What Does It Mean to be a Leader in the 21st Century?
‘What is leadership‘ has always been best understood in context. Coveted leadership qualities from the 20th century no longer hold merit. As the world has become a small place and innovation critical to success, so have the traits desired in the 21st century leader. Where before, executives’ abilities were mainly gauged from their companies’ financial results, today, their proof is sought their company’s long-term growth prospects.
Effective leaders build sustainable organizations that can stay relevant in the face of innovation-led competition. And that competition can come from anywhere – think Amazon taking over Whole Foods or established telcos facing off against Google, Microsoft and Apple. Visionary leaders must have both the acumen and spirit to effective manage disruption and change. Sure, quarterly results under their watch will definitely come under scrutiny from shareholders. But shareholder focus will also be on leaders’ strategic direction and roadmap in an uncertain future. Unless leaders can show consistent results and pay-offs from strategic technology investments, their abilities are sure to come under the scanner.
What factors are driving leadership styles in the 21st century?
A volatile, uncertain business environment
Modern leaders are expected to embrace change, not resist it. Economic instability, a new government, hyperinflation, an aging workforce – businesses are affected by local economies and global geopolitics. You cannot predict the future, but strengthen the skill to identify opportunity in the unexpected. You need to keep your eyes and ears open and be flexible to changing directions without compromising on core values. It is a tall order, but not an impossible one. The sooner you accept that you will be perpetually operating in an environment of change – whether it arrives five or fifteen years down the line – the more confidently you will be able to respond to eventualities.
Cross-cultural relationships and collaboration
Global trends are creating a business context that is much more diverse than has historically been seen, influencing business priorities as well as the capabilities required of leaders to succeed in the future. The diversity of markets, ideas, customers and talent have seen organizations cultivate inclusive leadership capabilities. Successful 21st century leaders are committed to the idea of a diverse workplace, taking along men and women of dissimilar races, educational backgrounds and mental frameworks along a journey of shared vision.
Investing in cross-cultural learning can help you fit easily into new environments, respond to a different set of norms, and engage harmoniously with people from various backgrounds. It is also an opportunity to expand your perspectives, pick up new ideas and gain useful perspectives. By forming inclusive teams based on diversity, you can foster a team culture that celebrates myriad viewpoints and benefits from the kind of ingenuity and innovation that is hard to achieve in like-minded, homogeneous teams.
The need to be socially responsible and make ethically-minded decisions
65% of employees would consider leaving their organization if it adversely affected the environment, while 32% would have a similar thought if their employer does not make charitable donations. In the age of socially-minded, eco-conscious consumers, organizations and their leaders need to communicate a value and purpose-oriented existence.
In the simplest form, it is about responding to the motivations of your customers. They’re not looking at just price and quality, but searching within themselves to determine if they want to be associated with your brand. Your brand story should be outward-thinking, going beyond the utility of your product/service, to tell your audience how you are making a difference in your community, country or the world. Among the principles of effective leadership in the 21st century is the ability to develop creative and innovative solutions or initiatives to important societal and human questions.
Five qualities that contemporary leaders should have
Effective leaders don’t repeat their mistakes. They are also not afraid of making new mistakes in their pursuit of excellence or innovation. Long-term success and sustenance is a product of bold strategic decisions, doing what others haven’t yet thought of or been fearful of approaching. You may stumble along the way, but if your business case and vision is solid, and in alignment with your personal values and qualities, you can achieve the impact you desire. Here, confidence and courage of conviction can motivate you to go the whole nine yards.
Humility is a key virtue that helps leaders build influence and ensure popularity across the ranks. Leadership presence isn’t solely about projecting confidence and charisma; it is reflected in your attitude – the way you treat peers, superiors and those you lead. Staying grounded and not getting affected by success or failure is challenging in today’s demanding business environment. It helps to welcome constructive dialogue, get feedback from people and improve your weaknesses, and have an open-minded approach to learning new skills. The strong, positive relationships you build as a result will help you tide through difficult times when the yes-men and fair weather colleagues suddenly go missing.
- Collaborative spirit
Organizations are increasingly chasing collaborations and synergies to solve critical problems, lead transformations or seize opportunities. Leaders are devising strategies, tactics and actions that enable productive collaboration within the organization and with suppliers, customers and even competitors to drive long-term results. Authentic, effective leadership make these relationships happen, even if it means giving up some control and embracing new ways of doing things.
- Demonstrating novelty
Now, more than ever before, it has become imperative for new players in the market to stand out from incumbents and close competitors. The modern consumer values new perspectives, original thinking and undiscovered experiences. Dynamic leaders don’t tread the beaten path – they either present a new identity synthesized from different ideas or improve on an existing idea. Copycat competitors are only able to go so far, and it is difficult to sustain any early success only by competing on price. Instead – even if you are imitating an innovation or a competitor’s model – stay true to your brand values and stack on improvements that make your product a better alternative.
Effective 21st century leaders are also able to sustain their passion for the work they do, and have a vested interest in the success of their organization.
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