What does it mean to be a leader in the 21st century? And how do we recruit the right person for the job, when the job has become almost unrecognisable?
In days gone by, a leader was like the captain of a ship. Your responsibility was to navigate your organisation’s course, to steer it through turbulent times and to command your crew.
Leadership was all about the individual, about command and control, about vision and strength of purpose.
In the 21st century however, our VUCA world of financial instability, disruptive technology, changing demographics, long-term austerity and more, means that this analogy no longer fits.
But if our traditional models of leadership don’t work in the 21st century, what has or will replace them? What does being a leader look like now?
The changing characteristics of leadership in the 21st century
Recent research into modern leadership shows that the characteristics of a successful leader have changed.
While some personality traits remain constant, such as being able to share a sense of purpose and vision with your team, and being resilient, many of the traditional leadership qualities are simply no longer relevant.
In their place, new and emerging leadership traits have been identified, such as:
Authenticity – leaders need personal integrity, a strong sense of values. People want to know what you stand for. They need to be able to feel that they can rely on you. Authenticity builds trust and confidence when everything else seems uncertain and unstable.
Self-awareness – leaders need to know who they are – what they can and can’t do, their strengths and weaknesses. Bullish self-confidence will not suffice. Self-awareness helps leaders build a team around them full of complementary and diverse skills and abilities.
Being a champion of diversity – an ageing population, the impact of millennials and more women in the workplace, plus fast-paced technological changes means there is a greater imperative for leaders to manage in a different, more flexible way.
Being technologically-savvy – leaders need to be curious about and engage with new technology. They need to recognise the impact technology is having and the demands consumers are making on their business. And support their team to innovate and take risks.
Context is everything
Traditional models of leadership focus on the individual. The charismatic leader powering their organisation forward. We talk about personality traits (see above) as if as long as you have all those traits you’ll be successful as a leader.
But in a VUCA world, context is becoming more and more important.
Research shows that a significant factor in a leader’s success or failure is down to their ability to work within the context in which they find themselves, to cope with an environment that’s constantly shifting.
And while some personality characteristics work in some contexts, they’ll completely derail you in others.
Research also suggests that collaboration is increasingly important. That leadership isn’t all about the individual but about a collective sharing of power, a team working together to resolve a situation.
How do we recruit and assess leaders in the 21st century?
Of course these changes to what a leader looks like present a real challenge to those of us charged with recruiting and assessing them.
The traditional models of leadership may have changed but we’re still using traditional models of assessment.
There aren’t psychological assessments that measure for context or for collaboration. Indeed, psychological approaches are, by definition, all about the individual.
We need to develop new ways of assessing potential leaders that take into account the shifting sands upon which we stand. That help us to identify leadership qualities while avoiding too narrow a focus on the individual.
How do we develop the leaders we need in the future?
We need different sorts of people to be leaders these days but would those people step forward? Would they recognise in themselves an ability to lead?
So often I find myself having to coach people to draw out their potential, helping them to see what they’re capable of because they don’t know it already. If the leadership model has changed, how do we help people to see how they might be suitable for this new role?
And even if they do, would they want the job?
There are so many challenges, the demands on leaders are so great, they’re much more exposed to public scrutiny and censure, particularly on social media – who would even want to be a leader these days?
Good leadership is what this volatile world sorely needs. But who’s up for the scary challenge of being a leader in the 21st century?
What’s the biggest challenge you face when it comes to developing or recruiting the leaders of tomorrow? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Share them in the comments below or send me an email.
The 21st century public servant, University of Birmingham, December 2014
Management 2020 – leadership to unlock longterm growth, CMI, July 2014