Leadership is one of the most misused words of our times. Based on my own experiences, I discuss how to move away from misconceptions towards understanding what makes a good leader.
- The 21st-century leader must have a new set of skills, including the ability to navigate uncertainty, build diverse teams, and leverage technology to drive innovation.
- In addition to technical skills, emotional intelligence and the ability to empathize with and inspire others are increasingly important for effective leadership.
- Leaders must also be agile and adaptable, willing to learn from failure and adjust their strategies as needed to respond to changing circumstances in a rapidly evolving business environment.
When I grow up I want to be a 21st-century leader
Leadership is complex. Whether it is seen from a micro or a macro aspect, you do not wake up as a leader; it is a journey, not a destination.
I remember the first time I was asked to lead a group. At first there were only five people, but that number increased soon to 18. Senior management was convinced that I would be a great team leader. Thus, I visualised myself as a great leader. People should have respect, they should do as I told them to without questioning anything, they should be aware that I could fire them and they had to please me, but still never speak ill of me, but like me tremendously. I expected any project that had a good outcome to be seen as my work as the leader of the team. But if the project did not have a good outcome, it was of course the team’s fault, never mine. Furthermore, I expected everyone to come to me with any questions. The best would be if team members never spoke to each other. I should be their single point of contact.
The following week, my five team members arrived and, the experience with these five people went well. Three weeks later, the rest arrived and my lovely dream became a nightmare. My original five were still behaving, but I felt the new guys just did not respect me. We could work any time between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., as long as we worked eight hours per day. I had arranged my working hours to be Monday to Friday, arriving at 7 a.m. and leaving at 3 p.m. After two weeks, I realised that my review group, even the ones who had originally arrived at 8 a.m., were starting to get in later.
Soon we noticed that we were not reaching our review targets. By then I was extremely frustrated by my originally wonderful team. I wanted everything to go back to how it had started and have my five people and be a great leader in everyone’s eyes. I complained that they would not arrive on time, they would leave early, they would use their cell phones; one could write a long list of all their issues. Senior leadership listened, but said that it was my job to keep an eye on the group. The more they misbehaved, the more military my leadership style became. I fired three of the lawyers within a week, and one had to be escorted out of the building with the help of a 6’ 5” security guard. I had been at that law firm for four years by then and, being exhausted by leadership, I decided to leave – and be led.
My next employer was an eDiscovery vendor, which was doing everything in my genre of work, except dealing directly with contract lawyers. This was great, as I could be the bridge between the legal and the technology world. My supervisor was a technology expert who soon started standing behind me when I was formulating emails and asking me to use a specific font and font size. Needless to say, I never took anything he said or did seriously and would question his decisions.
So what makes a leader? At my original law firm, I worked 80 hours a week to make the partner of my department happy. He could have asked me to work even more and I would probably have smiled and thanked him for it. And why did anything the young manager said seem to irritate me. Did my first experience make me an easy follower and the second one an impossible one? What about my leadership skills? If I was a good leader with the first five people, why did I have such a bad experience with the additional 13? And moreover, was my perception of leadership right?
It was then that I started thinking about leadership and the difference between a manager and a leader. No job description asked for an “eDiscovery leader”; instead they asked for an “eDiscovery manager”. In the job descriptions, one could read the technical requirements first, and then the ability to manage a team. Nowhere did I read that anyone should be able to lead the team.
Based on the Merriam-Webster definition, a manager is “a person who conducts business or household affairs” and “a person who directs a team or athlete”. A leader was “a person who directs a military force or unit” and “a person who has commanding authority or influence”. I was completely confused. I had used military style and I felt that I had been more important than the team, so why had my experience been so negative?
Countless articles and books later, I came to the conclusion that specific traits differentiated a manager from a leader. One has to define effective leadership and the skills to understand the requirements of a leader. Based on Robinson’s list (Robins, 2011), Fairhurst (2008) maintains that leadership contains (a) influencing, (b) observation, (c) process, and (d) the performance of one appointed person. Therefore these four aspects become the measuring point of good leadership.
