Leadership is probably the most used word in organisations but often the most misunderstood or even misused by us all. I find leadership can be hard to define and it means different things to different people.
In its most simplistic terms it is described as “the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal”. We all get that, and time and time again it is a mantra that is preached by those who see themselves presiding over a team, department or organisation to get things done. Management literature focuses on the idea that once you have mastered vision setting, team building and motivation, action planning and process improvement, you automatically have the skills to be a leader.
However, I have a problem with that. It all sounds so empty and clinical. It doesn’t show how as a person you are effective as a leader. This might have worked in the past but I am not sure this definition goes far enough to explain how it is applicable for the 21st century.
What we need now and for the future are people who display an array of human qualities that influence those around them to achieve agreed goals. The journey towards that goal should be an enjoyable learning process and not an exhaustive process to meet a deadline.
Overturning the hierarchical structure
The organisations we work in face daily challenges (and I am not just talking about those funding targets), but also technological advancements we are trying to implement to make our charities more efficient, social and economic change that impacts how we support our beneficiaries and most importantly the changing profiles of the people we work with.
Much has been lauded, often negatively about the next generation of employees who ask too many questions, want flexibility and are seen as not always honouring the traditional hierarchical structure organisations place them within. But for me, they epitomise how leadership should be defined in the 21st century.
They don’t want to hear a vision they want to feel it, they don’t want to be told the criteria they need to achieve their targets, but are seeking satisfaction through an openness of dialogue to understand how they can contribute meaningfully. And they are not impressed by layers of structures that inhibit creativity and stifle freedom of thought. The greatest fear future employees have is to be led by someone who doesn't value their thoughts or them as individuals.
Learning from ‘millennials’
At City Year UK, 71 per cent of our staff are what we term ‘millennials’, and I have learnt more about leadership through them than I have from talking to peers or reading books. I have found our staff display a vast spectrum of qualities that I would say are true leadership skills, and we as people who run organisations must do more to bring forward, teach and champion these attributes so that we can all work together to solve the challenges we face in our sector.
So what are those 21st century leadership qualities we all need to learn from staff coming through the ranks?
Heart and soul - They have an abundance of it and want to see it in their leaders too. If you can show that you really love what your organisation does and genuinely want to solve the conundrum on how best to support your beneficiaries, your staff will go out of their way to help solve problems with you. Also I think a good marker of effective leadership is their ability to facilitate their teams’ ability to deliver. Not just to tell and measure. Knowing which questions to ask to encourage creative responses to challenges is more important than pretending to know all the answers.
Passion and energy - They exude a level of energy that is infectious. They are constantly jumping from one idea to the next to help improve things. Yes, not all are appropriate at the time, but that diversity of thought does give you gems that we might not have thought of. This is the quality that gets people excited to get behind you and deliver. Showing genuine passion in wanting to hear new ideas and break from structural norms will get people to work harder with you, and for you.
Honesty and openness - They are very open to what they like and don’t like and it’s very refreshing. They are more likely to question the people who run the organisations if they think that you are hiding behind jargon and not being authentic. Being open to your mistakes and/or lack of understanding in a particular area of the organisation shows that you are human after all and invites staff to support you through times of creativity or crisis. Finally I think an emphasis on accountability is key to effective leadership. I know what the organisation expects of me and I will be held transparently accountable for that. I’ll also be clear of my expectations of others.
Embracing a human style
Embracing this human style or approach to lead our organisations and staff is much more likely to see greater input from inspired staff who act swiftly, and dare I say happily, to provide solutions to the array of opportunities and challenges the team or organisation are managing, at any given time.
There are numerous other attributes that I could list, often cited as ‘soft-skills’ however for me, these are the key hard human skills that contribute to being an effective leader in the 21st century. I always think that a key element of effective leadership is to be a beacon and consistent champion of the organisation’s vision, purpose, culture and brand. Also integration. And that applies to all leaders in an organisation, not just those of us with a marketing and communications background.
I for one, look forward to seeing future civil society being led by people embracing these human skills - I think it will be a great place to think, learn and of course work!
Arti Sharma is deputy chief executive at City Year UK and was one of the recipients of the ACEVO Fellowship Award 2018/19.