Leadership was once about hard skills like planning, finance, and business analysis. When command and control ruled the corporate world, leaders were heroic rationalists who moved people like pawns and fought like deer. 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 problem is that for many executives, soft skills remain the hardest to understand, let alone master. After all, hard skills have traditionally been what got you to the top of the corporate ladder. The entire career system in some organizations is based on the use of functional hard skills to advance, but when executives reach the top of the organization, many different skills are required. Corporate leaders may find that although they can do financial analysis and strategic planning, they are poor at communicating ideas to employees or colleagues, or have little idea how to motivate people. The modern CEO requires a variety of skills.

Some suggest that we expect too much from leaders. In fact, “renaissance” men and women are rare. Leadership in a modern organization is highly complex and it is becoming increasingly difficult, sometimes impossible, to find all the necessary traits in one person. Among the most crucial skills is the ability to capture your audience – you will be competing with many other people for their attention. The leaders of the future will also have to be emotionally efficient. They will promote variation instead of promoting people after their own likeness. They will encourage experimentation and allow people to learn from failure. They will build and develop people.

Is it too much to expect from one person? I think it probably is: in the future, we will see groups of leadership rather than individual leaders. This shift in emphasis from individuals to groups was recorded by leadership guru Warren Bennis in his work “Organizing Genius.” He concentrates on famous innovative groups rather than individual leaders, focusing, for example, on the achievements of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. , the group behind the 1992 Clinton campaign and the Manhattan Project that dropped 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 led groups and found their own greatness in them.” Professor Bennis provides a model for the new model leader. “He or she is a pragmatic dreamer, a person with an original but achievable vision. Inevitably, the leader has to invent a style that suits the group. Standard models, especially command and control, simply don’t work. Leaders of groups have to act decisively, but never arbitrarily. They have to make decisions without limiting the perceived autonomy of other participants. Devising an atmosphere in which others can make a dent in the universe is the creative act of the leader.”

However, the role of the leader of the new model is fraught with contradictions. Paradox and uncertainty are increasingly at the heart of leading organizations. Many 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, receptive to new situations. If they are experts in hard skills, they surround themselves with people who are proficient in soft skills. They strike a balance.

Although flexibility is important in this new model of leadership, it should not be interpreted as weakness. The two most lauded corporate bosses of the past decade, Asea Brown Boveri’s Percy Barnevik and General Electric’s Jack Welch, dismantled bureaucratic structures using both soft and hard skills. They train and cajole as much as they command and control. “Leader as coach” is another phrase that is seen more often 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 about decisions and think about 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 it is a rational science. Today’s leaders do not follow rigid models, but prefer to nurture their own style of leadership. They don’t do people’s work for them or put their faith in developing a cult of personality. They see leadership as bringing disparate people and parts of the organization together in ways that make people and the organization more effective.

Copyright © 2007 Jonathan Farrington. All rights reserved

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