A recent report in the journal “People Management”[1] highlighted the interesting fact that by far the most popular and enduring topic in business books is that of Leadership and Management.  And that these topics still attract the most investment in both academic research and L&D.

It seems that the question of ‘what makes a great leader’ is still very much open to interpretation, study and opinion.

When we think about the term “Leader”, what immediately comes to mind?  Is it the charismatic individual who so often appears on our TV screens in both political and business functions?  Or is it the vaguely and rarely seen individual at the head of the organisation in which we work, issuing statements and dictates, appearing from time to time to disperse largesse and words of encouragement or chastisement?

It’s probably some, or neither of these.  They aren’t exactly caricatures, as there is some element of reality in both, but somewhere in the middle lies the everyday Leader.  And this is a person on whom we all have an opinion.

How do we view Leadership in our current times?  We are living now through some of the most turbulent and uncertain times globally, where the perceptions we have had in the past of the way in which the world worked have been turned on their head.  Issues that even five years ago seemed peripheral are now mainstream, such as climate change, the meaning of democracy, the rights and expectations of individuals.  On a political level, challenging leaders are emerging.  How does/should business leadership react and look at the future?

In this article we will look at the what have been the accepted styles of past leadership, examine how relevant these are in current times, and look at what is now emerging as the new expectations of key skills and competencies in leadership of the future.

There are many different frequently quoted styles of Leadership, but they can be broken down into three main groups:

  • The Authoritarian
  • The Democratic
  • The Laissez-faire

Inside each of these descriptions are a set of skills and personality traits that define them.  And each can be effective in a particular setting.  However, there are certain traits that characterise all three.

The Authoritarian is a “command-and-control” leader.  This leader is likely to have a militant style, rarely involving others in decision making, giving orders that s/he expects others to follow without question and with maximum speed.  S/he neither expects nor welcomes feedback.  Of course, there are times when this style of leadership will flourish.  For example, in the military, where there are extreme consequences, potentially life threatening, if orders are not carried out.  But in business?  This style can work where a business is failing and a leader with experience of turning around failing businesses can be brought in as a last-ditch attempt to sort it out.   And where decisions need to be made quickly without consultation.  Projects can be derailed by poor leadership and having someone who can put the train back on the tracks is the situation where the authoritarian leader can thrive.  This leader can quickly analyse a situation and make clear what are the tasks to be carried out by which individuals. 

Authoritarian Leader using megaphone to instruct his employees

This type of leadership also works in areas where there is an absolute necessity for the work to be error free, such as the automotive and aerospace industries, where one hundred percent safety is the only acceptable outcome.

But once the crisis is over, this kind of approach will not work in the long term.  Such a style can damage the morale of the group once the group realizes that the crisis is over but that nothing is going to change and there is still no opportunity to have any input into the ongoing solution.

The Democratic Leader is inclusive.  According to VeryWellMind:[2]

Because group members are encouraged to share their thoughts, democratic leadership can lead to better ideas and more creative solutions to problems. Group members also feel more involved and committed to projects, making them more likely to care about the end results. Research on leadership styles has also shown that democratic leadership leads to higher productivity among group members.

A democratic leader can also accept that there will be others with greater knowledge and not be afraid of using their expertise and experience to enhance the product.

However, the democratic leader is still the person in charge and should take final decisions following discussion and consultation.  The drawback of this approach is that, when there is a need for decisive and rapid decision making, the democratic leader may wait and go too far in seeking out individual opinion, leading to the failure of a project where the primary aims cannot then be met, because someone has disagreed with the decision.

Democratic Leader holding a speech with their employees highlighted in blue

The third style of leadership, Laissez-faire leadership, is the opposite end of the scale to the autrocratic style.  This is not a style that will be effective where decisive and quick-thinking leadership is required.  But in a creative environment it will thrive.  According to Zach Lazzari[3] it will succeed because:

“increasing the freedom to explore creative strategies drives innovation and may yield major results.”

The environment in which such leadership, which is almost a lack of leadership, will thrive, is a highly creative environment, such as commission based sales, or an Advertising Agency, or the stock market, where talented individuals need the freedom to explore new ways of maximising the sale of the product for which they are responsible.  Lazzari explains that the lack of structure gives them the opportunity to think without boundaries and they are already incentivised by the ability to gain major reward from the success of their ideas.

