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The shape of leadership to come

Businesses are changing at a dizzying rate. But what about those who lead corporations? Are the leaders of today's firms ...

By Srikumar S. Rao 01 March 2008

Businesses are changing at a dizzying rate. But what about those who lead corporations? Are the leaders of today's firms changing to meet the future needs of the marketplace?The shape of leadership to comeSrikumar Rao has been asking students what they see as the essential attributes of tomorrow’s leader. Their answers may surprise you.


Charles Darwin is on my mind right now, for he made a prescient comment about change in the 21st century: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” He certainly was not thinking about managers and companies when he uttered those words, but change has become the force that a business must deal with or it, like one of Darwin’s species, simply won’t survive. And this will be even more true and more relevant to business as the extent of change expands and the speed with which it is doing so hits the marketplace with great force and sobering consequences.

What are some of the more important factors driving this change? First, the way in which business is transacted is changing. Technology – the Internet, new methods of communication, faster and more customized manufacturing, and so on – is a principal cause, but certainly not the only one. Second, the breadth of the playing field in which business takes place is increasing enormously. A tiny bookstore in a suburb of Manila can take a sale away from the mega-seller, Borders. Third, consumer expectations are changing, and consumers are becoming much more demanding. At the same time, employees and their expectations are changing. They expect more from work and want to contribute in different ways.

Another important factor is that interdependence is becoming greater and much more complex. A US company may have a research laboratory in Bangalore developing prototype products for Australia. The interdependence goes beyond business relationships to encompass governments, nongovernmental organizations and other parts of the citizen sector. Moreover, the pace of change has accelerated so rapidly that size is no longer a protective buffer. Multibillion-dollar companies often see their competitive positions erode within months.


Enter the leader


Is it any wonder that leadership is such a hot topic right now? In this new world, our organizations – commercial, not-for-profit, and government – need leaders with different skills and a richer skill set to lead us into the future. And I know what the successful leader of the future will be like. I am not guessing. I know.

Please don’t think me immodest. I know this not because I am brilliant or a prescient thinker or in possession of a time machine that can reveal the future. I know because I have been unequivocally told this by the people who should know, the bright graduates of some of our best business schools who are entering the workplace and are very clear about the kind of person who can command their unquestioned allegiance. Let me explain.

I have taught a course called “Creativity and Personal Mastery” for many years. It is a deeply introspective course; those who take it spend enormous amounts of time contemplating the workplace and how they would like it to be. They think about leadership styles they would like to develop and what they would like to see in their hierarchical superiors.

In my role, I find that I am often listening much more than I am professing. Hundreds of students and executives have shared their opinions with me. Are there variations? Sure. But the composite picture that emerges is startlingly clear and quite unambiguous. The successful leader of the future is one who can create systems that bring into being an organization that commands a deep allegiance from employees and from others who interact with the organization, such as customers and suppliers. In discussing this new type of leader, I speak mainly from the perspective of for-profit business organizations, but intuitive changes can readily be made to adjust to the needs of other types of organizations. Also, much of what I reveal concerns organizational culture and values. So, what are the tasks that lie ahead for the successful leader of the future? There are seven.


Set an inspiring mission


Mission is crucial. The leader sets the organization’s mission, and if this mission does not resonate deeply, then those being led will merely go through the motions. Many of our present organizations have exemplary missions that exist primarily in framed statements in the boardroom and in company brochures. This does not work. The mission should resonate, and it should be crystal clear to all that it is indeed the guiding principle of the organization.

Few people get passionate about maximizing shareholder value, gaining market share, reaching market dominance or achieving set revenues or earnings increases. In fact, a leader who puts any of these, or similar, metrics forward immediately and silently loses much support. Thus, the purpose of a business is to ensure that every person who comes into contact with it reaches his or her highest potential. This includes employees, customers, suppliers, lenders, shareholders and the community at large.

Such an assertion immediately raises a host of questions: What is meant by “highest potential”? How is it measured? Who should define and measure it? How should conflicts be resolved? How can this concept be turned into actionable steps? All of these are legitimate questions, and sincere persons can hold varying views when it comes to the answers – even diametrically opposed views.

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