For many years people have pulled me aside at meetings, conferences, cocktail parties and dinners, in search of a simple answer to a question they had obviously been struggling with: What does it take to be a leader? To say that this is a very complex question that defies a simple answer is an understatement in the extreme.
In conducting research for the Prague Leadership Institute, I read a variety of papers, articles and books and talk to leaders from around the world to keep abreast of the changing world of leadership on a global basis.
In the hyper-competitive world of global commerce existential competitive threats can surface literally at any time and can be quite unexpected. I think it would be safe to say that this creates what one might call a “sub-optimal” condition for a leader. Unfortunately, this is only one of many sub-optimal conditions with which a leader must deal in the 21st century. Further, when one throws in the constellation of competing stakeholder demands on a leader and the speed with which a leader must react to these, the demands on a leader are a far cry from what they were in the 20th century. All of which brings us to the single most important mandate for a leader today: if you don’t evolve as a leader you may become extinct.
To paraphrase Charles Darwin on the survival of a species: “It is not the strongest or the smartest of leaders who will survive, but the ones who are most adaptive to change—who evolve”.
So, what is the evolutionary trait all leaders will need in order to succeed in the 21st century? Simply put, it’s mental toughness. Don’t confuse this term with being tough on others; it’s just the opposite. Mental toughness is the ability to manage yourself, tune out all the “static” and rationalizations of why something can’t be done, i.e., the sub-optimal conditions, and personally deliver optimal results. Mental toughness is what allows someone like Tiger Woods, for example, to play a winning round of golf in rainy and windy conditions. Runners often find themselves running “through” pain or the effects of past injuries in order to stay in a competition and deliver their best performance. Leaders, like top athletes, must face their own headwinds, pains, and sub-optimal conditions with the same determination, confidence, and ability in order to stay in the competition and win.
In the evolution of organizational structures that allow for more empowerment—not as a buzz-word, but a true goal—and less hierarchical authority, leaders must find ways to evolve from their own self-limiting behaviors, ideologies of the past, and fear of stepping out of their comfort zones in order to release and channel the potential in others toward a common goal. The data from many current, global studies support this conclusion and tell us that the way this happens most effectively is through the deployment of “soft-power” skills that drive increased levels of employee engagement—this, along with mental toughness, will be the defining evolutionary characteristics of successful leadership as we exit the information age of the 20th century and enter the age of wisdom—an age in which the human link between leaders and those who look to them for leadership will be the key reason talented people become engaged.
This is maturity, this is wisdom, and this is the evolution of leadership in the 21st century.