Keeping it “Real”: Leadership in the 21st Century

Have you noticed that the leadership skills necessary for success today are very different from leadership best practices 10 years ago? If so, you’re not alone. In a volatile, hyper-connected and complex world, leaders’ decisions are more visible and have a greater global and political impact than ever before. They are also frequently expected to make these decisions right now.

I recently read an article in McKinsey Quarterly about leading in the 21st century that conveyed experiences from some of the world’s most renowned executives and leaders. There was a common theme; each noticed that the challenges of being a leader are no longer consistent with their experiences from the past.  What is most striking is that the executives interviewed for the article candidly expressed their concerns that it is close to impossible for chief executives to know all the things they need to know to do their jobs. These executives all agreed that today the tempo of business is quicker, more dynamic, and more politically complex than even 10 years ago.

Overall, common themes included: Being aware of global issues that could impact your business unexpectedly (remember the tsunami & the budget crisis in Europe); Communication remains a key skill—using both right (creative, non-verbal or image based) and left side of the brain (verbal, organized and analytical) equally; and finally, developing a sense of empathy to work globally, understand different cultural contexts, and make the best ethical decisions possible.

How then, can executives learn to get off the hamster wheel and shift with this ever-evolving and very demanding business landscape? A few key quotes from the article really resonated with me as critical lessons for leaders. I’d love to know how these quotes resonate with you, the reader, as well.

  • Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan Renault:There are internal crises because a company has not been managed well.  Then there are external crises, like the collapse of Lehman Brothers or the earthquake in Japan . . . Business schools may prepare people to deal with internal crises.  But I think we need to be more prepared for external crises, where it’s not the strategy of the company that is in question; it’s the ability of leaders to figure out how to adapt that strategy.

Business and management programs do a great job in teaching students the fundamentals of what to expect as a leader, but what an individual learned in a lecture hall 10 or 20 years ago won’t ever fully prepare them for the reality of being in the hot seat today.

That’s where executive education comes in—leaders need to become life-long learners and refresh their skills in a ways that keep them competitive and up to date with the pressures of 21st century. Instead of trying to learn new skills individually as problems arise (i.e. learning new technology, crisis management of a specific type, etc.), my advice is to focus on programs that will enable executives to become agile learners –skills that enable one to act when confronted with an unknown future. The skills developed through agility will equip leaders to respond with confidence and decisiveness to situations that would otherwise throw them into a tail spin.  Click here to learn more about agile learning for leaders.

  • Josef Ackermann: After I became CEO, the former head of the Bundesbank one day took me aside and gave me some valuable advice: “From now on, you must remember that you are two people. You are the person whom you and your friends know, but you are also a symbol for something. Never confuse the two. Don’t take criticism of the symbol as criticism of the person.

This lesson is applicable in so many ways. In business, it’s often an advantage to mentally separate one’s work from the person. It’s mostly about learning to take criticism and feedback– always try and understand that it’s your work that’s being scrutinized, not you as a person. Instead of taking criticism personally, try to see your job and what you’ve produced objectively. This tactic will allow you to understand what you’ve been doing wrong and how you might do better.

It’s a difficult skill to master, and that’s why we can use it to inform the way we communicate with others as well. When giving others feedback, be crystal clear in when choosing terminology- keep it about their work and decisions, and refrain from using language that might cause others to take your comments personally.

  • McKinsey analysis: There is a growing recognition of the connection between physical health, emotional health, and judgment—and of how important it can be to have precise routines for diet, sleep, exercise, and staying centered.

This is a facet of leadership that is frequently pushed aside as a “soft skill” or a “women’s issue”. However, when you get to a certain level of your career, achieving a work/life balance that works and finding time to integrate personal happiness into your routine helps maintain sanity. Learning to deal with the extreme pressures of the daily grind is the difference between leaders who thrive and leaders who crack. Moya Greene CEO of Royal Mail Group reads poetry because she can never get through a whole novel. Carlos Ghosn has developed a strict routine that ensures he gets enough exercise. If you can no longer do some of the things you loved in the past, find some way to make a compromise so that they’re integrated into your life. You can still retain your individuality so that you’re still you—you don’t become your job.

  • McKinsey analysis:  At a time of extreme volatility, past experience is an unreliable guide to future outcomes. Leaders must create cultures of constructive skepticism and surround themselves with people who bring multiple perspectives and have no fear of challenging the boss.

Do you remember the old adage “history repeats itself”? These days, more often than not, it’s a totally new problem that’s never happened before. Scary, right?

You can’t always look at lessons of the past to inform the decisions of today. The solution is to hire people who don’t look and sound exactly like you. “The boss knows best” mentality ruled in the days of yore, but the time for collectively informed decision making has arrived. Don’t surround yourself with individuals who follow you blindly—look for people who can nimbly play the role of devil’s advocate. They’ll show you the gaps in your strategy, and highlight any errors that might lead to catastrophe. They’ll make your decisions much stronger because you’ll have the opportunity to refine and define exactly what you’re doing and how.

If you are a leader, look at your abilities critically. What skills do you need to hone in order to really operate effectively? Identifying competency gaps now (and let’s be honest- everyone has one), and proactively bridging them will improve your performance during times of calm and crisis.

UC Davis Executive Education develops custom education programs for business leaders. For more information on building a custom program, please contact Managing Director Wendy Beecham.


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