Leadership is one of the most widely discussed and researched areas of human behaviour in an organisational context. One study estimated that in 1999 alone 2,000 books about leadership were published. So what makes it worth looking again into the topic?
Well, there is still much to learn. It would be a crude, but reasonably fair, summary to describe 'traditional' approaches as emphasising general intelligence and business awareness, and 'newer' approaches as underlining the importance of skills such as emotional intelligence (EQ).
So which is of rising importance in the globalised economy and the digital age? The intriguing answer is both.
I carried out some detailed research interviews with business leaders last year as part of my master dissertation (at the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate School).
What emerges from this is that 'traditional' skills of analysis and information-processing become more important alongside the personal leadership skills of emotional intelligence. Moreover, the two are closely interlinked with one another: one provides the bedrock for the other to flourish.
There is a danger that we neglect cognitive and analytical skills while correctly emphasising the persuasive, empathic and coaching skills that modern leaders also need.
There is also a danger that we look only at the individual leader, and not at the environment. My research interviews have strongly indicated that understanding the changing business environment, and continually learning and adapting, is a key success factor for the leader.
With regards to company leadership programmes, there is a need to sharpen the leader's ability to correctly capture and interpret the knowledge surrounding the leader in his environment.
In order to facilitate this personality trait the company has the responsibility to induce an environment that is conducive and open for learning. This responsibility links directly into modern approaches of knowledge management, to make knowledge accessible to employees at every level.
One intriguing conclusion is that it appears that the environment is changing faster than any leadership theory can adapt to keep up. This is why information-gathering, comprehension and analytical skills remain of key, and even growing importance.
These changes are profound, as the 20th Century monolithic corporation is broken up and restructured into global networks of business units and specialist providers. There are fewer hierarchies – hence the need for persuasive skills and the capacity to engage colleagues and staff.
The modern business environment features more companies whose primary service is information. They do not have 'products' in the conventional sense. As one of my interviewees put it: knowledge is capital now, and the skill to differentiate between valuable and less useful knowledge is precious.
There is more technological and business information to absorb, understand, and prioritise. All the leaders in my study suffered from time pressures. So the need to prioritise is crucial to create enough time and energy to concentrate on the decisive matters.
But all these cognitive skills need to feed into a way of leading that inspires people. As Franklin D Roosevelt once commented: 'The loneliest feeling in the world is when you think you are leading the parade and turn to find that no one is following you.'
Not only are technology and business structures becoming more complex, so is society. The rise of the non-traditional economies India, China, Brazil and Russia, the ageing demographic profile in the West and the increasing participation of women in the workforce mean a vastly more diverse employee and customer profile than used to be the case for major Western companies.
Combined with flatter hierarchies, the implication is that cultural sensitivity and personal leadership skills are paramount.
Following my research, I have found it useful to group leadership traits into three: 'Power of comprehension traits', 'Power of personality traits', and 'Power of people traits'. These sub-divide as follows:
Comprehension: ability to acquire knowledge quickly, understand the environment, develop business awareness, learn continually.
Personality: ability to display vision and creativity, self-confidence, manage time, and show general intelligence.
People: ability to relate to people, appreciate diversity, communicate.
No leadership model is absolute or universal. But I would argue that, however it is defined, an approach for the 21st Century has to encompass these three areas equally.