Andrew Leigh recently contributed an article – The 21st Century Leader – to, listing the five key attributes he felt were those most likely to be required. He listed trust, respect, integrity, inspiration and innovation – although he acknowledges that:

No single ability is likely to count above all others. As now, great leadership will hinge on achieving a unique mix for each person, and as the particular situation requires.”

Yet while he also identifies key challenges of our age – the tempering of ‘the once all conquering demand for profits and growth’ (although that might possibly be more realistically worded as ‘the realisation they may be off the menu for a while’), innovative technologies and their impact, the mobility of talent. Despite these very contemporary concerns, his list seems at first glance to be fairly classical: certainly, none of the attributes he lists come as a shock. I don’t recall an economic boom time what it was – other than in cartoons – de rigeur to be an untrustworthy, unimaginative, dull, disrespectful leader with the integrity of a sieve. (Although that doesn’t mean I haven’t met one or two – usually on their way down.)

Had he waited about 5 weeks, the same website published an overview of a survey by World of Learning 2009, detailing the opinions of ‘hundreds of L&D professionals’. No fewer than 91% of respondents said that ‘a new type of leadership is needed in today’s changing business environment’, although it’s definition remain a little loose. Looking at the priority areas for development, these emerged as:

  • the ability to think flexibly and creatively – 49%
  • motivation and staff engagement  -47%
  • change management skills – 40%
  • business skills and acumen – 26%
  • enhanced communication skills and empathy – 24%
  • the ability to influence – 20%

Why do high percentages of L&D professionals apparently see ‘business skills and acumen’, ‘motivation and staff engagement’ and ‘the ability to influence’ as – by implication – new types of leadership. Have organisations really been muddling through for centuries without these leadership attributes? And given that change is surely a constant of life – we may argue that its pace and scale are accelerating, but surely not that change has never happened before (Industrial Revolution anyone? railways? telephony? the internet?) – it’s quite a scary thought to imagine that only 60% of organisations might have cottoned on before 2009.

But actually, the one that interests me is empathy. To lead, you must inspire others to follow. Bluntly, you are otherwise going for a quiet walk. Given the demands on the people within organisations – and within broader life (as a recession doesn’t simply affect us neatly during office hours) – surely a leader who can empathise with the individuals and teams and groups within their organisation is more likely to inspire the trust and respect that Andrew Leigh sees as so important. The ability of those being lead to empathise with the person leading them – or aspiring to – is equally important. Consider, for example, the current popularity in the run-up to elections of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as reported by the Independent recently.

But if I were to attempt to answer Andrew Leigh’s called to nominate a X factor for 21st century leaders, I’d probably suggest the kind of empathy that the following quote from philosopher and sociologist Richard Sennett at Spiked-Online (whose book, The Craftsman, we will be reviewing shortly) suggests could truly resonate with our modern working lives:

Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary social conditions. This ideal man or woman has to address three challenges.

The first concerns time: how to manage short-term relationships, and oneself, while migrating from task to task, job to job, place to place. If institutions no longer provide a long-term frame, the individual may have to improvise his or her life-narrative, or even do without any sustained sense of self.

The second challenge concerns talent: how to develop new skills, how to mine potential abilities, as reality’s demands shift. Practically, in the modern economy, the ‘shelf-life’ of many skills is short; in technology and the sciences, as in advanced forms of manufacturing, workers now need to retrain on average every eight to 12 years. Talent is also a matter of culture. The emerging social order militates against the ideal of craftsmanship – that is, learning to do just one thing really well. Such commitment can often prove economically destructive. In place of craftsmanship, modern culture advances an idea of meritocracy that celebrates potential ability rather than past achievement.

The third challenge follows from this. It concerns surrender; that is, how to let go of the past. The head of a dynamic company recently asserted that no one ‘owns’ their place in her organisation, that past service in particular earns no employee a guaranteed place.  How could one respond to that assertion positively? A peculiar trait of personality is needed to do so, one which discounts the experiences it has already had; this trait of personality resembles more the consumer ever avid for new things, discarding old if perfectly serviceable goods, rather than the owner who jealousy guards what he or she already possesses.

What I want to show is how society goes about searching for this ideal man or woman. And I’ll step beyond the scholar’s remit in judging that search. A self oriented to the short-term, focused on potential ability, willing to abandon past experience is – to put a kindly face on the matter – an unusual sort of human being. Most people are not like this; they need a sustaining life narrative, they take pride in being good at something specific, and they value the experiences they’ve lived through. The cultural ideal required in new institutions thus damages many of the people who inhabit them.”

If modern life requires ‘an unusual sort of human being’, it surely also requires ‘an unusual sort of leader’ – and unusual leaders that undersand the challenges of those that they would lead.

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