Laissez faire leadership style with employees having fun in their office

But of course, for the business to succeed there still must be a guiding hand and the risk of such a style of leadership is that too much hands-off and distance by the leader will increase the risk of a bad decision by the individual.  Traders in the Stock Market are a prime example.

These three styles represent the spectrum of past and current thinking and practice about leadership.  Each on its own will succeed in very particular, discrete circumstances.  But successful leaders know that styles must be nuanced, that a blend of each style is necessary to meet constant and varying challenges.

So, what are the blend of skills that incorporate each of these styles?

Matching a communication style to the needs of both the business and the workforce is a good example.  The autocratic leader may need to dictate in times of crisis, but can s/he accept two-way communication when the business is back into growth mode?  At the other end of the scale, can the Laissez-faire leader dictate when something goes badly wrong and a quick decision is needed to restore reputation and confidence?  The same applies to the democratic leader.  There are periods when there isn’t time for consultation and agreement.  Being able to share the vision and enthuse the workforce will require good communication skills and a belief that this amount of sharing is necessary in the first place.

Getting to know people and their strengths and weakness and therefore who should be a member of his/her executive team means time and investment in these people.  Understanding what motivates them to bring out the best in them and being prepared for them to fail, if given the freedom to do so, is likely to frighten the autocratic leader and the failure will probably result in punishment and we know as a society that it rarely has the expected outcome.  It is demoralising and demotivating, particularly when done publicly.  And it’s potentially unethical.  At the other end of the scale the Laissez-faire leader may never feel the need to get to know his/her people.  They were hired for their talent and are expected to get on with the job.  The democratic leader is probably the best placed to invest in people, but can again be bogged down in arguments that have no outcome.

No leader succeeds alone.  A great team is a must.  And the team must have, between them, the skills to meet every challenge and opportunity.  Whatever the style, the leader must be able to attract such people, and keep them. 

Keeping a good team depends on the style of the leader and how well s/he knows the individuals.  The autocratic leader is going to have followers, who aren’t too bothered about personal development, but if they are loyal can expect to be rewarded with interesting work and one day will have a shot at the top position.  The democratic leader is going to have challengers.  The role of the leader here is to recognise those whose challenges come from a desire to enhance business success and those whose challenges are motivated by their own agenda.  The team around the Laissez-faire leader is likely to consist of strong individuals who, whilst being aware of the business’ agenda and goals, each have their own opinion on how this can be achieved and are happy to have the ability to work without constraint on their creative abilities.  The role of the leader here is to keep a light but firm touch on those agendas to be sure that they are mutually achievable, but otherwise leave them to get on with it.

Despite these differences of style there are nevertheless certain base competencies and traits that they must each have, that are vital to successful leadership, be it at the top of the organisation or at any level at which they operate.

The first of these is a strategic mindset.  To ensure their organisation can move ahead and achieve its goals and objectives the leader has to be clear about what those are, how they are incorporated within the business plan, the market in which s/he operates and what are its needs and what are the resources that will be needed.

Whether working in a highly structured or an unstructured environment, the leader has to be able to anticipate and plan for overcoming today’s uncertainties that can throw an organisation off track, to recognise what is good information and use it to his/her best advantage, this in a world awash with information and data.

In the past, coming to work was something that people did without being connected with any greater sense of involvement in the organisation.  This has changed completely.  According to David Mizne of 15five.com, quoting an article by Alexa von Tobel[4]:

“Employees are looking for work that fits their life, with flexible schedules”, von Tobel says. “And if employees have to go to work they want it to matter.  They want to be connected with a bigger sense of purpose and want to be mentored in their own career path.”

This is now a given in today’s society and has implications for each of the leadership styles.  Even the heavily directive autocratic leader needs to keep his/her best and most trusted people and ensure at the very least that they have sufficient knowledge, skills and information to back him/her up.

What does this mean today and looking forward, in these turbulent and uncertain times, for leaders of organisations of any size?

