What is Leadership?

What is leadership?

Leadership in 140 characters

I like the Twitter format. With only 140 characters to play with, I have to think carefully about what I want to say. My Twitter definition of leadership is:

“Leadership is about being curious & learning how to work with complexity and uncertainty. Leaders inspire others to achieve realistic goals.”

Of course there is more to leadership than this, but curiosity, and willingness to learn, are high on my list of core leadership competencies. I was talking once with the community relations manager at a gold mine in Ghana and he said, “We need to be more curious”. He challenged my assumptions about the group I was working with, and the context in which we were operating. Thanks to him, I realised that I, too, needed to be more curious. This is why I chose ‘Facilitating Curious Futures’ as my company strapline. If you are curious to read more about curiosity, please read my blog about curiosity and leadership.

Leadership is a ‘glocal’ issue

Leadership challenges and opportunities are causing a ‘glocal’ headache, and leadership gurus and universities are competing to offer fast acting, longer lasting remedies in the form of new leadership concepts and programmes. When asked, most people can share an example of poor leadership, whether it is local, regional or global. If leadership is such a widespread problem, why can’t we sort it out?

Leadership is complex, and it depends on context. We can recognise leadership when we see it. For example, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani school student who was shot in the head by the Taliban because of her campaign for girls’ rights. When I ask participants who is a leader for them, no matter where I am, I hear the same names. You can guess which ones, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Barack Obama.

One way to define good leadership is to reflect on who we think is a leader. We can ask ourselves what they do, how they do it, and try to follow their example. When I was running leadership programmes in West Africa, the person who got the most mentions as good leader was the Ivory Coast footballer, Didier Drogba. In nearly all countries except the UK, Margaret Thatcher, the former UK Prime Minister gets a vote or two. I am glad to say that people often speak warmly about their grandparents as role models, and sometimes, even their parents.

The New Generation of Global Leaders

Another way to think about leaders, today, is to ask:

  • what are the defining leadership challenges and opportunities of the 21 st century, and
  • what kind of skills, knowledge, and behaviours do leaders need to be successful?

It seems to me that two of the game-defining changes affecting leadership and sustainability in the 21st century are the twin impacts of globalisation and the internet on how people learn and work together across cultures and continents. We can see and feel the impact of globalisation around us: the rise of cities, the changing balance power between corporations, government and civil society organisations, the competition for natural resources, and, of course, climate change. The internet has changed the way people work and relate to each other. There is new generation of young international leaders who are eager to address the challenges and seize the opportunities created by globalisation and climate change. These new leaders have a global perspective, and they think long term. They were born in one country, educated in another (where they met their partner), and now work in a different part of the world. They are global citizens who speak at least three languages (one of which is English), and they use a variety of gadgets and platforms to communicate with their colleagues, family and friends 24/7. They have highly developed intercultural communication skills, and they are comfortable with risk and uncertainty. They love new technology and innovation, and, increasingly, they work from home. They enjoy a high degree of autonomy and self-awareness, and they want to make a difference to people and the planet.