What makes a 21st century leader?

Employment & Skills | Reports

Written by Simon Milton, Founder of Pulse

Purposeful leadership

John Flint and Anthony Jenkins, CEOs of HSBC and Barclays respectively, talked about creating the ‘healthiest human system’ and a more ‘caring culture’ within their companies. Both have recently lost their jobs. Exactly why is not clear, but their desire to bring about internal change has been mooted as a critical factor.

My view is that the world will demand more, not fewer, leaders like Jenkins and Flint in the near future. My fear is that they fell foul of the free market economy that puts short-term financial returns before long-term thinking and greater value to society. I believe societies increasingly expect more of businesses than short-term thinking and shareholder returns.

This is because customers want to feel businesses act responsibly and share their values. The workforce is increasingly looking for meaningful work. Investors are looking for more than financial returns. And the public or local community will crucify those that step out of line with their expected social mores. The question for the 21st Century Leader, therefore, is how can he/she build a more purposeful organisation that is trusted – and still make a profit?

For the past 17 years, Pulse has worked in multiple sectors with large multinationals and private firms to support leaders to deliver their purpose with profit. We do this through the lens of our 12 purposeful leadership principles. Here are three that are especially relevant to the 21st century leader.

‘Undertaking a journey to a unifying vision’

The starting point is always purpose. Ask yourself, why does the organisation exist? Be clear about what it is you are trying to solve for the long-term, but also ensure that all the key stakeholders understand it and are on board.

‘Build coalitions’

Leaders who are driving change need to ask the question: who do I need to have on board from the outset? You could argue that Flint and Jenkins in some way failed to fully engage one or more of their key stakeholders. If everyone had been on board (and profits maintained), perhaps they’d still be there.

‘Small things make a difference’

Finally, how disingenuous is it when you hear a leader say one thing and do another? How incredibly uplifting is it when the big boss knows your name, asks if you’re having a good day or asks after your children?!

Leaders who want to thrive in the 21st century need to have the wisdom and humility to revisit and review what they do and why they do it, so that their business can adapt and navigate a way that delivers profit – but do so without losing their relevancy to the people that underpin their success.

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