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Leadership undone

by Phillippa Dunlop August 31, 2011

I enjoyed a thoroughly stimulating day at The Economist Talent Management Conference 2010. Quite frankly it was arguably one of the most useful, and thought provoking events I have attended in a long time. In my mind the Chairman Linda Hill, Harvard Business School made the day; she lent insight, and inspired questioning to what was a stellar panel line up. Indeed, our very own Charlie Osmond contributed to a diverse discussion around “Talent Management in a new kind of capitalism” and argued as to the use of social media in harnessing the ambitious workforce of today. The essence of the day lay in its header “Raising Great Leaders” as panellists sought to answer the question “what makes a good leader?”  And therefore how can we best nurture for leadership, particularly in the current climate?

The overwhelming conclusion reached during the course of the day was that true leaders are actually superstars. Great leadership is a real feat and very few get it right. It is a complex business. As is the hiring and priming of a leadership population. Leadership requires a mix of skills often deemed to be contradictory; the ability to proffer a reasoned response with a forward thinking creativity that encourages, and fosters ideas and innovation and so facilitates progress. A truly accomplished leader will leverage a balance of skills, tools and techniques beyond the traditional exuberance.

The essence of a leader clearly lies in the way they interact with others. As has been very obvious in the aftermath of the recent downturn, a leader simply has to respond to a crisis with a level head - and approach ambiguity in constructive, inclusive fashion. Trust has to be the aim of the game, and an honesty and transparency in approach will ensure the workforce is on side, and that it stays on side. Increasingly, in this context, a leader must create a meaning in work that others buy into, as altruistic concerns increasingly pervade consciousness of the workforce, particularly where it is comprised in part by Generation Y.

A leader by definition cannot exist in isolation. Leadership should be entirely inclusive, and organisational structures can facilitate this through acknowledging the critical players in a workforce and encouraging a shared, collaborative approach. There really is room here for the virtual team, increasingly common in our borderless world, a world where emphasis is necessarily on ideas and their exchange, and adoption rather than where each contributor sits within the organisational hierarchy.

I realise I haven’t begun to answer my second question, how can we best nurture for leadership? This really does have to take organisational context into account. Leadership has to be propelled by a true vision, and intrinsically linked to a corporate strategy, and identity, which link to a common purpose. And it must be progressive. If the conference established anything concretely then it was the notion of an evolutionary world, one in which our leaders and indeed those responsible for leading them simply have to be a step ahead – and possess the courage to rely on their intuition as well as experience. A great leader is a superstar – but entirely human with it.

Phillippa Dunlop is a Senior Consultant for FreshMinds Select

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