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Key Lessons For The 21st Century Leader

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Jayan Warrier | Today's Manager

For enlightened leaders of the 21st century, the conventional need to drive change is replaced by the symbiotic movement towards alignment, empowerment, collaboration, and service.

Here is what a leader of the past looks like—a ‘fake’ as some researchers might call him/her, trying hard to please stakeholders. He/she comes across as eager to succeed, and gives the impression of being impatient and arrogant at times. He/she is tough on him/herself and others—demanding lofty standards. He/she tends to intimidate others due to his/her intensity, technical expertise, and black-white thinking. Because he/she lacks genuine curiosity and a growth mindset, he/she is not generally talented in leadership development and succession planning. Perceived as a driver, the leader of the past creates a culture of anxiety, which translates into high employee turnover rates and absenteeism. This does not sound promising at all.

Conversely, a leader of the future recognises the reality that new generations have come of age. He/she recognises that while market uncertainties will continue, diversity will be the new norm; work cultures will be reinvented; differentiation will be key; and holistic sustainable approaches are expected. This leader is willing to engage with other members of their organisation or community to create better ways of living and doing business.

Organising for a Sustainable Future
The machine metaphor of an organisation presents an inert mechanistic entity with no life of its own—it is to be used and maintained. This dominant organisational story is that of an isolated structure separate from the connected universe—filled with problems to solve, competing internally and externally, exploiting resources, and encouraging consumption at all levels. The organisational dialogue is one of driving change, managing negotiations, enhancing visibility, and reducing costs. The deficit based logic reinforces the scarcity mindset that ‘there is not enough to go around’ and that ‘the early bird catches the worm’, so one must 'hurry up!'

Another way is looking at organisations as living systems, in which creativity and growth are their very nature. Contribution is gracious and effortless, yet in its perfection. Leaders who have learned to reframe their perspective to see organisations as an open book, are inspired to plant seeds of innovation, growth, and contribution in this fertile field.

This life-giving organisational narrative energises members to rise to higher levels of involvement and contribution. Joy and vitality replaces stress, isolation, and anxiety. Change and innovation become a reality of daily interactions. Shifting the mindset to that of co-creation with nature rather than exploitation, and teaming up with life and vitality rather than fighting them, create the space for abundance and sustainable growth.

Evolving Leadership
A conscious organisation which cares for its people and the planet requires a leadership that is self-aware and centered around natural sustainable principles. Its leadership resides in relationships within the organisation and not in specific individuals. It is when these relationships thrive that participants are engaged, inspired, and committed. The role of the leader is to set the tone. He/she finds his/her drive in a passion intimately connected to the aspirations of the global society, yet deeply rooted in him/herself. The leader entertains a clear vision of success and communicates it, as vividly as possible, to create similar images in members with a compelling desire to make a difference. He/she role models positivity, enthusiasm, and creativity towards a co-created purpose that has elements of a collective organisational dream, involvement, risk-taking and ownership.

Reframed Leadership Worldview
Rather than adopt a mechanistic approach based on efficiencies, the leader of the future approaches organisations as mysteries to be uncovered, shifting the focus from the past to future possibilities, with curiosity and anticipation. They develop an appreciative eye to acknowledge the daily ‘miracles’ in the organisation, thus increasing the possibility of extending them. By inviting imagination, co-creation, and experimentation, they break the social constructs of the past and create space for breakthrough ideas. This model of human organising creates a vibrant culture of ownership, inspiration, and support.

The leader crafts the organisational dialogue around hope, trust, possibilities, and abundance rather than deficit based narratives. The authenticity and sincerity of the leader is contagious: people are attracted to the new way of being and organising, reshaping the structures and systems to suit their purpose.

Stress and Resilience
As leadership shifts, our workplace cultures follow—moving towards greater challenge or risk tolerance. Leaders facilitate this shift with compassion and benevolence, in turn creating positive spirals of well-being, creativity, and growth. The leader listens, learns, and corrects her own perceptions. She demonstrates the ability to coach others and be coached.

The leader remains sensitive to destructive tendencies—called symptoms of neurotic imposture: fear of failure, perfectionism, and workaholism. He/she faces him/herself in the mirror and asks questions about his/her own whole-being engagement—both head and heart. This recalibration allows him/her to embrace innovation and be an ambassador for it, rather than revert to old methods which have worked before.

Leadership that Liberates the Human Spirit
What uniquely distinguishes this leadership is the commitment to let the human spirit express itself freely and creatively towards a common purpose—allowing the individual to grow and celebrate in the process. Members of the organisation experience the joy of ‘liberation’ when they are known in relationships, contributing towards a common purpose, acting in ways that reinforce mutual support, and making choices about where they invest their energy.

They experience their work as ‘giving life’ to their spirit. This reduces their anxiety and stress, and leads to psychological safety, courage, and inspiration. The conventional need to drive change is replaced by the symbiotic movement towards alignment, empowerment, collaboration, and service.

References
Rader K, Whitney D, Trosten-Bloom A, 9 July 2010, Appreciative leadership, McGraw Hill Professional.

Sapolsky R, and Reynolds M, Zebras and lions in the workplace: An interview with Dr. Robert Sapolsky, The International Journal of Coaching in Organizations.

Kets de Vries MFR, September 2005, The dangers of feeling like a fake, Harvard Business Review.

Sherman GD, Lee JJ, Cuddy AJC, Renshon J, Oveis C, Gross JJ, and Lerner JS, 2012, Leadership is associated with lower levels of stress. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Cooperrider DL, Srivastva S, 1987, Appreciative inquiry in organizational life, Research in Organizational Change and Development, Vol.1, pages 129–169.

Gap International, September 2011. The 21st century organization: being competitive and leading edge.

George B, 30 April 2010, The New 21st Century Leaders, Harvard Business Review.

For more information, please contact Kathleen Tan at 6248 9407 or E-mail kathleentan@sim.edu.sg.

Mr Jayan Warrier serves organisations in the capacity of a consultant, facilitator, and leadership coach. His favourite areas are leadership mind shift, appreciative inquiry, and strength-based performance approaches. Mr Warrier is an Associate Trainer with SIM Professional Development and conducts the seminar “Appreciative Inquiry & Action Learning”.
 

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