Essential 21st Century Leadership Traits

Leadership in the 21st century

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January 9, 2016

However many leadership quotations from down the ages are put forward – even going back to Lao Tzu 2,500 years ago – there’s no doubt that our definition of leadership changes with time. And that’s because the social, cultural and economic environment in which you must lead has changed over time. The ‘command & control’ military-esque model is gone, as is the over-consultative approach of more recent years. So what style of leadership is recommended for the business owner in the ever-evolving, globalized, accessible 21st century? Well, to answer that we first need to take a look at the challenges that exist in the current climate…

Nothing remains the same for long.
Business-wise, it’s an age of upheaval. The economy is globalized but local (i.e. national and even continental) economies still exist within the global whole and the balance is unsteady to say the least. As rates of economic growth and innovation vary and different countries and regions emerge and take (temporary) prominence the patterns of supply and demand shift and change. As a result, the leader’s context is one of greater uncertainty than ever.

Speed and connectedness of communication.
The internet and mobile communications have, of course, transformed the way we work and do business. Similarly, the information flow has both increased and accelerated. Decisions must be quick, anticipatory, and rapid….and an effective leader must be willing to make them.

Increased scrutiny.
More and more, leaders are becoming brands. CEOs and owners don’t just represent their company, they are practically perceived as being their company. Just look at Donald Trump, Richard Branson and Warren Buffet. Now, add to this an expanded global media, hungry for news to fill airtime and webpages and the demands on the leaders as the ‘public face’ of a business have increased exponentially.

So, given that backdrop of constant change, information overload and unending exposure, what traits does a 21st century leader need to exhibit?

The obvious trait in times of change is adaptability. In a world with no norms, flexibility is a must. These days, as a business leader, you must be able to absorb (information) fast, learn fast, decide fast, and act fast. And what’s more, your role includes helping everyone in your company do likewise because with the speed of change being what it is, you can’t afford to be the only decision-maker with everyone else waiting for your say-so. Your whole business needs to be adaptable.

There’s a lot said about the need for self-awareness, to know thyself, your personal strengths and weaknesses and so on. But perhaps the most practical application of this trait (and the one that will be most appreciated by those you lead) is to be fully aware of the impact you have on the people around you. The impact of your decisions, your manner, your mood, your entire approach to the business.

Excellent decision-making.
The leader’s role as decision-maker keeps cropping up. But this is hardly a solo endeavor. In fact, with the sheer quantity of relevant information available, less so than ever. In this complex and shifting (and collaborative) world, it’s good leadership to draw on the full range of experience, knowledge and skill of those around you. In a global marketplace, multiple perspectives are not only good but necessary.

Respect the team.
Credit where it’s due. You may represent the company, but in a collaborative environment, you can’t represent other people’s efforts. This is often regarded as a demand of Generations X and Y coming into the workplace over the last couple of decades but it is also mirrored in that 2,500 year-old quotation from Lao Tzu: ‘The highest type of leader… When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, “We ourselves have achieved it!”’

Look after yourself.
Finally, the old image of a ‘fat cat’ CEO is out of date. Today’s leaders, today’s entrepreneurs are rarely fat; they are fit. The rigors of long hours, global travel, endless meetings and networking, and constant availability take their toll and many modern leaders see the body as important as the mind, drawing a direct connection between physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing and therefore good judgment and leadership. The good 21st century leader’s schedule usually includes an exercise/health routine. If Barak Obama finds time for 40 minutes exercise each day, so too can you!



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