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5 Key Shifts 21st Century Leaders Need to Make

Multicoloured paper boats with leader

The white heat of the technology revolution is upon us, just as it was 60 years ago when Prime Minister Harold Wilson coined the phrase.

The technology revolution has been with us for at least 200 years and will be with us for 200 more. It is clearly helping to change the nature of work and of leadership. But there is something else which is driving even greater change in the nature of leadership: education and skills.

In the 19th century, workers were often unskilled and were treated like disposable and unreliable machines. Bosses had the brains and workers had the hands. It was leadership by coercion, which was fine for the bosses but not fine for the workers.

Marx thought that the workers would revolt. But workers did something far more radical: they got educated. This meant that they could do more, but they also expected more. In the 20th century, coercion no longer worked. Workers had to be treated as humans, not as machines.

Welcome to the world of EQ: bosses still worked in command and control style, but now they realized that they needed to work through people who had legitimate hopes, fears and dreams.

In the 21st century, leadership has changed again and become even harder. Leaders no longer make things happen through the people they control. Leaders have to make things happen through people they do not control.

That changes everything.

To achieve their goals, leaders now rely on people in different functions; they may rely on suppliers, partners and/or customers. They may not even see the people they rely on because they are working in a different language, culture, time zone and country.

The bar for good leadership has just gone up another notch.

COVID-19 and remote working simply accelerated these trends. In the office, team leadership is relatively easy: a manager can see who is coasting and who is struggling; mistakes and misunderstandings are easy to spot and easy to fix; communication is simple. All of this is far harder when we cannot see the people we lead. One has to be far more purposeful and deliberate about how they lead, communicate, manage workloads, set goals, motivate and make decisions.

If you are a leader (or manager), there are five key shifts you must make in order to succeed in the new world of leadership:

1. From authority to influence

It is no longer acceptable to just bark orders at people. Instead, you have to build your personal network of influence and trusted relationships. You need allies who are willing and able to help you. You have to know who can make things happen and turn them into willing partners. You can do this by building trust, as follows:

  • Find a common goal: why should they want to help you, what’s in it for them? Find the win for them, and they will want to work with you.

  • Discover shared values: we all trust people who are like ourselves. That is bad for diversity, good for efficiency (but maybe not effectiveness). Social chit chat is not a waste of time: it is about discovering shared experiences and beliefs which can help you align with them.

  • Build credibility: do as you say, because it is hard to trust anyone who does not do what they say. For professionals, the problem is rarely in the doing: it is in the saying. What you say and what is heard is often very different. “I hope, I will try, I will look into” all give you opt-outs if something turns out to be impossible. But what is heard is “I will”. Be ruthless in setting clear expectations. It is far better to have a difficult conversation early about expectations than an impossible discussion later about outcomes.

2. From control to commitment

You also have to make things happen through people who do not want to be controlled: your team is full of professionals, and most professionals do not like being micro-managed. The best way to manage professionals is to manage them less, but lead them more. Professionals want to do well and want to over-achieve: let them overachieve.

You cannot tell people to be motivated, but you can create the conditions in which each team member can discover their intrinsic motivation. Think about when you have felt most motivated, and re-create those conditions for your team. The four things to look for are:

  • Purpose: does each team member have a clear sense of purpose which means something to them? This goes beyond team goals and is about personal purpose: making a difference, building skills, gaining promotion and doing more interesting work.

  • Autonomy: professionals work best when trusted, not when they are micro-managed. Learn to trust your team. Delegate even the toughest tasks.

  • Mastery: it is hard to feel motivated when you do not have the skills to do the job. Help your team learn and grow – be their coach and see them flourish.

  • Supportive relationships, which are hard to sustain outside the office when working from home. This makes your role as a coach, not just a boss, vital to each of your team members.

3. From certainty to ambiguity

We are living in a VUCA world: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. That is wonderful news. If leadership was routine, you could be replaced by an algorithm.

In the gig economy, many bosses have been replaced by algorithms, which turn out to be much like 19th-century tyrants demanding ever-greater efficiency.

In the past, the job of a manager was to pass orders down the hierarchy and pass information up the hierarchy. That is history. You are no longer just a cog in a machine. You have to make things happen, take initiative, deal with conflict and crises, create new opportunities.

It is a role AI cannot cope with. Leaders step up to these challenges, followers step back. Make your choice about how you want to deal with this new world.

4. From what and how to who and why

In the command and control world, you had to tell people what to do and how to do it: you were the brains and they were the hands. But professionals are not just hands: they may be as smart as you are. You need to gain their commitment, not just their compliance with any project or programme.

They need to have ownership. This makes decision making much harder. The old days of “tell and sell” no longer work. You have to involve your team in the decision-making process. If you involve them properly, you may come up with a different and better decision.

By involving your team early, they gain ownership of the decision and will be committed to making it work. They will also understand all the trade-offs; they will know how to act in difficult decisions because they will understand the “why” as well as the “what” and the “how”. This may be slower decision making, but it leads to far quicker and better implementation.

5. From boss to coach

In the old days, the boss was a brain on sticks who solved all the toughest challenges of the team. The boss would only delegate routine rubbish. But that meant that the team could never learn and grow.

Instead, learn to trust your team. Delegate the tough stuff. This carries the risk that they may come back with a better solution and a more ambitious goal. If they try delegating up to you, kick it back to them – be their coach and help them discover the solution. If it is their solution, they will own it and be committed to making it happen. If it is your solution, they will be happy to show how you messed up with a lousy decision.

If all these changes sound like hard work, that is because they are hard work. The leadership bar keeps on rising. But this is good news. It is freeing up leaders from routine work; it lets you focus on the more challenging and rewarding aspects of leadership. Welcome to the future.