Is the Role of a Leader Changing?

Harvard Business Review

November 18, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

There are certain qualities of leadership that were important one hundred years ago – and will still be important one thousand years from today. Elements such as demonstrating integrity, leading by example, creating a vision, motivating people, developing talent, ensuring customer satisfaction, and maintaining a competitive advantage were important in the past and will be important as long as businesses exist.

A few years ago, Cathy Greenberg, Alastair Robertson, Maya Hu-Chan and I did a research study that asked over 200 high-potential managers from organizations around the world how leadership has changed and is changing. Five factors emerged that differentiated the leader of the future from the leader of the past.

– Thinking globally – Historically the vast majority of leaders focused on local or domestic issues. Later, businesses began to become suppliers and customers to organizations from other counties. In the future leaders will have to be much more aware of the impact of globalization on all aspects of their business.

– Appreciating cross-cultural diversity – In America, one hundred years ago, there was little diversity in leadership. Almost all business organizations were run by white, male Americans. In the recent past, “diversity” was a term that Americans used to describe relationships with women and minorities in the US. In the future, cross-cultural diversity will mean an appreciation of differences that span religions, cultures, and people around the globe.

– Developing technological savvy – While leaders have always had to understand their businesses own core technology, they have not had to understand the larger impact that technology had on society and their customers. In the future, leaders will not all have to be ‘technologists’ but they will have to understand the impact that new technology has on their business, their customers and their world.

– Developing alliances and partnerships – IBM is a great case study of the “past vs. future” in building alliances. In the “old days”, IBM had almost no partnerships or alliances. They were very proud of internally producing products and services. Today, IBM forms alliances and partnerships every week. The leaders of the future will not just run linear organizations. They will manage complex sets of alliances and partnerships from around the world.

– Sharing leadership – Peter Drucker noted that “the leader of the past knew how to tell. The leader of the future will know how to ask.” More and more leaders of the future will manage knowledge workers. Knowledge workers are employees who know more about their work than their boss does. It is hard to tell people what to do and how to do it – when they know more than we do. Leadership in the future will involve more two-way involvement and sharing – and less one-way direction.