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  • Brigitte Opel

Leadership in the 21st Century

Leadership is a patient subject. Many articles, books and speeches have been written about it and there are just as many truths as there are misconceptions.

In these times of economic and social uncertainty, we need strong leaders to provide hope, direction and faith that 'all will be good in the end'. The qualities that we are looking for in a strong leader change over time and differ across cultures.

In response to the challenges of the Covid19 crisis, we have seen that the political leaders have presented themselves in very different ways that would respond to the need for reassuring or guidance typical for the culture of their country: Macron as the strategic statesman, Merkel as the data-driven scientist, Johnson leading the troops against the virus, Rutte as a father-figure reminding us to be kind to each other and Trump as a tough guy. With one exception, it was exactly what their people needed and so their approval rates climbed throughout the Corona time. Their approach might have been applauded abroad but chances are that it wouldn't have had the same reassuring effect in other countries.

In uncertain times, also company leaders face new challenges. Many have to switch their business to a virtual environment in a very short period of time, internally and externally. We used to meet with our colleagues, business partners and clients in BC times (Before Corona), now we 'zoom' or 'hangout' in 'Teams'. Many companies didn't trust that their people would actually work in their home office, now have to enable WFH (Work From Home) environments to keep their operations running. Under the new circumstances, they have no choice but to trust their employees. And the trust is rewarded with loyalty and trust from the employees and clients. Trust is what we need and appreciate when times get rough.

The sense of urgency to do things differently than before is overwhelming. This is also true for our understanding of Leadership. In most of the 20th century, we looked at a leader as a strong person who would make wise decisions and tell us what to do, very aware of their status and position and always with an eye on shareholder value. That has gradually changed in the 21st century: We expect our leaders to demonstrate integrity, empathy and perspective. Over the last few months, good managers checked with their remote team on their work but also on their physical and mental well-being, building on a relationship that is open for questions, concerns and doubts. 'Leadership is not about being in charge but taking care of those that are in our charge' (S. Sinek). So leaders don't need to be loud and decisive anymore. Instead, they need to listen, reflect, encourage and enable - in action and in mindset. In such an empathetic environment, trust and loyalty will prosper and employees will flourish and perform at their natural best, out of pure intrinsic motivation. Peter Senge describes this as 'servant leadership' which clearly eliminates power or status from the equation, along with hidden agenda's and political intrigues. Personal accountability, reliability, authenticity and approachability are more important leadership virtues in After-Corona times (AC). Everybody has these traits, we now need to train them again. The more remote we work these days, the better we need to have them developed. And the more we need to know how to show them per situation, per context, per culture.

We're pretty sure that life is not going back to what it was Before Corona, there's a good chance that our interaction will keep some social distance aspects. So if you want to have your remote communication and leadership skills ready for the 21st century, you better start practicing now.

Sources: Simon Sinek (Empathy) and Peter Senge (in Joseph Jaworski 'Synchronicity')

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