Leadership was once about hard skills, such as planning, finance and business analysis. When command and control ruled the corporate world, the leaders were heroic rationalists who moved people around like pawns and fought like stags. When they spoke, the company employees jumped. Now, if the gurus and experts are right, leadership is increasingly concerned with soft skills – teamwork, communication and motivation.
The trouble is that for many executives, the soft skills remain the hardest to understand, let alone master. After all, hard skills have traditionally been the ones which enabled you to climb to the top of the corporate ladder. The entire career system in some organizations is based on using hard functional skills to progress. But when executives reach the top of the organization many different skills are required. Corporate leaders may find that, although they can do the financial analysis and the strategic planning, they are poor at communicating ideas to employees or colleagues or have little insight into how to motivate people. The modern Chief Executive requires an array of skills.
Some suggest that we expect too much of leaders. Indeed “renaissance” men and women are rare.
Leadership in a modern organization is highly complex and it is increasingly difficult – sometimes impossible – to find all the necessary traits in a single person. Among the most crucial skills is the ability to capture your audience – you will be competing with lots of other people for their attention. Leaders of the future will also have to be emotionally efficient. They will promote variation, rather than promoting people in their own likeness. They will encourage experimentation and enable people to learn from failure. They will build and develop people.
Is it too much to expect of one person? I think it probably is. In the future, we will see leadership groups, rather than individual leaders.
This change in emphasis from individuals towards groups has been charted by the leadership guru Warren Bennis. His work “Organizing Genius” concentrates on famous ground-breaking groups, rather than individual leaders. It focuses, for example, on the achievements of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre, the group behind the 1992 Clinton campaign, and the Manhattan Project which delivered the atomic bomb. “None of us is as smart as all of us” says Professor Bennis. “The Lone Ranger is dead. Instead of the individual problem-solver, we have a new model for creative achievement. People like Steve Jobs or Walt Disney headed groups and found their own greatness in them.”
Professor Bennis provides a blueprint for the new model leader. “He or she is a pragmatic dreamer, a person with an original but attainable vision. Inevitably, the leader has to invent a style that suits the group. The standard models, especially command and control, simply don’t work. The heads of groups have to act decisively, but never arbitrarily. They have to make decisions without limiting the perceived autonomy of the other participants. Devising an atmosphere, in which others can put a dent in the universe, is the leader’s creative act.”
However, the role of the new model leader is ridden with contradictions. Robert Sharrock, of YSC, psychologists who cater to senior business personnel, says: “Paradox and uncertainty are increasingly at the heart of leading organisations. A lot of leaders don’t like ambiguity, so they try to shape the environment to resolve the ambiguity. This might involve collecting more data or narrowing things down. These may not be the best things to do. The most effective leaders are flexible, responsive to new situations. If they are adept at hard skills, they surround themselves with people who are proficient with soft skills. They strike a balance.”
While flexibility is important in this new leadership model, it should not be interpreted as weakness. The two most lauded corporate chiefs of the past decade, Percy Barnevik, of Asea Brown Boveri, and Jack Welch, of General Electric, dismantled bureaucratic structures using both soft and hard skills. They coach and cajole, as well as command and control.
The “leader as coach” is yet another phrase more often seen in business books than in the real world. Acting as a coach to a colleague is not something that comes easily to many executives. It is increasingly common for executives to need mentoring. They need to talk through decisions and to think through the impact of their behavior on others in the organization.
In the macho era, support was for failures, but now there is a growing realization that leaders are human after all, and that leadership is as much a human art as a rational science.
Today’s leaders don’t follow rigid role models but prefer to nurture their own leadership style. They do not do people’s jobs for them or put their faith in developing a personality cult. They regard leadership as drawing people and disparate parts of the organization together in ways that makes individuals and the organization more effective.