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Building the 21st Century Leader

Heading up a successful company today is a lot different than it was 50 years ago. What skills do you need to lead your business to success--not just today but also in the future?

As an entrepreneur, leadership is the most important part of your job. But in a constantly changing business climate, you can't model yourself on leadership archetypes from the past and expect to meet the challenges of today's workplace. Barking orders at your subordinates a la the domineering 1950s boss won't get your staff on your side. And the buddy-buddy, hang-loose management style of the 1990s won't get results fast enough to keep pace with the competition.

So what are the traits the 21st century leader needs to succeed? Some of the factors that make a great leader haven't really changed. The abilities to innovate, execute and be a strong role model for your staff will always be essential. But in addition to these qualities, a new leadership style is emerging, with skills uniquely tailored for success in today's environment. One management consultant has dubbed this new leader The Enlightened Warrior.

Today's successful business leader is decisive, insightful and constantly challenging company conventions to keep ideas flowing, says management consultant Mark Stevens, author of Your Management Sucks. This Enlightened Warrior is the model of the 21st century leader.

Enlightened, Stevens says, in the sense that a modern leader identifies opportunities before the competition, taking in information from all sides to spot possible new directions. The warrior side symbolizes a passion for achieving a goal and also a willingness to go on the attack--against the competition, and against weaknesses in yourself and the organization.

"You need to wage constructive war continuously," Stevens says. "It's not just firing people who aren't doing the job, but [also] saying, 'What are we not doing right?' and then acting on it. It's a war on complacency."

Several new factors in the current business environment demand this kind of creative thinking, leadership experts say. One is the increasingly rapid pace of technological change, which opens up new possibilities for nearly every business. Two big changes are people-focused: the growing diversity of the nation's work force and the anticipated worker shortages as baby boomers retire.

Coping with these trends will take some stretching for many CEOs. Here's a digest of the key traits that are crucial in our changing workplace.

Adaptability: If you could have only one skill in your toolkit, this is the one you need right now, says Marty Linsky, co-founder of consulting firm Cambridge Leadership Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With the marketplace changing practically overnight, CEOs need to be ready to learn fast and shift on the fly.

"The whole idea that change is the norm rather than the exception is not a tweak, but a profound change in your job as a CEO," Linsky says. "Your job now is to help the organization develop the capacity to adapt, rather than stake out a vision and drive toward that."

The tough part is knowing what should change at a company and what can't be altered without negative consequences, Linsky says. "Adaptability is a very complicated process," he adds. "You're making hard choices, including sometimes giving up values or beliefs, or ways of doing business that may even have been crucial to earlier success."

Linsky says leaders need to design their whole company for adaptability, not just possess the trait themselves. Build an environment where workers are encouraged to express their points of view and to raise tough issues before they become crises. Have an organizationwide emphasis on learning from mistakes.

"I know one global bank where the CEO literally selects the biggest mistake of the year from which they learned something important and sends the person responsible [for the mistake] around the globe to talk about what they learned," Linsky says. "You don't see that much."

Putting flexibility first helps leaders break out of established problem-solving patterns to explore new options, says Rick Lepsinger, co-author of Flexible Leadership: Creating Value by Balancing Multiple Challenges and Choices.

"What's needed is to really understand the situation and not necessarily do the thing that has worked before, but ask, 'What's working here?'" Linsky says. "Different situations require different behaviors."

Self-Awareness: Before leaders can tackle the challenges at their organizations, they have to look in the mirror, says Ken Blanchard, co-author of the management classic The One Minute Manager, and more recently author of Leading at a Higher Level. "The journey of leadership is first taking a look at yourself," he explains. "Then you're ready to deal one-on-one, then you can take over a team, and then an organization."

Alan Gilburg, principal at the Gilburg Leadership Institute in Holyoke, Massachusetts, agrees. Leaders need to look within and root out negative patterns. Gilburg says two types are common today: autocrats who like to make big decisions but don't take responsibility for fulfilling their goals, and abdicrats who shift key decisions onto others when they should be leading. "It's not about the tools and techniques," he says. "It's about the user of the tools."

Once you've assessed your leadership strengths, you can play to those, work on improving weak areas, or hire people whose strengths will complement your own.

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The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Carol Tice, a freelance writer, is chief executive of TiceWrites Inc. in Bainbridge Island, Wash. She blogs about freelance writing at Make a Living Writing. Email her at carol@caroltice.com.

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This article was originally published in the February 2007 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Building the 21st Century Leader.

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