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Article No.: 09-1

Article Title: It's Time for a New Approach to Leadership

Author: Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SPHR, CEQC

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I believe it’s time for a new approach to leadership that will support how an organization survives and thrives in our global, connected society.  The mental maps we have about leadership have become outdated and inadequate.  In this article I’ll suggest new ways of thinking and behaving that I’ve observed are missing in some of our U.S. organizations lately.

A leader for the 21st century –

  • Believes leadership is a relationship, not a position
  • Understands that the leader embodies the brand promise
  • Is motivated by a higher purpose and believes that the Mission drives the numbers
  • Understands that collaboration must have a business purpose
  • Thinks outside the organizational hierarchy to share power
  • Believes teaching and leadership are closely related
  • Understands that a personal comfort with diversity is at the center of collaboration
  • Believes that the challenge of leading change is not about control; it’s about balance between control and collaboration

It’s difficult to assess what someone is thinking, so I’ll describe some specific, concrete behaviors that relate to the ways of thinking outlined above.  The leadership attribute that frames the eight ways of thinking above is that of critical thinking, which actually has two dimensions:  thinking and analysis.  Thinking involves manipulation of sensations that we pick up from the outside world through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin.  These sensations are transmitted by the nerves to the brain, which then translates, decodes, and encodes messages before sending them throughout the nervous system.  Analysis occurs when perceptions are turned into reactions and behaviors.

Critical thinking doesn’t have to be cold and dispassionate.  Leaders who engage in critical thinking keep lines of communication open across the organization to stimulate a continuous flow of ideas that result in sound decisions.  Leaders who engage in critical thinking are sensitive to stereotypes about people and they wait to form an opinion about another’s value to the organization until there is substantive information on which to base that opinion.  A leader who engages in critical thinking attempts to understand others’ perspectives and reasons for engaging in particular behaviors, taking people where they are as opposed to where she thinks they should be at any point.  Leaders who engage in critical thinking are curious about other people and the world around them, always seeking to understand how systems and processes work and how people work best within those systems and processes.

A major component of critical thinking in the workplace is knowledge management, which can be described as knowing how to apply information and concepts to the true problem at hand.  Critical thinking involves knowing what information is important to an organization and what is superfluous.  A critical thinker can select and use the appropriate technology to process information and can focus in the face of data overload.  A critical thinker uses concepts and ideas he encounters to improve existing organizational processes; he asks questions such as, “where in our organization can this idea apply to improve results?”

A leadership behavior that exemplifies critical thinking is challenging assumptions and engaging in breakthroughs, rather than accepting the status quo and steering clear of any actions that may involve risk.  This leader encourages others to engage in critical thinking by asking what I call quality dialogue questions, such as –

  • I've always wondered why me. . .
  • I think we should focus more on. . .
  • Everyone knows that _________ but is afraid to talk about it.
  • Our customers would be happier if. . .
  • I'd like to see more ________ around here.

Outdated leadership approaches use critical thinking in a totally negative way; for example, searching for ways to tear down ideas without replacing them with viable options.  When this happens, leaders don’t make decisions or make commitments to people, ideas or plans.  They fall back on tried and true approaches such as unilateral decision making. 

A second critical behavior that supports new leadership thinking is reflection.  Reflection is looking back at events that have already occurred.  Intentional reflection is setting time aside to positively and thoughtfully look back, even when that reflection is not flattering.  Intentional reflection is reviewing the past in order to make better decisions in the future.

I suggest that leaders need to reflect forward as well as backwards.  Whenever a crisis occurs, leaders are forced to decide the best course of action and act quickly (and sometimes unilaterally).  I believe that a sound approach is to pause before acting to draw on both instinct and experience.  After a crisis has passed, contemplative leaders reflect on important lessons they’ve learned during the difficult time they just experienced.  They consider changes their organization can make to minimize the chance of reoccurrence of the same or a similar crisis.  Problems are viewed as learning opportunities.

A third core competency for a 21st century leader is strategic perspective.  This perspective is inclusive of shareholders, consumers, the community and employees.  Leaders at the top level are often faced with divergent stakeholder agendas.  When this happens, I believe the direction should flow from the organization’s Mission, Core Values and Business Imperatives.  The critical challenge for today’s leaders is finding an effective means to transfer values and a vision for the future from their hearts and minds to all the organization’s stakeholders.  A strategic plan is only as effective as the weakest link within the organization, for every employee’s talents, abilities and behaviors must be called upon to implement the plan.

The successful leader today is clear on how his personal values align with those of the organization.  This leads me to another critical way of thinking and behaving:  understanding one’s own core values and establishing and articulating those values throughout the organization.  Many CEOs today promote the establishment of core values and even ensure they are published across the organization and the public.  The recent onslaught of breaches in ethics and executive “perp walks” on national TV has forced companies to at least appear to be concerned about values.  The 21st century leader is compelled to dig deeper and first search her personal value system for understanding about boundaries of acceptable behavior.  She must bring her leadership team together to articulate the ore values that serve as the foundation for ethical decision making.  Lastly, she must share concrete examples of how every day dilemmas are dealt with using these values as a compass and behave in such a way that embodies the core values – every day.

A final way of thinking that’s important for our global society is the notion that fostering collaboration in order to meet business imperatives is critical.  This occurs when the leader strives to leverage 100% of peoples’ talents 100% of the time to achieve the organization’s objectives.  A driving force for this type of leader is curiosity – about people, situations and systems.  He seeks to understand and tap into others’ motivators in order to spark enthusiasm, creativity and positive outcomes.

The leader who fosters collaboration has a carefully developed network of employees, customers and colleagues with whom he collaborates to arrive at the best possible solution for each business problem.  This leader understands his own strengths and expertise, as well as limitations, and intentionally surrounds himself with people who contribute in ways that are different yet complementary.

The leader who fosters collaboration is able to share power appropriately.  Sharing power doesn’t mean abdication of authority or accountability.  Sharing power doesn’t mean hiring one or two colleagues who act and think just like you.  The type of leadership I’m suggesting means sensing others’ emotions, understanding them, and showing empathy without letting others’ emotions negatively affect one’s ability to function.  This leader understands the needs of others and poses options and approaches that meet those needs.

The leader who fosters collaboration employs networks to encourage diversity of thought, innovation and creativity and to organize learning communities that produce disciplined people, thought and action.  Instead of replacing hierarchy, networks can be used to augment it in a balanced manner and to encourage the culture and practice of collaboration.

If you have any questions or need more information about this article, please complete our Contact Form, or contact Dr. Gravett by telephone at 513-753-8870.

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