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Leadership: What's it take?

Sunday, May 1, 2011 - 08:23

MT takes a look at the key traditional strengths and new-era skills of tomorrow's successful leaders. By Sarah Marinos 

A few years ago, a study at the University of Alberta in Canada examined the impact of leadership on nursing staff experiencing the stress and uncertainty of budget cuts, job losses and departmental reorganisations.

Researchers found nurses who coped best were those with leaders described by internationally renowned US psychologist, Daniel Goleman, as 'resonant': they listened to and recognised employees' feelings, empathised with staff and offered support.

While the study found all nurses felt pressured - and all of them felt less able to give patients the level of care they wanted to provide - those with out-of-touch and ineffective leaders were three times more likely to report problems and higher levels of emotional exhaustion.

Goleman, co-author of Primal leadership: learning to lead with emotional intelligence, defines 'resonant leaders' as having four key skills: they are visionary, they coach, they are democratic and they are affiliative.

"Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion and inspire the best in us," says Goleman. "Throughout history and cultures everywhere, the leader has been the one to whom others look for assurance and clarity when facing uncertainty or threat, or when there's a job to be done."

Bridging the gaps

A 2009 report by the Center for Creative Leadership, The leadership gap: what you need, and don't have, when it comes to leadership talent, identified seven key leadership skills: leading employees; strategic planning; inspiring commitment; managing change; resourcefulness; being a quick learner; and doing whatever it takes.

Key future leadership skills that research participants identified included strong employee development, an ability to balance personal life and work, and decisiveness.

"Businesses, government agencies, non-profits and educational organisations need leaders who can effectively navigate complex, changing situations and get the job done," says the report.

"The questions that need to be asked at the organisational level are: 'who do we have, what do they need to do, and are they equipped to do it?'."

Leadership development in Australia

John Stokes, CEO, Australian Institute of Management, South Australia, says organisations and businesses in Australia are customising leadership programs based on the requirements of their industry, culture and structure.

"We want to raise the skill sets of leaders," says Stokes. "I think we are well placed to do that and there are some very good leadership programs around. But you can't rest on your laurels. It is a continuous improvement exercise."

Susan Heron, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Institute of Management, Victoria and Tasmania (AIM VT), agrees that businesses and organisations within Australia are recognising the importance of identifying and developing leadership skills; both traditional skills and those that will be important in the near future.

"In a survey we supported, titled Quality of working life 2008 across the UK and Australia, Australian leadership was a strong performer," Heron says.

"I think some industry sectors here, such as resources, financial and legal, are being very innovative when it comes to nurturing and retaining leaders. Organisations are showing the need for better employee engagement and greater work/life balance options to retain key talent.

"Federal and state governments are also very much aware of the necessity of leadership development and are investing in this area," adds Heron.

A combination of skills

So exactly which skills must leaders have to be successful in 2011 and beyond?

Stokes says leaders need to embrace both traditional leadership skill sets as well as a raft of newer skills to take into account emerging socio-economic, demographic and industry trends. He defines the necessary core skills as having a vision and being able to articulate and translate it into strategic and operational activity.

"Leaders need to communicate effectively with internal and external stakeholders, and they need energy and passion so they can motivate people to achieve objectives," says Stokes. "Traditionally, leaders have also needed to understand the financial capabilities of their organisation. The people around them should also understand that their leader is capable of good decision-making."

Heron says technical competencies, communication skills and being able to 'drive that very black bottom line' are part of the traditional suite of leadership skills.

"A recent major survey AIM VT did on employee engagement found two credible information points employees will listen to," she says. "First, their manager, and then their CEO. So there has to be honest, consistent and clear communication across the organisation.

"At the core, a leader has to be able to run a business, understand the strategic requirements of their role, be able to develop the business, and have a solid financial understanding of business requirements."

Looking ahead

Looking to competent leadership needs in the future, Heron and Stokes agree aspiring leaders will need to expand their repertoire of skills and behaviours.

"I think the ability to coach and mentor people will be important for leaders in the future," says Stokes. He adds that effective leaders are also no longer authoritarian but are more engaged or 'affiliative', as Goleman has identified.

"There has been a transition in the past 10 to 20 years from the authoritative command and control style of leadership to one where there are expectations from employees that leaders will engage and motivate and provide them with a reason for going to work," says Stokes.

He nominates understanding sustainability, managing for diversity and understanding new technology, such as social media channels, as new core competencies for leaders.

"Some people think sustainability is a fad but it is here to stay. AIM's view is that a good leader will embrace sustainability and be able to walk the talk," says Stokes.

"In terms of managing for diversity, the workforce is changing. Older people are being managed by younger managers who need to understand how to manage older employees. We have people coming into the workforce from diverse cultures and flexibility within work practices, such as working part-time, is becoming commonplace. The leader has to demonstrate tolerance and flexible work practices to ensure diversity is managed well.

"And it's important for leaders to understand new technologies and how to harness them for best effect."

Engagement strategies

Heron believes effective leaders will work hard to develop appealing employee engagement strategies.

"Leaders now understand that not only do companies have to have competitive products and/or services, it's essential that the workplace is a point of competitive difference," says Heron.

"Leaders also must provide an environment that leads to creativity and innovation because they drive what we at AIM call corporate endurance; that is, the ability to perform long term in accordance with the triple bottom-line factors of economy, society and environment.

"It is an exciting time for leaders around the world these days because leadership is changing. The factors driving this change include the skills crisis, the online environment and the rise and rise of the global village," she says.

"Sometimes people get nervous about change but one essential of understanding what is required of leadership these days is to not be afraid to examine yourself.

"Self-awareness is the first step in ensuring you actually have the right leadership style required for your business and organisation to prosper."