I often ask a conference or event audience to name great leaders, and the chances are high that they will identify one or two of the ‘usual suspects’ from a list of predominantly male, heroic and charismatic people.
The accepted image of a ‘great leader’ seems, even today, to be of a fearless and heroic warrior type who bravely forges a path and achieves tremendous things against considerable adversity, while those around their feet worship them.
Even in recent weeks, I’ve been offered Margaret Thatcher, Alex Ferguson, Simon Cowell and Alan Sugar as examples of ‘great leaders’.
It’s unlikely that many will name the sort of leader that nurtures and coaches their people, that works quietly but constantly to meet the needs of their team, and that subsumes their own ego and personal glory in the cause of achieving the goals of the organisation. I think this presents us with a challenge in growing the leaders and style of leadership we need now and for the future. It seems to me that our ‘default’ image and portrayal of the leader needs some serious updating and repositioning.
In a world where leadership is often distributed, where the leader and their team may meet only occasionally – or maybe hardly at all – and where the work of both leader and team can be largely solitary, this old image simply makes no sense. It is an anachronism. A model designed for a time and society that no longer exists for many of us. The world has moved on, but perhaps our view of leadership hasn’t kept pace.
If you then add the consideration that the leader today is often going (let’s hope) to be female, may well come from a diverse range of groups including different social, ethnic, age and religious backgrounds, and a wide variety of cultural norms (let’s hope that too), and that many of their daily leadership interactions will almost certainly involve the use of technology… well, I’m sure you get the picture. A 55-year-old white male from the ‘right’ background, privately educated, with a solid degree from a high-end university and either an accounting background or an MBA – or heaven help us, both – is probably not the role model we should be holding up. Or, at least, not the only one. Our world doesn’t need another warrior hero, whatever the media may tell you.
It may well, however, need a Bill Gates, a Terry Leahy, a Sir Jony Ive or a Michelle Obama. It may need an Anita Roddick, a Michelle Mone or a Richard Reed. It may need a Lenny Henry or a Jacqueline Gold.
The reason I pick these names is simply that they represent different styles and approaches that are probably more attuned to the needs of a contemporary world and a modern workforce. While Michelle Obama has some of the ‘old school’ qualities (as an inspiring speaker, a powerful role model and a visionary leader), she also represents a very different ‘blueprint’ for a leadership based on empathy, nurturing, responsibility and inclusiveness.
Bill Gates and Sir Jony Ive come from very different but related technological worlds. Worlds where shared values and a striving for knowledge forge strong bonds between teams and individuals, and where leadership is about shaping lives and making something important happen. Others are successful through an entrepreneurial zeal, but in a worthy cause not limited to just ‘making money’.
In such contexts, the old school tough, dynamic, target-driven leadership style is not only redundant, it might well be entirely counterproductive.
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Effective leadership traits
Engagement of people in a compelling purpose and vision, in collaborative and inspirational work, within effective teams and communities, connected by shared values and technology – these are the leadership qualities needed in workplaces of the future. Some of those workplaces are here now, but too few. One day soon we’ll reach a tipping point. Then the talent will gravitate toward those organisations at speed and the tectonic plates will shift.
Supporting the revolution
However, let me be clear: those possessed of what are still largely seen as ‘leadership qualities’ – charisma, presence, an air of command, dynamism, energy, and self-confidence – will continue to do well in the majority of organisations for years yet. White, middle-class men will almost certainly continue to outperform their contemporaries in career advancement and earnings. Women, people from BAME groups and those with disabilities or who are significantly different to the mainstream will continue to be at a disadvantage much of the time. Society is a very, very big ship and will take more than one lifetime to change course.
But make no mistake; it is moving and it is shifting. People in all walks of life are becoming more and more uncomfortable and dissatisfied with the old ways. We’ve seen several ‘ripples’ from that zeitgeist in recent months both for and against the tide of change: Brexit, Trump, a hung UK parliament, Macron, North Korea, Putin and so on. The Arab spring made people aware that they could bring down the walls.
Lessons were learned. Social media has given billions of people a voice and a place to express it. We’re losing our faith in heroic leaders.
I have no doubt that, to quote Sam Cooke in one of my favourite songs, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. Be ready.
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