Leadership in the 21st Century

How the Teacher, the Learner, the Mobiliser, and the Giver will help modern workers bring their entire selves to the office

The New World Demands New Kinds Of Leadership

Nearly 20 years ago, Meghan Messenger joined Next Jump, a company that administers loyalty programs for some of the biggest organisations in the world. Over the next two decades, the sales intern would rise through the ranks to become co-CEO of the company. In the process she would help create one of the word’s foremost everyone cultures.

The command and control style of leadership popular in the industrial era is being flipped on its head. A fresher style, more suited to the networked world is replacing it. Today’s workers want to bring their entire selves to the office, not just their professional identities. This big shift begs different modes of management that are premised first and foremost on trust:

  • The Teacher empowers employees to continuously grow within the business.
  • The Learner embraces change and is open to testing out, and learning from new ways of working.
  • The Mobiliser senses and responds to organisational needs and facilitates vital change.
  • The Giver plays the long game putting others before themselves.

∆The Teacher

The Teacher focuses less on micromanaging, instead leading and educating by example. By distributing authority to team members, she champions transparency, knowledge sharing, continuous learning and feedback. Or as celebrated four-star general, Stanley McChrystal, calls it: the interplay between leaders and their teams is a case of ‘Eyes on, hands off.’

This leadership style equates to a different kind of measurement on results as a return on trust. Instilled with autonomy and treated as competent professionals, employees then become accountable, empowered and engaged.

Next Jump co-CEO Meghan Messenger provides a powerful example of what a Teacher style of leadership can do at both the individual and organisational level. To help set the stage for Next Jump’s evolution, Messenger and her team dispersed power throughout the organisation and essentially named every employee a leader, which meant they were held accountable for both revenue and culture.

As Next Jump employees settled into this networked leadership model, revenues began to increase significantly; the company currently generates more than $2 billion per year with no signs of slowing down. Additionally, its inclusive culture was one acclaim for its ability to foster both trust and creativity.

∆The Learner

As systems grow larger and more complex, leaders must be able to transition from Teachers to Learners, developing new expertise on the fly in order to pull the right resources together, at the right time, from across departments. This does not mean, however, that Learners silo themselves. Rather, they’re conduits, synthesising and applying information, providing a key intersection along information paths.

Tim Cassola, organisational designer at the Ready, helps Fortune 500 leaders adapt to the new world of work. That requires a mind open to continuous education, not only for employees, but for himself. “It’s easy to fall into an outsider mindset,” says Cassola, “but I remind myself I am not the person with all the answers. I’m just someone that’s there to help them facilitate a change — one they might know more about than I do.”

As self-direction in the workplace becomes increasingly prevalent — leaders will have to master new types of expertise on the fly and be able to routinely deliver results within increasingly complex systems and ambiguous circumstances. With a hunger to explore new opportunities, a cognitive ability to absorb them and a knack for taking decisive action, the leader-as-learner applies new knowledge to help her organisation prosper.

∆The Mobiliser

The Mobiliser senses and responds to organisational needs and facilitates vital change. As new information emerges from different and sometimes far-flung teams, it’s a leader’s duty to respond with enlightened choices, which has the knock-on effect of prompting action from team members.

Paul O’Neill was a fresh eyed CEO of industrial conglomerate Alcoa when he made a bold decision to focus on just one thing: safety. O’Neill believed that focusing on one keystone habit (safety) would cause a domino effect across the organisation.

Employees who regularly shared information about worker safety, gradually started sharing all sorts of other information including ways to boost efficiency and productivity. One of the results of all this knowledge flow: Alcoa became one of the first companies to use an intranet, catapulting it light years ahead of its competitors. O’Neill’s safety culture had the profound impact of completely transforming the business. While O’Neill was running the show, Alcoa witnessed a 5x increase in net income and $27 billion in market capitalisation.

∆The Giver

Soft spoken, selfless, a big collaborator and all round nice guy — these are not the characteristics you’d typically expect of someone at the helm of one of the world’s largest companies. Yet that’s exactly what Sundar Pichai is known for as the CEO of Google. His management style is pretty darn simple: helping others succeed. Pichai is a Giver who is thriving in the new economy.

Abraham Lincoln was a Giver. He set ego aside, appointing his bitter opponents to the Cabinet knowing this would best serve American citizens. Lincoln was renown for putting the interest of others before his own.

Organisational psychologist Adam Grant explains that in stark contrast to Takers, when Givers succeed, something extraordinary happens: “It spreads and cascades.” Not surprisingly companies that foster a giving culture report more profitability, productivity, efficiency, and customer satisfaction. And when a leader has giver qualities it also helps to attract top talent and lowers turnover rates.

Givers play the long game. While Takers might win 100 meter sprints, Givers win gold in marathons.

The Question Every Leader Should Be Asking…

Modern leaders can leverage these four modes to foster the kind of creative environment that enables employees to be their best and most productive selves. Through balancing people, purpose and production these leaders can create collective ownership, open up innovation, celebrate shared victories and maximise impact.

The question every leader should be asking today is how can I best support my teams in doing their work? Whether you view yourself as a leader today or wish to become one tomorrow, these varying modes can help you cultivate an inspired, empowered and engaged workforce.

Inevitably, future archaeologists will ponder our once cherished autocratic leadership practices. In their place will live this new form of management that champions transparency and trust.

It’s really going to be a thing of beauty.

∆ This article first appeared in Flux

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