Nowadays, baby boomers (those born between 1946 & 1964) account for around 30% of the total workforce with more than 50% of them in leadership positions. However, as expected, they will be soon be headed for retirement. Will the next generation of leaders have to follow the same leadership path as the previous one or is a changing mindset absolutely required?
Scientific studies as well as employees’ surveys all around the world show that today’s leaders are not facing the same challenges as the ones in the past. Indeed, compared to a decade ago, they have to learn how to sail in turbulent waters within a society that is constantly evolving.
In order to make a successful transition, Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980) and the generations after them will have to be able to be masters of resilience and to lead in a century affected by technological changes, political and economic uncertainty and geopolitical unpredictability while putting the company’s interests first.
It seems like a difficult task to accomplish. What are therefore the main traits / skills one must have in order to be a good leader in the 21st century?
ENCOURAGING THE SENSE OF PURPOSE AND VISION
The new leader is not happy with just quantitative data and hierarchical old styles that meet the financial goals of the company. He/she needs more than that, more precisely a sense of purpose along with a beneficial implication on society.
It is a fact that managers set targets whereas leaders create a vision. In the general corporate environment, managers are selected for their hard skills but most of them lack leadership skills. Managers usually set short term goals while leaders create development strategies that are meant to be implemented on the long run.
For instance, AION Consulting was created with the sole vision to promote knowledge, intelligence and holacracy in consultancy throughout innovative and new ways of working. Without this vision, we would be no more than any other management consulting company on the market. The vision is one of the pivotal values that make a company unique.
There were different types of leadership throughout the last decades. The control that came with these leadership manners was exercised mostly in autocratic ways. However, the hierarchical ways of leading started to slowly vanish at the end of the last century. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus quoted: “Change is the only constant in life”. Change was therefore inevitable as it has been birthed out of necessity. There was an urgent need for a new set of skills linked to important business changes such as innovation, open communication, teamwork, and creativity.
Furthermore, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic put the corporate leadership to a bigger test. Managers all around the world had to develop specific critical skills in order to manage the uncertainty created in the corporate environment while experiencing symptoms of burnout themselves. In order to promote rapid problem solving, leaders had to organize a network of teams that should foster transparency and collaboration with a common purpose to execute tasks under stressful situations. In more or less predictable crisis, experience is maybe one of the most valuable attributes a leader should portray. Nevertheless, in mostly unpredictable emergencies such as the current pandemic, personality, exigency and empathy take the first position.
ENCOURAGING COLLABORATION AND COMMUNICATION
Perhaps one of the most important skills leaders should have, is the ability to recognize they can simply not have all the answers. There is an absolute need of authenticity, honesty and clarity into the way the leaders communicate any piece of information in order to gain trust and harmonize mutual efforts in the pursuit of long-term goals. These important skills are in direct correlation with the emotional intelligence they must prove and the constant efforts to adapt their communication style as every employee requires a different approach.
These approaches are not new. Helgesen (1995a) stated that nowadays’ leaders have to be positioned in the middle of a "web of inclusion" willing to deal with all employees of the organization. The new leader must be agile, a willing conversationist and be able to voice the interests of her or his employees. This new type of leadership gives birth to the transactional and transformational leadership. Transactional leadership is mostly focused on tasks and control and is demanding a quite rigorous management style, whereas the transformational one is focused on communication, charisma and on empowering its followers to work for a common vision.
ECOURAGING AGILITY AND RESILIENCE
Leadership agility is simply the capacity to combine forward planning with adaptive thinking in a rapidly changing environment. Anticipation through a proactive approach is the main way to prepare for the inevitable. However, having a deep understanding of the market, customers and competition is not enough. That is, generating confidence among followers and arming them with the right tools create for them a safe space. Furthermore, when a leader develops agility and personal resilience, he/she becomes situationally aware, more collaboratively engaged towards internal and external stakeholders and navigate complex business conversations in turbulent times.
All these statements made above do not translate into reckless risk-taking when it comes to decision making. On the contrary, calculated risks have always been an important factor of leadership.
In order to achieve such important skills, corporate leadership training programs are essential. A joint study conducted in 2014-2015 by the Conference Board and Development Dimensions International (DDI) surveyed 1,528 global human resource executives and 13,124 leaders from 2,031 organizations worldwide. Several advantages linked to the training programs were found, among which: increased productivity by 36% for companies providing these opportunities along with an increased work quality, increased employees involvement, 71% rise in customer satisfaction, improved organizational agility.
“If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” William L. McKnight
All the points mentioned above should definitely discourage micromanagement in the long run. The true power and sense of responsibility within a team is seen when the leader is not around. Are the teams capable of taking decision on their own when leaders are not there? If so, will the leaders back their decision once they return? If the teams cannot function by themselves, it means they are usually micromanaged and a certain dependency was created which eroded their confidence and engagement.
In order to eliminate corporate micromanagement, leaders should firstly understand what drives each employee’s motivation. They should also trust their decisions, provide the employees with productive feedback and request for feedback as well. Most importantly, they should remember that words are a powerful weapon, therefore they should be used wisely in order to enhance the quality of work.
At AION Consulting, for instance, we promote a flat organization with an open communication style where the micromanagement has no place. Indeed, the responsibilities and rewards are equally shared among consultants and they have room for creativity as their decisions have the same amount of power within the company. Put differently, we are all entrepreneurs, therefore leaders.
ENCOURAGING QUALITY OF LIFE AND LOYALTY
The new generations are not trading their personal life for work any longer. Sure thing is that past generations have traditionally perceived work as an inevitable part of life and even though they were not always mentally stimulated, they still had to “pay their dues” in the chain of command. The new generations are not ready to negotiate such a thing, on the contrary seeing their parents and grandparents’ hard work not leading to an increase in their life quality, encouraged them to ask for independency, trainings, flexible hours and continuous feedback. One way through which they are expecting to offset the long working hours is through leveraging technology.
In order to enhance mutual confidence, the new leaders shouldn’t watch employees’ work too closely as they are no longer perpetually looking for directions. Forcing them to work under a certain imposed management style will only create frustrations among leaders and followers.
Furthermore, past generations were mostly loyal to their employer under financial conditions. This is not enough anymore. In other words, if managers are pronounced as such based on their experience rather than management skills and humility, the new generations will tend to rebel. Younger staff craves for a purpose, a vision and a model to follow rather than imposed tasks. In order to gain their loyalty, it will take more than just monetary benefits as they value much more family time, working flexible hours and vacation benefits.
For decades, we have been told that leaders are born as such. Notwithstanding, we should see leadership as a long process during which one must take the place of a follower and step down when needed. The differences between current and previous leadership patterns are brutal. They have changed from transactional to strategic, from authoritarian to cooperative, from quantitative to qualitive, from problem solving focused to visionary.
Most importantly, leaders must genuinely value the people they work with, replace micromanagement with empowerment, show gratitude, give honest productive feedback and create endless opportunities such as the entire team to have a sense of involvement and equality.
By doing so, in times of crisis such as the one we are still going through, employees will be so engaged and passionate that they will be willing to contribute in containing the crisis, minimizing the damage and regaining control over the turmoil. As a consequence, they will see the company’s success aligned with their own.