In our modern global economy, most businesses rely on well-educated people — or “knowledge workers,” as the late Peter Drucker called them — to develop their products or deliver their services. In these organizations, many executives are finding that traditional forms of leadership don’t work.
“Heroic leadership,” as it is called, is the conventional idea of leadership; I tell you do to something and you do it. Naturally, with such highly educated employees who have strong personal values, heroic leadership isn’t going to cut it.
Why? Because smart people don’t want to be (and really don’t need to be) micromanaged.
Free agents in the global economy
Today’s worker is a “free agent,” akin to how we view and trade top professional athletes. There is, for the most part, no reciprocal loyalty. Employers no longer worry about the long-term welfare of their employees and employees generally feel no obligation to or loyalty for their employers.
Furthermore, as the large cohort of Baby Boomers moves toward retirement, there will be a growing need for smart, talented and well-educated workers to replace them. Younger generations of employees, as a result, understand that they have more leverage and employment options, which is why business owners and leaders must adjust how they lead to create a workplace that attracts free agents.
Even more challenging, as this crop of 20 to 40-year-olds moves into leadership positions, the Boomer generation will need to adapt to their leadership style and management philosophy.
Adapting leadership for changing generations
I recently spoke with a mid-thirties CEO/founder of a fast-growing, 500+ employee firm who complained about the inflexibility and “stuck in the past” thinking of some members of his executive team — specifically, those over 50. He asked me, “Can they adapt or am I beating a dead horse?”
At least a quarter of my executive coaching clients are mid-thirties, senior executives, mostly CEOs and business owners, who all complain of the same thing as they experiment with innovative ways to run companies. They don’t have to adapt to the new global economy because they’re already a part of it. They are at ease working with a mobile and global workforce, one that is becoming increasingly virtual. And contrary to popular belief, this up-and-coming generation is just as hardworking as any before — they just expect more freedom and autonomy.
This is why executives need to adapt their leadership styles, or risk losing talented employees and fellow executives.
One of my mentors, Alan Weiss, has written about the “post-heroic leader.” No one embodies these traits completely, but they do provide insights into leading the workers of tomorrow.
Eleven ways to identify the post-heroic leader
- The leader leads by example. The leader’s behavior and actions match his or her vision and spoken words.
- The leader is accessible. This means being physically and emotionally available. Don’t hide behind intimidating office doors or attitudes.
- The leader must listen carefully and never cut off others’ contributions. Most people are content to simply have their stories heard, even if action isn’t taken immediately.
- The leader doesn’t react rashly or abruptly. Logic rules emotion in terms of interpersonal responses. Anger should virtually never be apparent.
- The leader empowers. People are allowed to make decisions that influence the outcome of their work. Approvals are kept to a minimum.
- The leader embodies diversity. There are direct reports, associates and others in the leader’s circle who mirror the larger employee and customer demographics. Conflicting opinions and dissent are welcomed.
- The leader creates a clear strategic thrust. People know why the organization is in business and what their roles are in that business. There is clear direction.
- The leader is innovative. Prudent risks are taken and setbacks are taken in stride. The opposite of a risk-averse atmosphere prevails.
- The leader demonstrates the difference between right and wrong. Ethical considerations are clearly discussed and applied. The operation succeeds by doing what is right, not by doing whatever is necessary.
- The leader bestows credit. The post-heroic leader makes other people into heroes.
- Leadership is driven by values and measured by results.
Final thoughts on leading in the global economy
While each organization is different, it’s important to recruit, train and retain “free agent” employees that push your strategic actions further. To do so, it’s important to adapt to global initiatives and faster rates of change within your organization. Leading from a place of managed autonomy, rather than traditional heroic leadership, will allow top performers to flourish.