What does it mean to be a great leader today?
The triumphant stories of tech moguls, business icons, and successful entrepreneurs have become a popular fixture in films, books, and TV shows — both fictionalized and fully fictional. We can’t get enough of them. And why not? When someone creates a company and stewards it to success in real life, it’s an incredible narrative. And in the capable hands of strong writers and talented performers, those stories become thrilling, dramatic reenactments of our own highest aspirations and touchstones of achievement we can all enjoy and relate to.
However, as a result of the proliferation and widespread popularity of these types of stories, I’ve started to notice the emergence of some troubling notions about what strong modern business leadership looks like. A certain type of leader is being glorified. You know the stereotype I’m talking about. The driven, hard-nosed, stubborn lone wolf who has all the big ideas and would rather inform his team than collaborate with them — right?
That makes for great entertainment and sensationalized stories. But if you want to position yourself as a strong leader, heading an organization that is built to last, these dramatized and often fictionalized notions can actually take you off course.
There are important, timeless principles of great leadership that we should emulate and pay attention to, and we need to distinguish those principles from the unprincipled behaviors in tech leadership that have crept into the popular imagination.
This is not to say that there hasn’t been a shift — because there are certainly brand new principles of leadership that you do need now. Modern leadership requires new ways of thinking and doing things. I want to get you thinking about them and then see you share your own ideas at the end of this article.
But let’s start by separating the facts from the fiction. Don’t conflate the idea of being a strong leader with the strategies that actually make your company strong.
Do I need to say it? Don’t act like a jerk.
Some of you might remember Alec Baldwin’s classic character in Glengarry Glen Ross. He was the upper-management bully who famously told Jack Lemmon that “coffee’s for closers only.” If you’ve seen the film, he’s impossible to forget. How about Gordon Gekko who has reminded us in two films now that “Greed is good”?
There’s a reason these characters stick out in the popular imagination, and that is because they are great fun to watch on screen. But to work for? Decidedly less fun. They represent a nightmare version of a manager that couldn’t inspire a single person, only antagonize them.
Now, I’m guessing these men may have boosted the company’s bottom line in their respective fictional corporations, at least for a short time. But they each had a reputation for behaving like a tyrant, swearing at and belittling people, casting aside tact and empathy when talking to their staffs. This might help you as a kind of quick fix, to meet a sudden deadline or manage a crisis. But as a habit of behavior, as a mode of leadership, these sorts of antics, with only a very few exceptions, have diminishing returns.
Such outbursts are unfortunately not limited to the big screen. Peruse any tell-all business memoir or news article about a controversial, outspoken leader or manager, and you’ll find recitations of dressings-down and humiliations as colorful as anything uttered by Michael Douglas. I’m sure some popular examples come to mind.
Some folks idolize machismo and “no-nonsense straight talk,” but the kind of conduct that’s reflected in these characters isn’t leadership; it’s abuse. And it betrays a mindset of fear and anxiety. Great management communicates a clarity of purpose to inspire others and accomplish great things; it does not act from fear, it overcomes it.
3 Leadership Strategies that Do Work Now
1. Get your team excited about your Futureview®.
Your Futureview is what you see when you cast yourself forward in time; it’s what you think the future will be like. Your Futureview has a powerful impact on your actions in the present, and your actions in the present will shape your future. In other words, your Futureview will shape the future you! If you’re not careful, your Futureview could be based on ideas from the past that are limiting you, ideas that don’t take into consideration the massive transformations taking place today and the new problems as well as new opportunities they represent.
Do the self-examination and work that it takes to create a compelling Futureview based on the Hard Trends that are shaping the future, and then share it with your team. This way, you communicate from a place of inspiration, excitement, and confidence, rather than fear and shame.
In the six companies that I have started, I found that treating employees better then I would expect them to treat me paid off in a big way in the marketplace. Communication and collaboration skills are more important now than ever before.
2. Use the Law of Opposites to Innovate.
Innovation happens when you look where no one else is looking and see what no one else is seeing – and then you do the opposite of what’s expected.
To take just one example: these days, consumers are wary of big tech companies exploiting their trust. What could happen if you took the unexpected and opposite route – putting a high value on people’s privacy and protecting it?
Having scruples doesn’t necessarily make you weak; it makes you stand out.
3. In an Uncertain World – Start with Certainty.
You might think that it’s impossible to predict the future with certainty, but that’s just not true. You can’t predict everything, but you can predict more than enough about where your industry is headed, and you can use those predictions to make bold moves with confidence. You can do this by spotting the Hard Trends (the trends that will happen and are unstoppable) and shifting your course of action to make rapid change and secure a competitive advantage.
When you start with certainty, you don’t need to stoop to dubious tactics to become the industry leader. Instead, you stay at the head of the pack using future facts and an inclusive, collaborative approach rather than your worst instincts.
By Danniel Burrus
McKinsey senior partner Mary Meaney joins IBM CEO Arvind Krishna and Unilever CHRO Leena Nair to discuss how companies can organize for the next normal.
One of the most important skills in the modern world is the ability to speak to an increasingly diverse set of people. One of the most powerful, and often overlooked, tools in accomplishing this is cultural intelligence.
Leaders don’t have to agree with their team members’ ideas. But when they don’t acknowledge and respect employees’ dignity, they start to lose people.