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Modern Leadership – What’s it all about?

Modern Leadership

Unless you are a third world dictator, Eastern European strong man or Donald Trump, the old command and control style of leadership is in its death throes. A more educated, globally connected workforce doesn’t respond well to barked instructions. There is a shift away from the old heroic view of leadership, in which a ‘gifted’ individual sets a vision for the company (or indeed country,) preaches this vision, then motivates his followers to execute it. In today’s complex business environment no one individual has all the answers.

The world has changed dramatically since uneducated labourers left the land and entered factories during the industrial revolution. Back then, employees were treated like cogs in a wheel, extensions of the machines they operated. Gone are the days when companies can treat human beings like capital. Organisations that operate this out-dated command and control style of management struggle with high staff turnover, low morale, industrial unrest and poor results.

When I run leadership or team cohesion workshops I often ask the attendees what they seek from their manager or their employer. Irrespective of organisation or industry the responses are always the same.

  • To feel respected, valued and treated fairly
  • Good working relationships and a sense of camaraderie
  • To have clarity as to what’s important and what they should focus on
  • A sense of challenge
  • Opportunities to learn and grow

Modern leadership is about creating an environment and establishing a context in which other capable and self-motivated individuals are willing and able to innovate a path through ever-changing and multifaceted business challenges. Today’s leaders are cultivators, stimulating, encouraging and challenging others to push forward creatively.

So what qualities are required to create such environments, to successfully lead a team in an increasingly fast-paced and uncertain business environment?

Modern Leadership Competencies

Colleagues giving a fist bump

Be human, be genuine

Being human means you have a natural curiosity about people and you genuinely care about your team. Being human is about being honest and speaking and acting with integrity which creates trust. In short, you are demonstrating authenticity.

Emotional Intelligence is a significant factor. Healthy doses of self-awareness, self-control, social awareness and an understanding of the basics of human psychology are key. Self-awareness is not just knowing your strengths and weakness, you are cognisant of the impact you have on the people around you. Tolerance, patience, resilience and calmness under pressure, in short, an ability to self-manage is also critical.


Leaders lead from the front, not the top. Saying ‘my door is always open’ is not enough; your people have to feel comfortable enough to walk through it.

If your team are not coming to you with their problems and issues, it may be because you have empowered them to test their own solutions. However, it could also be for one of these more worrisome reasons.

  • They have lost confidence in you and your leadership abilities
  • They don’t view you as approachable
  • They’ve concluded that you don’t care about them
  • They feel that you cannot, or will not help them
  • You implicitly perpetuate a culture that interprets asking for help as a sign of weakness.

In turbulent and uncertain workplaces people crave certainty; they look to their leaders as repositories for their fears and concerns. Today’s leader performs this task by being consistent in their message and by being available to their people. They offer a listening ear, encouragement and yes, tough love when required.

Simplifying and Sense-making

Leaders of the past hogged information as a way to retain power. Today’s leaders share information to empower others. For organisations to be successful information has to flow, not just drip down from the top. Decision makers at every level need information. Modern leaders focus on ensuring that the right people get the right information at the right time.

Of course we live in a world of information overload (facts, alternative facts and fake news!) Lack of information is no longer the issue, making sense of the barrage of information we receive every day is where the challenge now lies. Effective leaders discern information for their people, highlighting what they need to focus on, what the information means and why it is important. Effective leaders and communicators are skilled in distilling and sharing the simple message that resides on the far side of complex data.

“The leader of the past knew how to tell. The leader of the future will know how to ask.”

Peter Drucker

Constructive Questioning

‘If it isn’t broken why fix it’ is the slogan of the complacent, the arrogant or the downright scared. If you are seeking to stimulate guilt and defensiveness in your team the best question to ask is ‘Why did you do that?’ ‘What can we learn from this?’ ‘How could we do this differently?’ are questions that will promote learning and creative thinking. It could be said that the role of leader is no longer that of chief organiser but the chief disorganiser, someone who challenges the status quo, seeks new insights and approaches and encourages others to do likewise. Leaders don’t need to know all the answers, but they do need to know the questions to ask and where to find the answers. Remember curiosity is the precursor to innovation.

Influence & Inspire

‘Do this because I’m your manager’ is a phrase that advertises poor people management and influence skills. If you have to use your title or status to get others to do something, you have already lost the argument. Real power is the ability to influence and inspire.

Central to positive influencing skills is the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, to see the world through their eyes. As Abraham Lincoln said ‘tact is the ability to see others as they see themselves.’ Internal drive and ambition fuels the climb up a career ladder, what keeps you there is the ability to achieve through others.

Today’s leaders are cultivators, stimulating, encouraging and challenging others to push forward creatively. Click To Tweet

Active Listening

The best way to make others feel valued is to listen to them. I mean really listen, that is, when your focus is on the other person, not on waiting for them to stop speaking (or interrupting them) so you can come back with a better story! You are listening with the intention of making the other person feel heard and understood (even if you don’t necessarily agree with what they are saying.)

Leadership is all about relationships and you cannot relate well to others, generate rapport or effectively manage others without listening. Everyone hungers to be heard, feeding this hunger by actively listening brings out the best in people.

Be of service

One of the many paradoxes of leadership is that you must listen and serve before you can lead. You can have the most competent leader in the world, but if he or she is at the mercy of their ego, wrapped up in their own self-importance, their leadership potential will go unrealised.

Traditionally an organisational hierarchy is viewed like a pyramid, with the MD at the top. The reality is the organisational hierarchy is an inverted triangle. The role of management is to support and facilitate the staff who interact with the customer on a daily basis.

Being of service is about developing people, valuing them, committing time to them, mentoring them, empowering them and training and equipping them to perform their roles. Unfortunately too many managers see themselves as curators of museums (fostering the status quo) not cultivators of gardens (where people are encouraged to grow.)

My ‘rule’ for effective leadership comes down to one simple question ‘As a leader, how are your stakeholders ‘better off’ because of you?’


Leadership is a balance between realism and optimism, between delivering certainty and hope. Some managers try to say ‘yes,’ whilst others try to say ‘no.’ It is all too tempting to get sucked into the doom and gloom conversations that bombard us on a daily basis. Effective leaders neutralise this infectious cycle of negativity. People want to feel better, the role of the leader is to positively influence how their people are thinking and feeling. To put it in practical terms, impactful leaders seek to influence the sort of conversations their people are having at water coolers.

We all know there is no one right style of leadership; it’s what required to get the job done in a particular situation, whilst at the same time endeavouring to remain true to yourself and your core values. However, in a rapidly changing and uncertain world, organisational effectiveness and success is less dependent on the individual star leader blazing a trail and more dependent on the collective genius. If yesterday’s leader was the ship’s captain, the lead actor, the centre-forward, today’s leader is the navigator, the director, the coach.

You might also enjoy – The Art of Delegation