A recent survey by Surveymonkey[5] in the US, taking in information from almost nine thousand people, showed that over 50% were satisfied with their jobs, but when it came to what made them satisfied, there were wide variations.

Almost 70% thought it was very important that their work was meaningful.  And when asked to choose the one thing that would make them happier, 41% chose a higher salary, followed by 14% choosing more learning opportunities.  The most important issue the participants felt affected them right now was “jobs and the economy”. 

In the UK, an Interact/Harris[6] poll around the issue of Leadership traits produced the following results:

“Respondents said the communication issues that impair effective leadership are as follows:

  • Not recognising employee achievements — reported by 63% of respondents
  • Not giving clear directions – 57%
  • Not having time to meet with employees – 52%
  • Refusing to talk to subordinates – 51%
  • Taking credit for others’ ideas – 47%
  • Not offering constructive criticism – 39%
  • Not knowing employees’ names – 36%
  • Refusing to talk to people on the phone/in person – 34%
  • Not asking about employees’ lives outside of work – 23%”

The survey also reported that drilling down further into the results, the overall problem was entirely around the ability to communicate to make others feel part of the organisation, which indicated a lack of emotional intelligence (EQ) in how business leaders and managers communicate, leading to many dysfunctions.”

working in the office. Manager is not satisfied the argument. Business complaining in discuss during their no reason about mad group of team

This evidence would suggest that there needs to be a new look at effective leadership in the future, what are the traits of the new-age effective leader and how to make this happen.
John F Kennedy said: “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”  That seems as true now as it did in the 1960s.

The rate of change we are experiencing has accelerated in our own lifetimes in a way that previous only happened over generations.

In his new and innovative book on leadership for the future, Graham Wilson[7] quotes the following story about speed of change:

“In the 1950s it took approximately four minutes to do a pitstop for a racing car.  What is it now in F1?  The car barely stops these days!  In the 1950s the rules were different… but F1 teams have adapted and changed the way in which they do it based on new rules.  The challenge we have in business is that many people haven’t recognised that the rules have changed and that they are using outdated tools and techniques in a different context.  Imagine if you turn up at at F1 pitstop today with your cotton trousers and shirt, a big lump hammer to remove the wheel nuts, a cloth to wipe the windscreen, a cup of tea for the driver and a bit of fuel!  You would have looked great in the 1950s but hey…a bit out of place in F1 today. 

So why is it today that many leaders turn up to work with their outdated ways of working and think it’s OK to behave this way?”

When preparing to write the article, we asked a number of colleagues, acquaintances and friends who work in companies of varying sizes how they would describe the behaviour of their leaders.  A version of Command and Control was the most frequent description.  Not at all levels of their businesses, but hierarchical behaviour seemed to be in-built in most.  A further discussion led to agreement that their main concerns were much in line with the findings of the surveys quoted above.  They were all worried about the uncertainties in which they currently operate and would welcome leadership that not only understood these fears but acknowledged them and was willing to look at new ways of leadership that could address more security in the future, be more inclusive by understanding and accepting the way in which the world has and continues to change.

Were they talking about from Autocratic to Laissez-Faire leadership?  Probably not, but they were looking for leadership that would move in that general direction.

And another important question is:  is the leader prepared to accept that a change is necessary in the way that they lead, to bring about the business success that they desire?  The answer to this, on a positive note, will come from a good level of self-awareness, a curiosity about the substance of leadership and a willingness to accept feedback.  On a less positive note, if the business is struggling and not keeping up with its rivals, ultimately the finger will be pointed at the leader and change may be by force not disposition.

So, what are the principles that underpin 21st century leadership?  Which is another way of saying, what are the traits and competencies that leaders of the future would need to adopt and adapt to, to keep their businesses ahead of the competition.  At the most basic level, this is what leaders are supposed to do.

Again, according to Wilson, one of the most important principles is authenticity.  This means the leader knowing who s/he is, being honest and open and playing to their strengths.  If those who must follow the leader are convinced that there is no mask in place, that what they are hearing is truthful and genuine, that will create trust and will make it much easier for the leader to take followers with him/her.

