21st century leadership puts humanity first
Why Today’s Management Principles Are Not Built To Last
Most of today’s workplaces are still very much dominated by a culture based on command-and-control, efficiency, and output. From team leaders, managers, directors, to vice presidents assigning tasks and giving orders to those in subordinate roles. Back in the industrial age, this type of directive, self-serving leadership was common practice, and it worked for a reason. During the transition period to powered machinery, factories and mass production, the purpose of work fully revolved around increasing production efficiency, generating jobs, and boosting the economy for growth.
In today’s day and age we find ourselves in the fourth industrial revolution, a time where the state of transformation seems, and quite frankly is, much more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA). And still, we tend to underestimate the speed and scale of change that occurred in the last century, mainly fueled by technological progress and scientific discovery. Notwithstanding the fact, that the industrial revolution of the 1900s replaced many skilled workers with machines, the forthcoming disruption incited by artificial intelligence and automation will be a much more radical one. In that sense, there’s a reason why ‘up- and reskilling’ and ‘lifelong learning’ is on everyone’s mind at the moment. Whilst ubiquitous technologies and its unlimited possibilities have raised the question of ethics and social impact, it’s doubtless an opportunity to democratize human capabilities — both physically and intellectually. As stated in an article on WEF, machine learning and AI might help us not only to replace labor-intensive and highly analytical tasks, but also to supercharge undiscovered talent and potential in people.
After all, the 21st century might finally put an end to the mechanization of work and infuse today’s workplaces with humanity.
A human kind of leadership
If we want to achieve such a scenario, we need leaders to pave the way. This, first of all, requires us to understand the difference between management and leadership.
Contrary to the general assumption, leadership doesn’t typically reflect in one’s title, but in one’s behavior. Management, however, is the organizational output of hierarchies — relying upon structure, rules and top-down control. You could hold a position of a manager while not actually being responsible for a team, but ‘managing a project’, which much more refers to the decision making, controlling, and overseeing a ‘thing’.
To be a leader, however, much more implies the influence and impact you have on other people, despite your level of experience, title, or position of authority. It’s a behavior of expressing and actualizing on the behalf of the personal growth of others while helping them to achieve extraordinary goals. Eventually, humanizing the work(force) in what is defined as the current knowledge era requires to step away from transactional management practices, and dive into the leadership abilities of seeing, pulling, and nurturing potential that is present, but mostly kept invisible.
More specifically, leading in and into the 21st century entails as much critical thinking, complex problem solving, as well as an instinct for new developments. It also includes evolving into a growth mindset and building non-academic capabilities, like the following.
An often overlooked, but crucial aspect, or, to say it in Wharton School Professor Adam Grant’s words, ‘the secret ingredient’. In his TEDx Talk he emphasizes how “Humility is having the self-awareness to know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. Studies show that when you have humility in your team, people are more likely to play to their strengths.”
Empathy and compassion
Gone are the times of distancing yourself as a leader in a self-created ivory tower. Status symbols and materialistic perks will no longer do, as the next generation workforce values purpose, personal growth before paycheck and status. Thus, the ability to understand the needs and challenges from the perspective of employees, and by that allowing a degree of intimacy, and vulnerability, is essential.
The ability to trust others and to be trusted is mutually dependent. As a leader, this requires you to take the first step and “earn trust, earn trust, earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest”, as Seth Godin said. It starts with keeping employees and teams accountable for their work and behavior without micromanaging. Rather than keeping track of every little action, it’s wiser and more effective to set smart goals, involving self-responsibility. Practically, this could go from team members setting their own objectives and timings, having them feedback their supervisors, and building an open communication culture through formats like town hall meetings or internal barcamps.
Asking unasked questions
Instead of giving answers, or worse, assuming, try asking more. It’s almost too simple, but ask people what they want and what they need to work better, to better support the environment that enables individuals and teams to thrive. By asking the unasked questions, challenging the status quo on a constant basis, and serving as a role model, you’ll spark a different level of employee engagement, based on real, interpersonal relationships.
Finally, the fourth industrial revolution challenges leaders of today more than ever before, and it’s certainly a journey that only has begun now. It’s an opportunity we shouldn’t miss out on, and it’s a positive vision, that is clearly needed. As Klaus Schwab, founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum put it:
“We need leaders who are emotionally intelligent, and able to model and champion co-operative working. They’ll coach, rather than command; they’ll be driven by empathy, not ego. The digital revolution needs a different, more human kind of leadership”.