Veteran rock guitarist Pete Townshend wrote this lyric more than 40 years ago when he was a 26-year-old baby boomer in pre-information age Great Britain. Now in his 60s, how could he have known that his words would be prophetic and just as relevant today, as we near the halfway mark of the second decade of the 21st century?
His lyrical simplicity begs deep, reflective questions about the nature of leadership in our post-industrial, post-9/11, post-banking crisis, digital-age world. Consider the following:
- What type of leader will serve us best today and in the near future?
- Conversely, what type of leader won’t serve us?
- And how are these types of leader any different from those of the past?
Here are some clues to the type of effective business leader we can expect to see in the years leading up to 2023 and we briefly consider some of the issues they will need to anticipate and address to be effective.
The political context: A general election is scheduled 7 May, 2015. Will the Coalition, a new variant or a single party be elected and form the next government? And what will the new government’s attitude be toward business? What legislative programme will they unveil and what will this mean for those in leadership positions in business?
The economic context: Will we finally emerge from the strait-jacket of recession into a sustained period of economic growth? How will business leaders position their organisations to take advantage commercially? And if recession continues, how will they adapt to an ongoing economic and trading malaise? What will they do to foster a culture of innovation in their organisations and manage risk at the same time?
The social context: The Millenials – those born in the digital age, also known as the iGeneration, Internet Generation or Generation C – will be entering the workplace. At the same time, the population will continue to age and the pensionable age will have risen. More women will be in leadership positions creating greater sexual equality in the workplace. There will be an increase in ethnic diversity and a requirement to provide for the needs of the disabled. How will leaders address the differing life and work values and skill sets of a divergent workforce and galvanise it to work together and perform? How will they encourage discretionary effort – going the extra mile – when the wants, needs and skills of this divergent workforce will be even more marked than now?
The technological context: Cloud computing, the inevitable growth in use of mobile devices with faster connectivity, greater use of social media and the increased ability to work remotely or at home, as well as being on call 24/7 will mean even greater flexibility in the workforce. How will leaders lead and their followers follow when they are both less visible as they become increasingly separated from a specific work location? How will business leaders engage in a meaningful dialogue with a dispersed workforce and harness its productivity?
These are just some of the challenging contextual issues business leaders will need to anticipate and must address in the years leading up to 2023 and beyond. So what will it mean for them if they are to be effective?
More than 25 years of research by influential leadership experts Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner – which includes surveying thousands of people around the globe regularly during that period – has led to the development of their ‘Characteristics of Admired Leaders Checklist’. For more on this subject, see their definitive book on Leadership: The Leadership Challenge.
Although the world has changed greatly since 1987, the results of the Kouzes & Posner survey are surprisingly consistent. So much so, that the top four characteristics that followers look for in leaders they would willingly follow have not changed at all in that time. In fact their importance has grown and that trend is likely to continue. Perhaps that’s the real surprise and yet perhaps it’s no surprise at all – what followers look for in their leaders is timeless, regardless of the context. So, during the next few years, to be effective, leaders will need to consistently demonstrate the following characteristics:
Honest: This goes beyond moral concepts about honesty. How leaders behave will be key to their effectiveness. Those in leadership positions in business will need to be seen to consistently do what they say they will do, when they say they will do it. They will need to ‘consistently walk the talk’ – to communicate appropriately to demonstrate their authenticity and believability, if they are to connect with their workforce, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, religion, values, skills and location. Effective leaders will need to honor commitments and promises at all times, such as returning phone calls and emails when they say they will or showing up at the appointed time for face-to-face meetings or when on Skype, as well as staging large-scale presentations. It will still be important for leaders to continually show their integrity and demonstrate visibly that their word is their bond.
Forward Looking: In a turbulent and discontinuous business world, leaders will need to be clear about the future and the direction of their organisation or their function within it to continue to attract and retain loyal, committed, productive staff. More than that, effective leaders will need to be able to articulate that future by painting a credible and compelling vision that connects with their people at an emotional level, as well as conceive and orchestrate the execution of a viable yet flexible plan to achieve it.
Increasingly too in the business world, individuals will seek meaning in their work that goes beyond the transaction of their time for money. Their organisation’s purpose and that of their leaders must serve society at large. For instance: helping others achieve better lives or conserving the planet’s resources. Effective leaders will need to ensure their vision and plan has an altruistic as opposed to self-serving dimension; that their organisation exists beyond the pursuit of financial performance and shareholder return if they are to connect with and leverage their staff to achieve the vision.
Inspiring: The most effective leaders will need to inspire their workforce to commit to the future through their energy and enthusiasm. They will need to connect positively and engage at an emotional level with them. This will certainly be the case if resources or finances are limited or stretched. Those leaders that can inspire their people and in turn deepen levels of engagement with them will be able to unleash greater discretionary effort so that they go beyond what is contractually expected through the transaction of their time for money.
Competent: Effective leaders will need to have a demonstrable track record of achievement under their belt. ‘Soft skills’ or emotional intelligence also known as EQ will become just as important as their technical skills or IQ over the next few years. While leaders may not need to be technically competent in every function, they will need to show an understanding and appreciation of all aspects of their organisation and value the work their people do.
More than ever, they will need to be agile, to move seamlessly at all times – from one technical function to the next, from big picture to minute detail, from hard to soft skills, from written to verbal communication, from one-to-one engagement to large-scale presentations, from younger to older team members.
So as we approach 2023 there is plenty of scope for success and failure for leaders. And maybe Pete Townshend was right after all, that the new boss is the same as the old boss, particularly when the most admired leadership characteristics have proved timeless. But perhaps the one distinction that separates the old leader from the new is agility. The emergence of the ‘agile generalist’ may yet prove to be the most effective leader of all. Only time will tell.
This chapter is taken from the book "The Future Front," which looks at what business communication and operations will look like years from now. Each chapter is written by an expert in their relative field and presents a picture of now and then, predicting what the ‘working environment’ is likely to look like 10 years from now. Being agile, with the ability to respond to a rapidly changing way of working will be key, and this book will enable individuals and organizations to plan and prepare for the changes in the business landscape leading up to 2023.