A Mentor of Mentors: The True Role of the Modern Leader

Friday, February 7, 2020 - 12:45
A-Mentor of Mentors: The True Role of the Modern Leader

There is endless debate about the role of leaders in modern organisations and innumerable definitions of what leadership even means in a business context.

Leaders are taskmasters, responsible for ensuring that staff complete their individual work effectively and efficiently.

Leaders are strategists who devise plans, explore opportunities, drive innovation, and set goals.

Leaders are paragons that inspire and engage others through their own shining example of hard work and creativity.

Leaders are teachers and mentors who enable and encourage their workers to learn and develop professionally.

While these definitions vary in reflecting more traditional or modern views on leadership, they are all true and accurate in that, at least in certain industries and organisations, the best leaders will be expected to fulfil each of these functions. This speaks to the holistic concept of a leader, that they are someone who must wear many hats, and do so effectively, as part of their position.

However, because this idea is so heavily tied to how it applies to organisations — topic experts inevitably are current or former professionals interested in the work context, and industry research is often funded or otherwise supported by businesses — it is intrinsically beholden to organisational timelines. As McKinsey noted, the private sector, especially with those that are publicly traded, are not good at the long view because it conflicts with the nature of their incentives. If we do take a long view then, what becomes the primary role of the leader?

In a recent article from Harvard Business Review, they stated that for managers throughout history, “command and control was the name of the game” and that employee development only went as far as teaching how the business works so as to “reproduce its previous successes.” [1]

“The role of the manager,” the article continues, “is becoming that of a coach.”

The argument for this shift in responsibility is due to the rapid and constant change of Industry 4.0: when powerful technologies seemingly arise on a weekly basis and thus entirely new-to-world skills are needed to take advantage of them, leaders are less able to provide precise instruction (as they very likely will not know how to use the technology in a functional sense, nor how it is best applied to the business). Instead, utilising their experience and soft skills, they can provide general guidance to workers that drives and supports innovative and agile practices.

If the short-term objective of a leader in today’s business world is to coach their staff to unlock their full potential, then wouldn’t their logical long-term objective be to cultivate the next generation of leaders? To become, as it were, a mentor of mentors?

For the sake of this argument, imagine an organisation over a 15-year period. Now let’s say that there are three employees at this organisation during these years:

  1. The first begins the period in senior management and is nearing retirement. They are of an age that is not particularly technologically literate, so their leadership style has a very strong focus on traditional, human-centric skills. Over the 15-year period, it is these skills that they pass on to their subordinate.
  2. The second employee is around 40-years-old, works in middle management, and reports directly to the first person. They have had to assimilate new technology into their work throughout their career, using their learnt human-centric skills to assist their reports with these changes, and they mentor their own subordinates towards this adaptability.
  3. The final employee is a young adult working as an individual contributor. They are a digital native and have little difficulty personally incorporating technology, but over these 15 years they have seen how disruptive they are to organisational productivity. As they progress into more senior roles, they strive to integrate adaptability and agility into the organisation’s long-term strategy.

You can take this thought experiment even further and try to picture the next generation: what unique and native skills will a child today have when they enter the workforce and what proficiencies that we take for granted will they struggle with?

In an ideal situation, an organisation should be like a family, not like the tired cliché that enterprises use to promote their office culture, but in the way that parents pass on skills, life lessons, and successes to their children. It is essentially collaboration experienced over years, decades even, and it is highly advantageous for organisations to strive towards this practice because it is the only way to retain the talents of successful leaders post-retirement.

As mentioned earlier, it is certainly hard to address such long-term plans, but that difficulty only speaks to its value.

[1] “The Leader as Coach”, Harvard Business Review, November-December 2019

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