Leadership was once about hard skills such as planning, finance, and business analysis. When command and control ruled the world, organization leaders were heroic rationalists who moved people around like pawns and fought like stags. When they spoke, the staff jumped.
Today, organizational leadership is increasingly concerned with soft skills—teamwork, communication, and motivation. Sadly for many top-level leaders, the soft skills remain the hardest to understand, let alone master.
Leadership in a modern organization is highly complex and increasingly difficult. Among the most crucial skills is the ability to capture your listener’s attention. Leaders of the future will also have to be emotionally efficient. They will promote variation rather than promoting people in their own likeness. They will encourage experimentation and enable people to learn from failure. They will build and develop people.
This may be too much to expect of one person. In the future, we will see more leadership groups rather than individual leaders. This change in emphasis from individuals towards groups has been charted by the leadership guru, Warren Bennis. In his work Organizing Genius, he concentrates on famous ground-breaking groups rather than individual leaders. “None of us is as smart as all of us,” says Professor Bennis. “The Lone Ranger is dead. Instead of the individual problem-solver, we have a new model for creative achievement. People like Steve Jobs or Walt Disney headed groups and found their own greatness in them.”
Professor Bennis provides a blueprint for the new model leader. “He or she is a pragmatic dreamer, a person with an original but attainable vision. Inevitably, the leader has to invent a style that suits the group. The standard models, especially command and control, simply don’t work. The heads of groups have to act decisively, but never arbitrarily. They have to make decisions without limiting the perceived autonomy of the other participants. Devising an atmosphere in which others can put a dent in the universe is the leader’s creative act.”
The role of the new model leader is ridden with contradictions. Paradox and uncertainty are increasingly at the heart of leading. Many leaders don’t like ambiguity, so they try to shape the environment to resolve the ambiguity. This may not be the best thing to do—the most effective leaders are flexible, responsive to new situations. If they are adept at hard skills, they surround themselves with people who are proficient with soft skills. They strike a balance.
The “leader as coach” is yet another phrase more often seen in business books than in the real world. Acting as a coach to a colleague is not something that comes easily to many senior-level leaders. It is increasingly common for executives to benefit from a mentoring relationship. They need to talk through decisions and to think through the impact of their behavior on others in the organization.
Today’s leaders regard leadership as drawing people and disparate parts of the organization together in ways that makes individuals and the organization more effective.
Adapted from Jonathan Farrington, What Leadership Was and What It Will Become 11 March 07