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What makes a great leader, today?

3 min read

What makes a great leader, today?

For those who aspire to be great leaders, a laser focus on results is not enough.

Given that the world of work is changing so fast, it might seem reasonable for leaders to simply continue on as usual, playing by old rules because they might not know how to accommodate our new times.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The painful reality is that leadership must change as dramatically as everything else, or maybe even more so, to get out ahead of the shifts that are happening under our feet.

Business is under mounting pressure to become lean and agile. This does not translate into leaders spending their time making sure the assembly line runs faster. On the contrary, it requires accommodating the flat, fast, and loose organization necessary to be agile and lean. And what are the hallmarks of such organizations? They are based on higher degrees of autonomy and localized, distributed decision making. Therefore, leaders have to push to make the business more open and transparent, so that experiments and decisions can be informed by hard data rather than authority and opinion.

The nature of flat and fluid organizations paradoxically leads to people across the organization having more relationships than they might have had in an earlier, more hierarchical organization. In order to remain informed and be able to draw on diverse viewpoints on demand, workers in these modern organizations need to create and maintain relationships with people across the company. Note that the average employee will have more connections in this set up, but on average they are looser ties that the those they formerly had in slow-and-stable companies.

Leaders that combine the two sides -- social skills and results orientation -- the likelihood of being perceived as a great leader soar to 72%.

 

Given these new realities, one of the imperatives for leaders is to help everyone in the organization to learn how to become more autonomous, and to take more of an active role in the company's progress: to become high-performers, and more accountable for their contributions.

Only a few years ago, a typical discussion about leaders might be couched in these terms: Should leaders focus more on people or results? A well-known study by James Zenger (as cited in Should Leaders Focus on Results, or People?), polled 60,000 employees to find out what characteristics make a 'great' leader. Zenger contrasted social skills (a focus on people) -- with the analytical and a bias toward action and problem solving (a focus on results). The result? Being perceived as results-focused led to only a 14% chance of being seen as a great leader. And social skills -- like communication and empathy -- translated into even lower numbers: only a 12% chance of being viewed as a great leader. For leaders that combine the two sides -- social skills and results orientation -- the likelihood of being perceived as a great leader soar to 72%.

Social skills have now grown to include more than a conversational approach to interaction with others. Today, the word social includes a deep understanding of the social nature of work in a time of new work technologies, an always-on workforce, and the new pressures of network-centric work patterns. So today's leader must have social skills that transcend empathy and communication, and create an environment based on those social skills.

Likewise, an orientation toward results does not stop with the leader setting direction and policies, and structuring accountability with her direct reports. Instead, she must work to shape a work environment where all are encouraged toward a personal bias toward action, and a data-centered model of problem solving.

So, some things don't change. Great leaders balance a bias toward results with a concern about the people doing the work. But instead of being out in front, like the leader of an orchestra, today's great leaders look more like the example held up by Lao Tze in the Tao Te Ching, in another time of great change around 300 BCE:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. - Lao Tze ~300 BCE

Image courtesy of E Dagher via a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.
 

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Stowe Boyd

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