The Single Greatest Change Required for Contemporary Leadership: It’s About People

I have written several articles about how the required knowledge, skills, abilities, and traits for successful leadership have changed, rather dramatically, over the last 15 to 20 years. One article included more than two-dozen ways in which the new leadership model has evolved! But the single greatest shift in what is required from leaders today is the required focus on people and “people issues.” There are many reasons for this, both internal to organizations and externally, related to profound societal changes as well, but the bottom line is that success as a leader today is more about effectively understanding and working with people than ever before. And this has happened at the same time that human capital and teamwork in organizations are collectively a more critical resource and competitive advantage than ever before. In fact, according to the Gallup organization, tangible assets have dropped in S&P market value from 68% in 1985 to an average of 13% today. What this means is that less than 15% of a company’s value today is tied to assets like technology or equipment and 85% is tied to human capital! As a result, the cost of leadership failures related to people are also higher than it has ever been!

Moreover, although contemporary, strategic leadership includes many “new” skills and attributes that apply to leading in complex, uncertain, high-change environments, effective people leadership has become so foundational, that its absence compromises other ways in which leaders may be exceptionally competent. In other words, being a brilliant strategist or having deep business acumen may be nearly irrelevant if one cannot effectively connect with and empower the people in an organization. To be fair, organizations have always benefitted from leaders with strong people skills. That is not new. What is new is the centrality of that need and the growing complexity of “people issues” that leaders have to effectively address.

So, what are the key elements of people leadership?

Many of these elements are affective and intuitive and have almost never been central to leadership development. They are as much personal traits as they are skills, and include things like empathy, emotional/cultural intelligence, authenticity, and vulnerability, which is itself a prerequisite to courage.

In this context, knowledge of organizational dynamics and human psychology may supersede knowledge of finance and operational expertise, which only a few years ago would have been “heresy” in the leadership cannon. And possibly more importantly, effective people leadership requires that that the leader be dedicated to and purposeful about his or her own human needs and well-being!

At its core, people leadership is about achieving success through others. It is ensuring that human beings in the organization feel valued, heard, respected, and empowered to embrace risk—to be safe to show their own vulnerability—and that the organization supports collaboration and teamwork. It is about relational skills rather than operational skills or “business acumen.” And it requires exceptional patience, kindness, and sensitivity to the humanity that each individual employee brings to an organization.

How do leaders build these traits and competencies?

One hard reality is that some individuals are simply not good candidates for the kind of leadership that is necessary today. Although a strong, ego-driven, directive style was desired in leaders a generation ago, that is actually demotivating and alienating to many employees today. Likewise, those with poor self-awareness, but strong technical skills, may have been able to achieve performance objectives a generation ago, but are not great leadership candidates today, because self-awareness is central to emotional and cultural intelligence, which are both essential to people leadership. Having said that, as with many other skills and attributes, if one is motivated enough, he or she can learn just about anything and can change behavior as well. What might that look like in the context of becoming a more effective people leader? It starts with self-reflection, which itself is quite different than traditional leadership development, which has historically been based on skills development rather than personal self-actualization.

Here are some good ways to start:

In short, some of us are naturally better wired to meet the challenges of the single greatest change in contemporary leadership: leading people to create success through others. For some of us, the required traits, skills, and behaviors are more of a stretch. Regardless, anyone with the proper motivation can progress along the continuum to more effective and powerful leadership in today’s complex and often volatile, people-centric environment. It requires a lot of self-awareness and self-reflection, but it also confers great benefits on us personally, so it is a win-win!

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