Leadership in the 21st Century

It was only in the last decade of the 20th century when the old paradigm of "job" and "career" perception started to shift. In the bi-polar world created after World War II, both in the West and in the East, the majority of people have had careers with a single employer for their entire active life. In many cases they have been either doing the same type of work or alternatively slowly climbing the corporate ladder, yet again most often in the same area of their expertise. However, 20 years ago this paradigm started to change, first slowly, eventually very significantly. The wide spread of information technologies, a PC at every desk at home and at the office, the mobile revolution and of course the Internet have opened up completely new horizons, new opportunities and also dramatically changed the global marketplace – regardless of whether we talk about products or jobs.

The evolution of the world we live in and the role that the information technologies have played in this shift has truly been fundamental. On the other hand, to a large extent, such progress has in fact been predictable. Back in 1965, Intel's co-founder Gordon Moore articulated what came to be known as Moore's law. This theory, which in reality has proved right and continues to now for more than half a century, states that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years – in other words the capacity and abilities of information technologies double every 24 months and grow exponentially. Imagine that such a prediction was made in the time when the cost of 1 transistor was 1 USD while today for the same amount of money you can have 1 billion transistors. Nevertheless, when this vision became reality we all have had the opportunity to experience the accelerated pace of technological advancement. Some of you will remember the "old" NMT mobile phones that we were using in the first half of the 90's and while you're holding your smart phone today and browsing the Internet, communicating with your kids over a video call or instant messaging or downloading music or videos, it is kind of difficult to admit that this was only 15 years ago.

While all this technological mega-step or maybe even mega-jump means tons of new possibilities, on the other hand it also creates a lot of new challenges that might have been hard to imagine a few decades ago. Not only are the technological possibilities doubling every two years, but also the amount of information in all the various digital forms is doubling at the same pace. Imagine that in the 15th century, an average European human being had to consume the same amount of information in their entire life that we today have to consume and "process" in a single working day! But the main societal change that we should all be aware of is that the increasing IT possibilities and their availability will significantly drive competitiveness towards human capital. This so called "digital paradox" will have a profound change on companies, cities, regions and countries as they compete. While the cost of labor as well as quality of production will eventually come closer and closer between the emerging and developed markets, the "designed in…" or "invented in…" will soon become way more important than the historically very much appreciated "made in…" That is what both corporate and political leaders in Europe should keep in mind when it comes to formulating the way our great continent should go and how we should compete with the increasingly more and more global competitive marketplace.

I personally believe that this can all be done and in fact very successfully. If you consider the phenomenal building blocks that we can all develop from, we could only fail by our own mistake. The quality of European culture, historical heritage, education, design, innovation, social care and the overall development of our society uniquely positions us in this global race. However, we need to take on this leadership opportunity and start working hard and fast. Based on my own experience it begins at the individual level for all of us. Self-awareness is the most important and fundamental milestone that every potential leader needs to get to before aspiring to coach or lead anyone else. Only at that point when an individual has gotten to a stage when they are crystal clear about their own strengths and maybe even more importantly their weaknesses, only then can they meaningfully start to lead others. In fact, it is only at that stage when they can also start to build up their followers, whether we talk about a politician and his or her voters or a corporate leader and his or her employees and team members. I personally see this as one of the big issues of today's developed world – many people consider or even call themselves leaders, however they are only surrounded by "yes-men" rather than real followers whom they were able to inspire or convince with a great and sound vision or idea.

Back in 2001, shortly after I was appointed to oversee Microsoft's operations in the region of Central and Eastern Europe, we organized a meeting of our top 70 managers from all the subsidiaries within the region. Remember, this was only a decade ago, and at that time most of this beautiful region was still more or less made up of emerging markets--markets that were recovering from many years of socialism and still learning how to build democracy and open free markets. And, more important perhaps, with a GDP that was still incomparable to Western Europe. At that meeting, which was held in a beautiful setting at the foot of the Alps in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, I put forth a set of quite ambitious goals – both in sales and in corporate social responsibility – that we were to achieve in the coming years and to which members of my team had been relatively skeptical. Expecting a similar reaction, I invited a very special guest: Italian mountaineer and explorer Reinhold Messner. Reinhold came to the meeting and simply left the audience speechless. He talked about his 1978 ascent of Mount Everest, when he stood with Peter Habeler on the summit of Mount Everest, the first men ever to climb Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen. While his story was amazing on its own and accompanied by a set of breath-taking photos from the expedition, more important was when he talked about leadership and belief – how prior to this ascent it was disputed whether this was possible without any damage to health and the brain and about how 9 out of 10 doctors had been warning him not to even try. Well, if Reinhold could have achieved this, I told my colleagues, we too have to take on the challenge, demonstrate leadership and eventually change our countries for the good. I was very positively surprised by their reaction and in fact our region, as a result, became Microsoft's fastest growing region in the world for the 4 years that followed that meeting.

When someone wants to lead, there are two basic principles to follow. First, as I like to call it "you can't sell it outside, if you can't sell it inside". So if someone is unable to spark the inspiration in their very own close team, there is clearly no way that any idea – business or political – and regardless of how good or innovative it might be, that it's going to fly. Secondly though, it is critical to always communicate the three key elements: what, how and why. As a matter of fact, I see this as one of the big issues that European political leaders need to cope with today. We as voters often hear about what and how something will be done but not necessarily enough of the why. Martin Luther King Jr. was not saying I HAVE A PLAN; he first said I HAVE A DREAM. Vision, in business or politics, needs to inspire faith in the hearts and minds of those who are expected to follow. This will become especially important with the young emerging generation that is even more critical and likes to question and challenge things more than any other generation before. At the end of the day, information technologies have given them many tools to do so, and for that we should be grateful. My hope is that they will use those tools not only to provide themselves with the data that will help them formulate the right questions, but to also use those tools to help them clarify, understand and support the right values for becoming 21st century leaders.