Never before have we needed more true and honest leadership to manage the complexity of our current business world. We need 21st century leaders! The reality is that leaders in organisations today have to cope with so much – not just long days, never-ending to-do lists and fighting the balance between short term demands versus longer term strategic direction but also the fragmentation of their teams, virtual working, dis-connection, the unpredictability of their marketplace, their business, the insecurity of their jobs. We often note how the public sector limits the potential for leadership. Many leaders are frustrated by their lack of real executive power and spend endless hours coordinating agencies, trying to eke out limited resources due to lack of funding and dealing with the next government initiative. Press reports for the private sector are often no better, with headlines of self-serving executives being completely disconnected from their stakeholders, both internal and external.
In times of uncertainty, what we most desire is some constancy and trust in who is steering the ship, yet the corporate landscape doesn’t always afford shelter in the way it did in the past. Reorganisations are frequent, with changing team membership and leaders. Even our office environment no longer provides us with stability in the form of our own desk that we can call “home” for a few hours. Many of us work in large, open offices that enable hot-desking but which are devoid of personalisation.
How then do we develop 21st century leaders not just to manage but to thrive in such a context? It is not to dictate a list of competencies that need to be learned – to focus only on “skilling up” as we’ve heard some Learning and Development managers put it. It is rather to encourage people to bring forth their best by engaging actively with complex challenges. This will happen when they find a sense of purpose in doing so and are therefore motivated to apply themselves – to “lean into” the messiness and all this involves, trusting in their own wisdom and insights as well as that of their colleagues. Learning means stretching, beyond our comfort zone.
What is required more than anything else is the courage to take on complex challenges, the discipline to stand back and reflect and the willingness to learn through practice, knowing that we will find personal fulfilment by doing so.
In the 21st Century leadership development work we run, we encourage participants to stretch in order to learn. To practice in a safe place (during the workshop) in order to be more willing to try out new ways at work. We make sure people identify a learning buddy so they can check in on each other between sessions and share their progress (or lack of it and their own barriers to learning). We look at definitions of leadership and consider average and superior leaders people have worked with or know of. We draw attention to the fact that on the list of superior leaders, there is rarely any mention of technical competence or expertise. What is always referenced are qualities such as forward-looking, visionary, inspirational, trustworthy, authentic, credible, humble.
The path to becoming a 21st Century leader is to have a mindset of learning and growth. Being aware and able to reflect at the same time as doing is a rare capacity today and yet widely regarded as the necessary condition towards mastery and wisdom. We make sure people in our workshops get time to reflect as well as trying out new ways of being where fears are unblocked and potential can flow. They have the opportunity to discover their strengths and their blind spots and give each other feedback on how they come across. People learn to share their challenges as well as their aspirations and how to grow together.
The VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) context in which we operate seems to promote a frenzied, unstoppable drive to acquire by doing. Yet we are called again to remember that we are human beings after all. This simple four pillar approach to learning underpins the work we run to develop 21st century leaders*:
*from Learning, the treasure within (Jacques Delors in a UNESCO report on education for the 21st century).