Redefining what it means to be a ‘leader’ in the 21st Century

Too many organisations are still being held back by machismo cultures that owe more to the 1920s than they do the 2020s. Old, patriarchal approaches to leadership just don’t cut it anymore. The workplace is evolving and leaders need to adapt accordingly.

The balance of power is shifting. Progressive organisations are eschewing the rigid, top-down structures that inhibit innovation for flexible, bottom-up cultures that are more agile and commercially creative. Below are four key focus areas that leaders need to consider if their organisations are to succeed.

Good leaders aren’t inspirational, they are inspired

The word ‘inspirational’ is often bandied around as a key requirement for effective leadership. Read some job descriptions and they demand Churchillian abilities when it comes to inspiring their people. Under such expectations, some of the senior leaders we work with have articulated how they feel under pressure to be something they are not. It comes from an antiquated view of leadership that misunderstands the root from which true motivation stems. Our job, therefore, is to coach them towards a changed mindset.

Andy Cope in his book ‘Leadership, the multiplier effect’ suggests that it is impossible to motivate others – motivation is intrinsic and can only come from within. Fundamentally, people are responsible for their own motivation. A leader’s role is not to inspire, but to create environments where people inspire themselves. As such, he talks about a leader’s no.1 job being to make sure they are, themselves, inspired. This is a subtle (but significant) shift in thinking.

He goes on to suggest that we need to connect with what Simon Sinek describes as the ’why’ – our purpose. When we are in touch with our true passion, it will be infectious. The good news in this approach is that this isn’t about becoming someone different; it’s about being authentic and connecting with our passions as leaders; it’s about bringing the best version of ourselves to work. In other words, we need to become more of who we already are.

What inspires you? Do you have a clear vision? Are you passionate about it? Do the messages you put out back it up?

Good leaders are aware of their strengths and play to them

How much time do we spend talking about ‘areas for development’ (we don’t like to call them weaknesses, do we!?)? What if we knew that this focus would never really improve performance significantly? Well, it doesn’t!

We all have innate talents. As humans, we love doing the things we’re good at. When we’re doing them, time passes quickly and we enter a state that positive psychologists describe as being ‘in the flow’ – or ‘in the zone’ for sports psychologists. These are the times when we are performing at our very best. In taking the time to discover and acknowledge what these talents are, we can choose to be more deliberate in our approach and turn talents into strengths.

If you think of your performance as a graph of peaks and troughs, traditional approaches to improving it have been all about raising the dips. A strengths-based approach focuses on the peaks. It is about developing exceptional, peak performers rather than good all-rounders. The best leaders are self-aware. They understand where their weaknesses lie. They are comfortable acknowledging that they don’t have all the answers. No-one is good at everything! The best leaders, therefore, surround themselves with people who possess strengths where they do not.

Focusing on you as you already are will have the biggest impact on performance. So, take time to consider what you do well – and enjoy doing.

Do you know what your strengths are? Do you bring these to work every day?

Good leaders are vulnerable

It sounds counter-intuitive, but a strengths-based approach requires leaders to be vulnerable. Egos need to be left at the front door. You don’t know all the answers and you cannot be all things to all people. You need to be aware enough to know when you need support. This involves giving up the illusion of ‘control’.

In talking about the need for vulnerability,  Brené Brown talks about creating environments where people feel able to ask the difficult questions and where leaders need to answer honestly. Admit it when you don’t know or when things are tough; this encourages connection and trust. Be prepared to ask, ‘what does support from me look like?’. Don’t assume. And listen. Yes, such an approach can be unpredictable and ‘out of your control’ but it helps to establish a shared way forward – and where there is co-ownership, there is productivity.

Team sports offer great insight into the Leader/Group dynamic. James Kerr’s Legacy is a must-read for any aspiring leader. He draws 15 powerful lessons in leadership from unique access to one of the greatest ever sporting teams, the All Blacks. He writes: ‘The key to strong peer-to-peer interaction is a high level of trust. This is trust in the sense of safe vulnerability. The leaders need to create an environment where individuals get to know each other as people and gather insight into their personal story and working style. This needs to be supported by the leader’s role-modelling behaviour around admission of mistakes and weaknesses and fears . . . This is essential for safe conflict and safe confrontation, where the most important interaction often occurs.’

This isn’t about full disclosure and over-sharing. As the leader, you set the boundaries. Rather, it is about being prepared to be authentic and show up, as you. This is about being a leader who has a developed self-awareness and who has deliberately surrounded themselves with teams who possess different, complementary strengths to theirs. It is about enabling those people to come up with their own solutions and to challenge yours, where necessary.

Have you considered that ‘the leader’ may change depending on what the piece of work/project is?

Good leaders create environments where everyone can flourish

Feedback is crucial. Gallup research suggests that people are more disengaged when they receive no feedback as opposed to negative feedback. To ignore someone is practically the worst thing you can do. Feedback should always be honest but given with positive intent. Meaningless ‘positive’ feedback is ineffective – (most!) people want to know how they can improve, how their contribution lands. There are only ever two reasons to give feedback: to build confidence and enhance performance. As Brene Brown says: ‘Clear is kind. Unclear is Unkind’.

Think about: What is the one conversation that you need to have but have been avoiding? What is the risk of not having it?

We are all different, one size does not fit all. Good leaders treat people as individuals. Get to know what motivates your people and understand this will change over time. And be prepared to be surprised; it’s often not about more money!

As we said in our previous article, trust is a prerequisite for creating a productive, creative culture. Give your people the autonomy to be who you’ve hired them to be. From Richard Branson to Steve Jobs, there are numerous quotes from successful business leaders about hiring the brightest people they can, giving them the tools they need, and then ‘getting out of their way’! Rigid, controlled environments stifle creativity. Stifle your best people and they will leave. The equation is simple: people who are in the right role and who are engaged, motivated and empowered are more productive, creative and effective.

Better leaders = better teams = sustainable organisational success

While the equation may be simple, creating the right environment isn’t – it can be hard and unpredictable. But it is worth it. Developing a flexible, bottom-up culture that is agile and commercially creative gives us and our teams the greatest chance of success. Many leaders struggle with not being able to control the outcome. No doubt about it, letting go is difficult, but the possibilities created are significant.

Encouraging ownership and a shared sense of responsibility is the only way to move things forward. Such an approach is sustainable, because it isn’t all down to one person – ‘the leader’. Creating an environment of trust is liberating, progressive and productive. Where people are encouraged to think for themselves, performance increases. And, improving performance is what good leaders do, right!?

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