Building the 21st Century Leader

Some Things Don't Change

There are some basic skills leaders have always needed. The only difference is that now these skills are even more crucial. A few key classics:

Walk the walk. The days when CEOs could give themselves fat bonuses while cutting workers' pay are over--that maneuver cost American Airlines CEO and chairman Donald Carty his job in 2003, and that's only one example. If you're not staying late to make the big project deadline, employees won't either, says Evan Wittenberg, director of the Wharton Graduate Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The ethical standards you model will be picked up by employees, he notes. "You've got to lead the organization in a way you'd want others to emulate when you're not around."

Innovate. Too few leaders are creating organizations designed to encourage innovation, says Lepsinger. If there isn't a system in place to share new ideas and move those ideas along to become salable products, innovation will be stifled. He says, "You need to get everyone trained to think out of the box and be creative."

Execute, execute, execute. One of the biggest leadership gaps these days is between vision and execution, says Lepsinger. Too many leaders spend their days dreaming about the big picture, while research shows more than half of workers despair of being able to execute on the boss' sweeping vision. "We find that vision doesn't drive execution of the business results," he says. "You need to develop an operations strategy and execute that strategy."

Cristich learned this lesson rather painfully after taking two years off from her company to run for public office. When she returned, she found that though she had articulated a well-thought-out, big-picture vision, her 100-person staff had floundered on execution without her day-to-day input.

"I've made a point over the past couple of years of holding myself accountable," Cristich says. "I'm making sure I'm setting the right example, that I'm engaged as deeply as I need to be in the key execution pieces."

Top Dog
Peaked in: 1950s-'60s

Description: The head honcho of the postwar era spent most of his time barking orders at his dronelike workers. The Top Dog's ideal employee was known as an Organization Man--most of them were men. Embodying conformism in his gray flannel suit, he worked without complaint to fulfill the boss's every desire.

Top Dog often came up through the ranks and was a former Organization Man himself. Once on top, it was his turn to take all the credit for his loyal employees' ideas.

Because job-hopping was considered bad for the career back then, Top Dog could scream and rant, knowing most workers wouldn't dare leave. And work/life balance? Not in the Top Dog's vocabulary.

Catchphrase: "It's my way or the highway."

Drawback: The command-and-control style didn't foster creativity or innovation. As a result, many companies led by Top Dogs floundered in fast-changing markets.

The Unleader
Peaked in: 1999

Description: More than anything, the Unleader wanted employees to be creative and feel comfortable at work. Yelling was out, and staffers were encouraged to voice their ideas and feelings. Then, nobody moved until consensus was achieved. There were endless delays while the Unleader pondered the options, resulting in many wasted opportunities. Goals were often murky, organizational charts either absent or confusing.

Unleader companies were easily recognized by their casual, fun-loving style. Suits were banished in favor of Hawaiian shirts and shorts. Though workers were generally expected to toil 24/7, the occasional break for a kid's soccer game was OK. Dogs hung out under desks while their owners dozed in nap rooms. The company provided free pizzas, and foosball tables adorned break rooms.

Catchphrase: "It's all good."

Drawback: The Unleader wasn't so great at crafting successful business plans or watching the bottom line. Most companies headed by Unleaders quickly went bust.

New Attitude
A hands-off leadership style worked at A&A Optical Co. when the Dallas eyewear-distribution firm was small. But when second-generation owner and longtime salesman Robert Liener, 46, steered the company into a rapid-growth phase, he had to rewrite his leadership script.

As the 35-year-old company climbed from $2.6 million to $8 million in sales over the past four years, employees grew increasingly confused about their roles. When an aggressive sales manager began filling the leadership vacuum and workers started viewing him as the company's leader, Liener knew things needed to change. His fixes:

Go higher profile. Liener realized that employees wanted more direction from him, so he stepped up his leadership role, overcoming his fears of offending some with his views. Communication used to be sporadic; now he makes sure to contact every employee several times a month, encouraging their feedback. "I was getting behind the scenes too much," he says. "Once I started giving direction and sharing the vision, the productivity level of every person rose dramatically."

Define expectations. When A&A had a dozen employees, roles could be loosely defined. When the count jumped to 60, confusion set in, so Liener worked with Dallas consultant JaneƩ Harrell of Amplyfi Consulting to define job parameters. Identifying employee strengths also led to several reassignments. Says Liener, "Now everyone knows who to report to and has a detailed job description of [their] responsibilities and accountabilities."

Eliminate rivals. Liener realized his sales manager, though effective in some areas, had to go because of the challenge the employee posed to his own leadership efforts.

Keep learning. Liener sees developing his leadership potential as an ongoing task. He says, "Not a day goes by when I'm not learning how to manage people, grow people [and] develop the organization."

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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

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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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