Leadership is based on a continuous self-reorganisation and shared leadership (Gürkan Gülcan, 2015). Based on Gürkan Gülcan’s servant leadership, the leader has to be willing to work for the team, to adopt a common power, and feed energy to move forward. Their role is to demonstrate the team’s goal and give a reason to carry on. More than their team, the position requires a continuous learning and adaptation to internal, as well as external, forces. The title of their position does not substitute for the required maturity, as they should be able to be assertive, emotional, and amiable, while being analytical at the same time (Erikson, 2019). It is their task to know which role to play at which time and how to gain the respect of their followers.
A leader’s job is in the present. Past experiences enrich the knowledge and enhance the tool box of different methods. As every situation is unprecedented, due to continuous external changes (Eberly, 2013), there is no guarantee of the same success, and leaders have to be able to adapt to the present requirements.
Leadership requires self-awareness and understanding of the three components of their position: (a) people, (b) events, and (c) environment (Swain, 2016). They need to be in tune with their inner voice and understand what changing point in their lives brought them to their present position.
According to Eurich (2018), a leader is “internally and externally aware, thus, they know what they want and how to accomplish it, while appreciating and evaluating others’ criticism.”
Relationship-building, whether within the organisation or outside, becomes one of the key components and helps to generate power (Crowther, 2010) to move forward.
One of the first personality traits that comes to everyone’s mind is emotional intelligence (EQ), which was introduced by Daniel Goleman (2004). Based on Goleman (2004), the components are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Goyette (2019) requires an equation, demanding that the self plus relationships, in addition to the environment, are equivalent to emotional intelligence.
Clearly a leader needs to be a specific person with external and internal talents. External talents are the ones others see, thus making the leader an eloquent speaker, a communicator, and a negotiator (Goyette, 2019). Internal talents include emotional and physical strength, decision making, and listening skills (Barton, 2012). The leader should not have a transparency illusion, but ask himself how others perceive him and how to adjust to have an impact on the overall success (Hedges, 2017).
Good leaders need to understand their audience and understand others’ perception. They should comprehend each one of the followers’ attitudes and approaches (Erikson, 2019) and adjust their leadership style accordingly. One could argue that the connection depends on the team size. But that is not the case, as understanding general human behaviour can be achieved by clustering people into types of human behaviour based on their assertiveness and emotional level (Erikson, 2019).
A leader has to understand the diversity within the team (Erikson, 2019) and embrace it, while recognising the team’s strength and using the skills as assets to their own shortcomings. Additionally, every leader needs to adjust his communication and feedback style to each of his followers. Only then will the leader be able to tune his style to the team and gain their trust.
Finally, a good leader needs innovation and acceptance of ever-changing situations, in addition to being resilient and adaptable (Şena & Eren, 2012).
This includes external communication; for a country it is interaction with the neighbouring countries, while within an organisation it is talking to other teams. As we could see in the recent health crisis caused by COVID-19, organisations had to adapt to the outside requirements. The Hermes fashion house started producing disinfection material, and LVMH assisted with the production of face masks. This shows their ability to reinvent themselves and adapt.
A person who manages does not become a leader. A leader cannot take charge of a group just when he feels like it. The group has to trust the leader’s ability to take charge and believe in the leader’s vision. The leader has to be able to listen to the group and understand concerns and aims. The leader has to be in a position that he could move to the sidelines and observe how the team moves forward, as if there were invisible threads. If the team succeeds, everyone should celebrate the team, knowing that it was the leader who brought the best out of each team member. However, if the team fails, the leader should examine what has gone wrong and evaluate and re-engineer the original plans towards success. I used to believe in the authoritarian leadership style when I had my first leadership position. But a 21st-century leader has to be more than the person in the corner office.
About the Author
Dr. Nina Mohadjer, LL.M., has worked in various jurisdictions where her cross-border experience as well as her multilingual capabilities have helped her with managing reviews. She is a member of the Global Advisory Board of the 2030 UN Agenda as an Honorary Advisor and Thematic Expert for Sustainable Development Goal 5 (Gender Equality) and the co-founder of Women in eDiscovery Germany.
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