What is different about leadership today?

By Janice Jacobs, Ph.D., Chair of the Graduate Department of Leadership Studies

Leadership, in many ways, looks the same today as in times past. I can’t imagine that most of our great leaders throughout history—religious, military, political, literary—didn’t bring, in their time, many of the same characteristics and qualities we still need in leaders today. Being visionary, innovative, challenging, strategic, action-oriented—certainly these are some of the immutable qualities of leadership.

But a continually changing society also brings new demands for new ways of leading. In our time, the vast swell of technology—bringing in its wake ease of communication and unbelievable access to information—all have a far-reaching impact requiring a different mindset.
More than anything, technology has driven many organizations to their knees, given the impact of relentless change, competition and globalization. If organizations don’t realize that “something may be gaining on them,” then, from a competitive standpoint, they probably won’t do well or even survive.

But if employees are able to leverage as many opportunities as they can within the organization to support its mission and vision to land the product or to provide the service, the organization will probably perform well. And if you believe, as I do, that the most important resource in any organization is its people, then leveraging leadership from all over the workforce is critical and probably one of the defining aspects of leadership today.

Leadership in high-performing organizations is no longer defined by role or position as much as by influence. One of the most exciting things that comes out of this huge sweep of change is that anyone who can influence can lead. So the term “leader” now applies to a much broader audience—those on the frontline, those in the middle and, of course, those in the “C-suite.” Higher-performing organizations are acutely aware of this and, being on the cutting edge, are developing as much of their workforce as possible.

In times past, people thought that leaders were “born.” Some people are born leaders. I don’t question this. But we also know that leadership can be learned.

I see this all the time with students in our Organization Leadership master’s program. In the right culture, people can tap into their own personally inspiring vision, purpose, and values and learn how these things connect to their work. This allows people to derive much more meaning from their work. This kind of engagement motivates them to meet work challenges they thought they couldn’t, to go beyond what they thought were their own limits.

I also believe that engaging people positively in a developmental journey allows them to identify personal habits that get in the way of having an impact. Those poor performance habits that everyone else can see, but which they can’t, are much like the emperor in the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. In one-on-one relationships and in groups, being positive, approachable, transparent, open to learning, collaborative and non-defensive are now foundational qualities in leaders today that may not have been so crucial in the past, when leadership was, for the most part, “top-down” and hierarchical. When people have good leadership qualities, this allows organizations much greater agility in responding to the competitive challenges of an ever-changing workforce. And anyone can and should develop these qualities.

The following are a couple of stories that prove the point, although some names and details have been changed.

A frontline worker, David, was working in the marketing department of a service firm and was unsure of how to move up the career ladder. Through a 360-degree feedback assessment (getting anonymous feedback from his boss and colleagues on his leadership), he quickly learned that something that had happened four years ago was still in the forefront of his manager’s mind. He also learned that, yes, he did a “good” job, but he didn’t exceed expectations.

He took the feedback to heart and had a conversation with his boss. She said she didn’t quite trust him because of that experience from four years ago. David assured her that she would see that she could and should trust him. Within a few weeks, two things happened that had a major impact on how he was perceived.

First, one of his colleagues was leaving. David wanted to be promoted into this job very much. He let his boss know he was interested and that he would demonstrate to her that he knew how to do the job, and, in fact, could do it better. Secondly, when a dispute erupted among his colleagues, the manager came out of her office to see what the commotion was. David held up his hand as if to say, “I got this.” The manager stepped back, and he handled the dispute, without intimidating or humiliating the people involved and without escalating
the situation. Many of his colleagues emailed warm wishes of encouragement for what he did. He was seen as a person of influence, a leader. He won that coveted promotion.

This is a clear case for developing leadership potential at the frontline. Workers handle issues rather than punting them up the chain. Performance exceeding expectations becomes the norm. Of course, David’s manager also demonstrated many leadership qualities, being open and approachable.

This next story involves a more senior-level leader working in a finance department.

Georgette was respected, but only to a degree. Her 360-degree feedback report came back indicating that although she was smart, savvy and very funny, she was also mean, sarcastic and constantly challenging. I saw this in the classroom, too, recognizing that she would plateau unless she made a change. She realized she was good, but to be great, and to have influence, she had to be likeable and trustworthy.

To her credit, she was able to leverage her unquestionable strengths, cutting back immediately on her sarcastic quips. As a result, she was taken much more seriously. People weren’t so nervous around her, worrying what she was going to say to demean them.
With that, as well as with some growth in group leadership skills, she and her team figured out a way to save their firm millions of dollars. Had she not learned to be personable and likeable, she probably wouldn’t have been able to influence her team enough to go the extra mile, beyond what they perceived to be their own limits.

Both of these stories demonstrate that leadership is necessary at all levels for organizations to meet ever-increasing challenges. In both cases, the buck stopped where it needed to stop, saving the organization time, money and anguish. These two individuals empowered themselves to change, making themselves more valuable to their organizations and making their organizations more productive and competitive. In both cases, they demonstrated leadership through their ability to influence. These are the kinds of stories that high-performing organizations tell that differentiate leadership today—where leadership is everybody’s business.

Author: aduncan

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