply defined, is the energizing of others to achieve desired goals. I remember my first boss. Whenever I had a meeting with him – whether in his office or by chance in the hall – after that meeting, I knew what to do, I wanted to do it, and I felt I could do it. Yes, he was a leader. Fortunately, he was also my mentor.

There is an old saying that suggests there are those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who simply want to know "What happened ?" Likewise, there are those with energy who can make some things happen. Then there are those who energize others and, as a result, important things happen. So leadership must surely be the capacity to energize others.

Is leadership a matter of character ?

Of course. Heraclitus, an ancient Greek historian, has told us that “A man’s character is his fate.” It is a simple but profound truth. The essence of a leader’s character, in my view, is her integrity, her curiosity, her credibility, and her daring. On this foundation, she must have a guiding vision, without which a leader doesn't know what she wants to do with her talent and thus where she wants to go.

The persuasiveness of a message lies in the credibility of the speaker. Every message that people receive is filtered through the messenger who delivers it. If you consider the messenger to be credible, then you probably believe the message has value. I suspect you have all heard of the prescription, know thyself. For me this means considerably more than a knowledge of your strengths and defining talents. It includes a knowledge of your hot-buttons, prejudices and weaknesses – the things you don’t do well. People who can’t figure themselves out end up making bad, stupid and illogical decisions.

Good leaders begin their career paths as good followers. Leaders and followers share some important characteristics, particularly the ability to collaborate and the willingness to listen. Good leaders and good followers ask great questions. They want to know what and why. That's how they got to where they are and that’s how they stay on the leading edge of change.

Paying attention to other people, in addition to being the best way to learn from them, happens to be one of the most powerful ways of influencing them. And influencing others is surely what leadership is all about – getting other people to get things done. Listening is more than a courtesy, it is a lethal, strategic weapon in your arsenal of leadership skills. Make whoever you’re listening to feel like the centre of the universe at that moment in time and the payoff will be a fiercely loyal, lifelong ally. Doing so means more than making eye contact, it means making brain contact as well.

What is the biggest mistake a leader can make ? In my judgement, it’s taking too much credit. In fact, a good leader never takes credit. Leaders gain trust, loyalty, excitement and energy when they pass on the credit to those who have really done the work. An ego should not be so big that you lose your colleagues’ respect. The self-promotion I spoke of earlier never takes precedence over the building of strong, loyal, productive teams – as that will be your greatest accomplishment.

How does a leader gain trust ? Without trust, leaders cannot lead. Trust is the fuel that drives agile and innovative organizations. When people trust one another, they take risks, they challenge conventional wisdom, they dare to lead. Trust is the prerequisite to improving organizational performance and achieving sustainable competitive advantage.

When trust breaks down, communication deteriorates. When communication breaks down, co-operation becomes more difficult. And when that happens, bureaucracy flourishes and conflicts inevitably arise. When trust is nurtured, teams focus on achieving the mission and in operationalizing the organization’s values.

There is no such thing as instant trust. You already know that trust has to be earned. A leader can't be phony because people can easily detect phoniness. One of the ways we generate and sustain trust is by caring about the fate of others, by being on their side. So always be true to your word and keep confidences. When leaders say one thing and do another, they quickly lose the trust of their followers.

In a way, distrust is as amorphous but nonetheless pervasive as is carbon monoxide. You can’t see it, you can’t smell it but, in the end, it will certainly kill you, your ideas and your organization. The pressure created by continuing, forced change and attendant employee uncertainty, for example, has the potential to undermine organizational trust. And this is where, I think, leaders face their greatest challenges.

Clearly, leaders in the 21st century will know how to grow, harness and leverage intellectual capital. They will know how to use more of what people know, give people more to know that is useful, and allow people time to think and do by minimizing meaningless bureaucracy.

Tomorrow’s leaders will create networks, not hierarchies or silos, to both create and share knowledge. They will distinguish between the cost of paying people from the value of investing in them. They will cultivate expertise in the context of strategy, get smart people to work smarter, make tacit knowledge explicit, and understand how to train people as well as the limits to training.

Have you got what it takes ?

© Copyright 2007 - Jim Murray

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