The Future of Leadership in Uncertain Times

It’s fascinating to see how leadership has expanded over time. Hundreds of years ago, we would have likely only considered army generals and kings to be leaders. They had to literally lead men into war or manage an entire kingdom. Today, we hear leadership be applied to any situation. Star athletes are questioned for their “leadership capabilities.” Managers at all levels are taught how to be better leaders. We even talk about “community leaders.” 

John Gardner said that leadership is the “process of persuasion or example by which an individual induces a group to pursue objectives.”  We now expect that everyone can take up leadership positions. You might even be a leader for your family. It’s not about how many people you manage or the impact of the group but about helping others. Leadership has permeated into society beyond the governments and military. We actively discuss how to build better leaders among our children. We want to have more people take up the calling of helping others even if they engage in national politics or lead armies into war.

Naturally, we should then think about the future of leadership. What things should young leaders or people who are aspiring to be leaders should work on? What skills should they build, and what skills are outdated? Who should they learn from? These are the questions that are being debated within companies, universities, and even at home. I don’t have all the answers but let me give you 5 ideas that every future leader should know.

Leadership is Not Status, Power, or Authority.

The idea of a leader deciding the fate of millions of people is going away. Please don’t misunderstand me; those types of leaders still exist and will continue to exist. However, leadership isn’t about status, power, or authority. I’m sure you can imagine someone who has any of these attributes (or perhaps all 3), but they aren’t leaders. People wouldn’t follow them to the grocery store, let alone through tumultuous times.

Instead, leadership is about showing others in what direction you should head. You might not know the exact solution or path to success, but a leader is confident in their ability to deal with ambiguity, challenges, and roadblocks. They can tell people to follow them as they go into a dark cave without a map or a light. Working as a team, they can find the exit out of the cave.

Becoming a leader might naturally bring you status, power, or authority. Don’t confuse them with the essence of leadership – helping others — and be skeptical of them. Any of the 3 can corrupt even the best leaders. We see it in someone like Robert Moses, who single-handedly built New York’s parks and highways but was eventually changed by the power that came from it. If you seek them, you might find them, but you won’t be a leader.

Faster Decisions in a Complex World

We all feel that our world is getting faster. Part of that is driven by technology and having instant access to almost everything. It’s wild to me how our perceptions (including mine) can shift so quickly. A package that takes weeks to arrive at your house is seen as incredibly slow. Why can’t it be delivered in days or, better yet, tomorrow? Decisions are following the same trend. As a leader, you don’t have months or years to think about things. You need to make the right decisions in days, hours, or minutes.

Leaders need to equip themselves with the right tools for the job. A typewriter is a fine machine, but it is not suited for our digital world. Using a typewriter instead of a laptop would be foolish. The same applies to your decision-making models. Don’t use models that were designed in a world where time was always available. Upgrade your models for the 21st century.

Adopting Styles to Younger Generations

Every generation changes expectations based on the conditions they grew up in. Leaders need to adjust to the younger generations. It used to be that young people had to mold themselves to whatever style their boss had. If their boss was aggressive and critical, that was just life. You can’t expect your boss to adjust to your preferences. That’s not how the world works.

We see a massive change in the other direction. Companies and leaders are being forced to adapt to the younger generations. You can’t just say anything you want and expect your employees to accept it. Leaders are being asked to make decisions while thinking about politics, social issues, and the environment. Cultures are being adapted to the kind of feedback and environment that suits the younger generation.

I’m not saying that these changes are good or bad. I’m saying that they are happening and that leaders need to adjust. I do think that there’s an aspect of going too far. Cancel culture and the general fear of saying the wrong things are extreme examples of this shift. Nonetheless, we can’t shape our outside culture; we can respond to it. That’s what future leaders will need to continue to do.

Transparency

Expecting a leader to be vulnerable used to be a crazy idea. That idea is still true in some places, but we are seeing more leaders embrace transparency and honesty. They share what they are thinking and the unknowns of the situation. People are also changing their expectations. They don’t expect leaders to have all the answers. They want them to be willing to work through the issues and be open to feedback.

As a leader, you need to find the balance between being transparent and coming across and clueless. You do it by recognizing the appropriate channels for sharing. Some decisions could be easily shared with your team members, while others should only be shared with peers. You will also need to gauge or test how much transparency is needed in different situations. 

Knowing Your Medium

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “The medium is the message.” He referred to how the medium (TV, print, etc.) affected how the content of a message was conveyed. Today, the phrase couldn’t be any more true. We come clips on social media that seemed to tell a story until we see the entire video. Or we hear about remarks that someone made that turned out to be completely different once put into context. 

Leaders need to be highly aware of the medium in which they are communicating. Digital channels — even channels like video – aren’t the same as in-person. Chat tools like Slack make it even hard to communicate emotions and intentions fully. Future leaders will need to have a good grasp of using the different mediums available to them. They will need to select the best one and not the easiest. Calling someone might be harder than an email, but it might be the right choice.

Future will leaders will stumble in the same way past ones have. Some things are so new that consequences might not be that clear. We see bosses who wanted to show appreciation to their employees while working from home that they decided to visit them at their homes while video streaming it to the rest of the company. You could see how employees might feel annoyed by their boss coming to their house unannounced while the entire company watches. The intention was good, but the execution was not. That was not the proper medium. 

Leaders will learn from all these examples, and they will set new rules for engagement. I think the future of leadership is bright. It is now a topic being actively discussed and studied, not just for the select few but also for everyone. Making the right decisions will be an essential component of good leadership, and I hope this blog post gives you the necessary tools for your journey.

One more thing before you go! Do you know how to get more insights out of your data? 

All companies are sitting on a goldmine of data that they haven't fully explored. It's not about technology or capturing more data. The key is to learn how to make the most of your current data and convert it into actionable insights. This is the main idea behind my first book, The Data Miage: Why Companies Fail to Actually Use Their Data

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