It’s imperative to develop self-awareness if it isn’t there at the start.  And to accept that there is no shame in having weaknesses and asking for help.  The idea that the leader has to know everything, always be 100% perfect, is outdated.  For a leader, knowing what s/he is really good at and practising and promoting it, is what the followers want to know and hear.

Self-awareness improvement concept. Businessman draw accelerating line of improving self-awareness.

Some years ago, I attended a leadership coaching course in which there was a very strong feeling in the audience that the job of the coach was to help individuals to work on their weaknesses.   The speaker looked back at the audience in surprise.  “So, you want to help develop strong weaknesses?” he asked.  Nobody answered.  This was a concept that went against the accepted wisdom.  “Whatever you are not so good at, someone else is great at, so leave it to them,” he added.  The audience murmured, but some started to nod.

Of course, for a Leader who has always assumed the mask of perfection, never admit to lack of knowledge or making mistakes, to move to a position where they acknowledge imperfections and weaknesses and ask for opinions and feedback, is a huge journey.  Even at the highest levels, it can be very scary.  But for a leader who sees the importance of making such changes, the assistance of a personal coach would be of great value.

In the Interact/Harris poll the respondents identified a number of issues that centred around a lack of clear communication.  And this is another important trait for the “new age” Leader.  In a rapidly changing and challenging world, to be able to clearly communicate at and to all levels of the business will assist him/her greatly in convincing the team and the business to follow and to take action with confidence.

The leader is the one person in the organisation who should have extensive and detailed knowledge of the strategy and to be able to communicate this throughout the business is key to building a high-performance team around him/her.  And to do so in sufficient plain speaking without resorting to jargon and complicated technical data.  Now and ahead people need to be engaged and committed and the leader can ensure that this happens by communicating his/her own belief in what the organisation is doing in an authentic and culturally appropriate way.

Returning to the issues of people’s concerns and fears, another of the important traits of the leader is how manage risk whist being innovative.  If people want job security, what happens when the leader looks to innovate deeply within the business?  This means consideration of change, not just for the market in which the business operates, but at a core level of how the business operates internally.

People quickly become weary of and cynical about change, if they cannot see the purpose.  And if there are always change projects going on, many of which rarely have an outcome at all, never mind a good one, the leader will lose trust. 

Business leader with cape transposed with employees at work

This is where the ability to innovate, communicate and demonstrate the reasons for the change are amongst the most vital of skills, together with the ability to consider the risks involved and talk openly about these, too.  Many leaders often shy away from this latter aspect of change, believing that they should only communicate the positives of new ideas and actions, so as not to worry people.  But people are sufficiently sophisticated to realise that all change comes with risk and to be able to openly discuss what these risks might be, and even take part in forming strategies to minimise them, will give the leader far more kudos than just ignoring them or pretending that everything will be fine.

Having talked about speed of change, this becomes, for the leader, speed of action.  But, speed is what happens after all of the necessary questions have been asked, such as “what is the benefit of this action?”  “Is it the right thing at this time?” “Do we have the skills and tools we need to make this change?”  These are the questions that identify the risks and once there is an answer and a plan, then there is nothing to stop speedy execution of the plan.  And of course, built into the plan is regular review.

There is a lot more to say on this subject of leadership in the 21st century and we will follow up this article with more ideas about how leaders can adapt with confidence.  But the important question remains:  Is there a willingness to adapt?

Back some years ago, probably as far back as the 1990s, there was a period of jokes about changing a light bulb, along the lines of how many of xxx type of people does it take to change a lightbulb.  One in particular still stands out:  how many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer:  the number is irrelevant, but the light bulb has really got to want to change.

If leaders in the 21st century want to keep their businesses ahead of the competition, then they have to want to embrace change, leading from the front, not the top, knowing their own strengths and weaknesses, and embracing and demonstrating their willingness to invest in the right people.

It will be a long journey, but a worthwhile one, for those who want to come out ahead and on top.

[1] People Management March 2019

[2] VeryWellMind.com/theories of personality psychology

[3] Small Business Chronicle 2018

[4] Alexa von Tobel, CEO of LearnVest.com

[5] Surveymonkey.com March 2018

[6] www.inc.com 2018.

[7] Leadership Laid Bare.  Discovering Timeless Leadership Principles for the 21st Century 2018