Even though it’s often said the principles of great leadership are timeless, it’s clear to me that they are changing fast. My meetings and coaching experiences with leaders in large organisations, alongside the research I have read, is showing how different things are from even just a decade ago.

The 21st Century is in full swing now and things are gathering pace – the tempo of leadership is quicker, the dynamics more complex, and the environment more volatile and uncertain.

Leaders are operating under much more scrutiny, too. Many would argue that coping with externally generated crises has become a key part of the modern leader’s role. Crisis is the new normal, and leaders are expected to act quickly and calmly amid chaos.

The emotional and physical stamina demanded of leaders today is extraordinary. Decisions must now be examined not only for profitability and corporate value creation but also for social and political implications.

So how has leadership changed since the turn of the millennium, and what are the new principles of leadership in the 21st Century? Let’s start by looking where leadership has come from.

The 20th Century leader

In the 20th Century, leaders were expected to be charismatic and visionary. Competitive advantage was the aim and bigger was seen as better (and would usually win).

Strategy was predicated on ever more sophisticated analysis to predict the future. Marketing was focused on expanding and penetrating new mass markets. Business planning and project management were the main tools to execute strategy.

Structure and performance measures were the focus in order to improve effectiveness and profitability. They would largely employ a ‘command and control’ approach. Leaders motivated people mainly with incentives and rational arguments, and would sacrifice almost everything for short-term performance.

Why have the demands on leaders changed?

The 21st Century presents many new challenges both for employees and for business leaders. Quite simply, the world is a different place and business, like the rest of society, is sailing previously unchartered waters. It’s no surprise therefore that leadership needs to change, too.

In an interconnected, fast-moving world, we need to learn cognitive flexibility, stress tolerance, and divergent thinking. While technology can make us more effective, new theories of leadership emphasize the importance of trust and establishing long-term relationships.

In a competitive world, we need leaders with novel ideas, who are willing to take risks, inspire and motivate, and build new strategic partnerships to address global challenges.

The new characteristics of the 21st Century leader

So if the rule book is being torn up, where do leaders need to look for guidance as to how they develop their organisational culture, and themselves? The current watchwords are a good place to start – purpose, engagement, awareness, delegation. Leadership now is more about defining a vision for a business and recognising that the motivation of your managers and teams to help you get there is a key feature of a successful business.

Below are some of the key characteristics of the 21st Century leader based on my research and own experiences. You may want to ask yourself which of these are most relevant to you and how you can develop these characteristics for the good of your own organisation?

1. External and internal awareness

In a more volatile and uncertain environment the 21st century leader must stay current on the developments and trends in their market place. Successful leaders will build strong networks within their industry and through these exchange information to better understand the external market place. They also build strong internal mechanisms for gathering external information and challenging status quo.

2. Self-awareness and development

Leaders who display high levels of self-awareness accept and understand their strengths and weaknesses. They do not assume to be perfect, but are reflective and seek feedback for continuous development and learning. These leaders rely on the support of individuals around them.

3. Vision and decision making

Strong leaders will build and communicate a clear inspiring vision for their organisation that will guide their managers as well as their own decisions and priorities. They will build strong decision making processes.

4. Engage and delegate

Successful leaders will engage and motivate the whole organisation – across all levels, functions and cultures. They will delegate decisions and authority effectively, and remain accessible to address problems.

5. Leadership and talent development

Leaders must recruit, coach, develop and retain valuable employees (A 2013 survey sponsored by PWC indicated that CEOs list talent management among their top priorities). Many of these employees are knowledge workers, which places different demands on the leadership approach.

6. Develop capacity to innovate and adapt

The 21st century leader embraces change. They will encourage strategic thinking and involvement from all layers of management. They will build collaborative cultures that are agile and adaptable.

What is your experience and views on the 21st Century leader challenges and skills required?

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