I was catching up with one of my colleagues the other day and the topic of leadership came up. She had been doing a lot of deep thinking in the area, and she was wondering how leadership might differ from generation to generation. She wasn’t being academic, she was trying to figure out what it means to attract, retain, and foster leaders given the rapid rate of change in world. She’s not alone, lots of people seem to be asking that same question.
At first, I was glazing over a little bit. The idea of ‘leaders of tomorrow’ is one of those phrases that’s been so co-opted by the business schools and business press of the world, it almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. But as the conversation continued, I started to realize just how massive of a challenge she was talking about.
The idea of leadership is a weird animal. It’s mostly internal personality characteristics that manifest themselves in significant ways. Good leaders see the world from a unique perspective, they get things done, they make people feel valuable. It’s easier to reflect that someone is a good leader, rather than project that they will be a good leader.
After a lot of thinking and conversations, I believe that what makes a ‘leader’ has to do with their levels of curiosity, confidence and inspiration. Of course there are lots of other characteristics at play, but those elements seem to be the three traits I see over and over that define people and how they become these strong leaders. There are many talents good leaders learn over time, these three feel a little more innate.
Now the interesting thing about these characteristics is that they don’t have formal outputs, they’re personality components. They drive how we react internally to our external environment. You see evidence if these characteristics through storytelling. These personal stories help explain the energy that moves people between moments, the ‘why’ not the ‘how’ or the ‘what’. For example, you spotted an opportunity somewhere because you are curious about the world you live in, you were able to attack a problem because your had confidence you could solve it, or you designed/built something because you were inspired and were moved to action. Etc, etc.
So, as the conversation continues, I start to realize just how curiosity, confidence, and inspiration work like the physical engine in a car or a virtual engine in a video game. They need inputs to produce outputs, and, depending on their design, they deliver radically different things.
This is the point at which I started to think about how the idea of leadership has changed. People that are twenty years old today grew up with massively different inputs than people who are forty, (and in someways we’re culturally trying to fit them into this classic leadership definition.) These people may lead in the same style, they make some of the same decisions, but the way they find their confidence, inspiration, and curiosity to make those decisions is so different, we can’t even know how it works yet.
Today, anyone curious and inspired enough can have massive amounts of data from completely different industries to consider, they have global networks they can learn from, and possibly most importantly, they can operate in near-real time. Our connected world is probably the greatest force in upending the classical definition of a leader. The problems they will tackle and outcomes they will know will probably be drastically different, but I still think those three characteristics will survive (they’ll just function very differently).
I’m definitely not doing the conversation justice, but You can see how it’s easy to focus on a lot of misleading elements when we try to identify leadership. It’s easy to go for major achievements and heroic moments, but the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ always will tell a deeper tale.
There’s much more to think and write about here…this is sort of a beginning.
What do you think?