Farewell to Old Heroes: What Does It Take to Become a Leader in the Digital Age?
Since ‘leadership’ has become an elusive buzzword in the past decade, very few people are able to define explicitly what being a leader means for them. At the same time, for the generation of millennials, whose members are increasingly embracing senior positions at organizations across multiple industries, leadership skills are among the most sought-after for career success and satisfaction.
The 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey found out that:
“In the millennials’ ideal workweek, there would be significantly more time devoted to the discussion of new ideas and ways of working, on coaching and mentoring, and on the development of their leadership skills.”
It’s crystal clear that skills related to leadership development are on the hot list of young professionals seeking career growth. For all that, the question remains: Who the leadership role models to learn from are? If we answer that, we could cultivate leadership qualities not only in the workplace but throughout our entire lives.
While leadership in the real world comes in many shapes and sizes, the three types of leaders routinely come to mind: political, religious, and business. Moreover, even in 2018, the majority of people would associate the term ‘leader’ with the male (rather than female) gender. To illustrate the point, as of June 2018, only 3 countries had 50 percent or more women in national parliaments (single or lower houses): Rwanda, Cuba, and Bolivia.
Who Can Deliver?
However slowly, the leadership landscape is changing, together with public discourse. The respondents of the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey indicated that they see business leaders and leaders of NGOs/non-profit organizations having a more positive impact than religious or political leaders.
“Millennials delivered a harsh assessment of both political and religious figures. That’s why now is the time for business leaders to prove themselves as agents of positive change.”
In this light, it’s no wonder that recently we’ve been associating leadership with entrepreneurship and innovation. Today, many entrepreneurs, aspiring and experienced alike, are aiming to create both financial and social, as well as environmental, value. Since we live not only in the age of information and big data but also the age of disillusionment with political leaders and political systems as a whole, we tend to turn our hopes to leaders in our midst who are ready to serve their communities and who prioritize (business) opportunities that stem from solving real problems.
Born or Made?
In 1980, Scottish writer and historian Thomas Carlyle wrote:
“In all epochs of the world’s history, we shall find the great man to have been the indispensable savior of his epoch; the lightning, without which the fuel never would have burnt. The history of the world, was the biography of great men.”
Carlyle analyzed the influence of several ‘heroes’ in his text, such as Muhammad (the hero as prophet), Shakespeare (the hero as poet), or Napoleon (the hero as king). His work became the basis of the Great Man Theory, which promoted the view that successful leaders were individuals born with certain traits, characteristics, and abilities, which enabled them to shape the course of history.
Not everyone agreed, though.
Herbert Spencer, British philosopher, sociologist, and influential intellectual of the 19th century, countered that leaders were products of their environment:
“The genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown. Before he can re-make his society, his society must make him.”
Never Too Late
If we are neither born with the gift of leadership, then, nor have our origin and background allowed us to develop leadership competence so far, we need to explore what is left for us to turn our personal and professional lives around in order to deliver a positive change, while inspiring others to follow in our footsteps.
Is a good leader the same thing as a good manager?
Are leaders some sort of supreme authorities, gurus, or simply individuals with unbeatable charisma?
And if you aspire to become one, what personal qualities and characteristics should you cultivate on an everyday basis so you can lead others in both prosperity and crisis?
Having traveled the world for years, and having worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs and (future and current) leaders as a trainer and coach, I was able to identify several powerful habits of the most inspiring men and women I’ve met.
#1 They never cease learning and developing new skills
I’ve heard many executives (or executives to be) say: “How can I lead other people if I’m struggling myself in many areas of my work/life?”
What makes a good leader is not perfection. It’s the commitment to understand, learn, and take more steps forward than most other people are willing to take.
The world is changing at an unprecedented pace and we depend on the few brave, devoted, and disciplined individuals to lead the way into the new order.
#2 They strive for delivering value to their communities
Managers bring results. Leaders bring solutions.
A manager performs. A leader cares. A manager is good at setting priorities, growing talents, giving direction, and providing feedback. A leader is good at identifying real needs, growing new ideas, and designing solutions for sustainable impact.
Leaders don’t see themselves as limited by their current job position or unfavorable external circumstances. No matter what is on their plate at any moment, they are on the lookout for ways to make other people’s lives better.
#3 They unite people and motivate them to build bridges
The new breed of leaders are not defined by their social and work status. They are not only dominating political structures or pulling the strings from corporate offices.
We can find them wherever there’s a need for one strong individual to make people talk to each other, listen to each other, and gather them around a common cause.
As Queen Elizabeth II said when addressing the UN General Assembly in 2010:
“I know of no single formula for success. But over the years I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration to work together.”
#4 They cultivate courage by accepting tough challenges
Every emotion is a physical sensation which carries a certain message. The message behind fear is to alert us of an imminent danger. It helps us survive.
Even the bravest of leaders know that fear can be either a great servant or a bad master. Courage is therefore not the absence of fear. Courage is nothing more than confronting our fears once we assess the possible impact of our actions or inactions.
Easy roads never lead to success; that’s why leaders tend to take on challenges others never will.
#5 They share their knowledge and skills with others
The inherent purpose of knowledge is for it to be shared. Sometimes certain knowledge, skills, and experience give a person a competitive advantage and allow them to win important battles. However, whenever it is possible, leaders share what they know with other people so that whole communities can benefit from new information and methods.
Great leaders don’t nurture dependency by asserting their superiority. Instead, they simply help people help themselves.
#6 They are extraordinarily good listeners and observers
There is a thin line between staying approachable, for people to feel confident sharing both their highs and lows, and setting reasonable boundaries for ourselves, in order to be able to target our focus on things that truly matter.
Leaders are not only fantastic listeners. Often, they approach people first and encourage them to open up, so any issue or problem can be dealt with without delay. At the same time, they constantly refine their awareness of what is and what is not worth their attention, so they can efficiently use their abilities, their time, and their energy.
#7 They feel responsible for both their successes and failures
Some people embrace the mind of a victim, some embrace the mind of a hero.
The first group believes that they have only a little control over their lives. Their modus operandi is to blame someone or something whenever things don’t go as expected.
The second group believes that they are in control of their choices, actions, and feelings. The circumstances don’t always permit them to follow their agenda, but when that happens, they neither blame the world around them nor punish themselves for failing.
A leader cannot lead if they are insecure and unable to deal with their own mistakes. Many people in senior positions are scared to death by the prospect of showing their weaknesses. They imagine losing respect and authority the second of revealing their vulnerability. They don’t realize that without vulnerability, there is no creativity, no innovation, and no progress.
And when creativity, innovation, and progress are missing, it’s time to look for new leaders.