How Much Has Our Perception Of Great Leadership Shifted Over The Past Decade And What Has Changed?

Kathy Caprino

So much has been written in countless books, articles and research studies about “great leadership” today – what it is and what’s required for individuals to become stand-out leaders who catalyze positive change within people and organizations.iStock_000050755292_Medium-forbes

One question I’ve wondered about in reviewing today’s material on leadership is this:

How has our society’s perception and conceptualization of outstanding, positive leadership changed over the past decade? Do we as a society think about leadership differently now, and is leadership defined by a different set of traits and standards now than it was in the past?

To answer that question, I caught up with Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former chairman and CEO of Medtronic MDT +0.23%.  Bill has been recognized as “Executive of the Year” by the Academy of Management, “Director of the Year” by the National Association of Corporate Directors, and received the prestigious Bower Award for Business Leadership – given annually to the nation’s top business leader. Bill is the author of the new book, Discover Your True North, a follow-up to his best-selling 2007 book, True North

While retaining many of the basic principles of his first book, Bill has incorporated much of what has been learned in the past decade about becoming an authentic and transformational leader. His final chapter focuses on global leaders and the special characteristics they need, which he terms global intelligence (GQ).

For his new edition, Bill profiled an additional 47 leaders on top of the 125 people interviewed for True North. The new leaders are more diverse and more international than the first group – more closely reflecting the makeup of today’s leaders.

Bill shared with me his view that our conceptualization and expectations of great leadership have indeed changed dramatically since 2007, in part due to the corporate scandals and financial meltdown. He says today’s leaders are of a “higher caliber,” more authentic, and more committed to serving the needs of all their constituencies.

Here’s what he offered:

Kathy Caprino: Bill, what specifically has changed about what constitutes great leaders since you wrote True North in 2007?

Bill George: Today’s business leaders are very different from those in my generation, when there was so much emphasis on charisma and style. Many in that generation were aloof, led through structured hierarchies, and focused on exerting power over people. The company’s stock price preoccupied these leaders – not the long-term earning power of the enterprise.

Today, authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership. The new generation of leaders is far more open and collaborative. They align people around their organization’s mission and values, and empower their teams to step up and lead. Great leaders today recognize they must serve all their constituencies (yes, shareholders, but also customers, employees, suppliers, and community) for the long-term.

Caprino: What has caused these changes?

George:  The corporate crisis of 2002-03 and the financial failures of 2008-09 demonstrated the pitfalls of charismatic leadership. The leaders who focused primarily on themselves, their personal wealth, and maximizing short-term shareholder value failed.

With the growing impact of social media and technology, there is much greater transparency and scrutiny of today’s business leaders. Accordingly, the emphasis in leadership has shifted to leaders with high EQ and high self-awareness who relate personally to people throughout their organizations. Given the global nature of business today, these leaders are more in sync with global issues, celebrate diversity as a strength, and lead with empathy and compassion.

Caprino: Where does discovering your True North fit in for today’s leaders?

George: To be a great leader today, you first have to be an integrated human being. With social media and 24-7 news, the spotlight is always on leaders and they cannot put on a mask the way they could have in the 20thcentury.

Today’s leaders recognize that to sustain their legitimacy they must have consistency between their True North – their deepest beliefs, values, and principles that guide their lives – and the purpose of the organization. This requires leaders to understand their life stories and their crucibles to gain deep awareness and acceptance of who they are – their strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. This is achieved through personal self-examination, introspection, and honest feedback from those you respect.

Caprino: How does understanding our life story impact our ability to lead?

George: Before you can lead others, you have to be able to lead yourself through difficult times. This is more difficult than it sounds. In fact, in our studies of hundreds of leaders, nearly all of the failures resulted from the inability of people to lead themselves. Examples include McKinsey’s Rajat Gupta, Home Depot HD -0.86%’s Bob Nardelli, and Hewlett-Packard HPQ -3.70%’s Carly Fiorina.

The process of gaining self-awareness requires mining your life experiences, especially the crucibles you have faced and what you learned from them. As you look back at your life story, you gain an understanding of how you react to certain circumstances and how your crucibles have defined your character. In gaining acceptance of yourself, you will emerge as a confident leader who can empower people to perform at their best.

Caprino: How do the Millennials view leadership, and what do they demand from their leaders that older generations aren’t looking for?

George: Millennials don’t want to work for authoritarian leaders that command rather than empower people. They want to follow leaders that communicate clear visions and are willing to trust people to do the right thing as they step to lead. The hierarchical style of leadership that was prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s will not work today.

Millennial leaders are passionate about serving causes greater than themselves and having an impact on the world’s challenges. They work well in empowering, collaborative environments where outcomes are much more important than who gets credit.

Caprino: What was the biggest insight from your interviews with the new generation of leaders you profile in your book?

George:  The new generation of leaders has a passion to make a difference through their work and to leave a legacy that others may follow. Starbucks SBUX +0.00%’ Howard Schultz is focused on creating jobs for young people. PepsiCo PEP -1.09%’s Indra Nooyi is leading the shift to healthy foods and beverages. Paul Polman sees global sustainability as Unilever ’s True North. Ford’s Alan Mulally transformed Ford by focusing on quality, fuel efficiency and global competitiveness. All of them – and many others like them – are changing the world for the better.

Caprino: What are the top 5 leadership skills that have emerged in the last 10 years as absolutely critical for leaders to be successful and pave the way for success in their organizations?

George: Among the important leadership characteristics that have emerged as crucial for today’s leaders are:

  1. Inspiring people with a vision
  2. Empowering your teammates
  3. Collaborating with diverse teams
  4. Appreciating cultural and ethnic differences on the global level, and
  5. Being open and transparent with your entire organization

Great leaders have humility to acknowledge their mistakes, weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and the confidence to surround themselves with people who are more competent in certain areas and to ask others for help. This humanizes leaders in positions of power and enables them to be authentic. Showing your vulnerability is a way to develop connections of the heart, which is the basis for authentic relationships.

Caprino: What are the time-honored leadership skills that we’ve highlighted in the past that remain essential?

George: The need for leaders with integrity will never change. Nor will the necessity of leaders who have courage to face difficult circumstances, and make risky decisions that transform enterprises and entire industries.

Leaders must be honest with themselves. In Discover Your True North I profile several leaders like Lehman’s Dick Fuld and Lance Armstrong, who failed because they were not honest with others or themselves. Instead of accepting responsibility for problems and their shortcomings, they blamed others and external circumstances. In contrast, today’s leaders like Schultz, Apple AAPL -0.89%’s Tim Cook, Whole Foods’ John Mackey, and Amgen AMGN -1.49%’s Kevin Sharer admit their mistakes and take action to correct them.

Whereas in the past, hierarchical structures and institutional norms protected inauthentic leaders, that won’t work today. No longer can you “fake it till you make it,” as some have suggested. It’s impossible to hide in this open and interactive world.

To survive and succeed in today’s business community, you have to be genuine and authentic, and stay on course of your True North.

This article was originally posted 8/29/15 on

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