The CEO You Need For The 21st Century

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Authenticity, long-range vision and humility are but a few of the characteristics boards should be looking for to lead their companies.

We need a new definition of what good looks like across a whole range of issues so we can create a compelling vision for the world we want to live in and the lives we want to lead. We need to construct new guidelines and principles for our expectations of leaders in society. We also need to review and refine, even redefine, and place significantly more emphasis on being guided by a more accurate moral and ethical compass founded on solid principles and values. We will need to develop new methods that can be used to test the validity of how we define problems and introduce new methods for their analysis and more rigorously simulate and test the effectiveness of proposed solutions. We also need to redefine what it means to be a citizen of the world so that it’s not just our leaders we hold accountable to new standards, but ourselves too.

Recognizing and Spearheading Change

My reflections lead me to consider the following as not only desirable but required leadership qualities. Some of these are not new, but emphasis may necessarily be amplified, and of course, I expect there will be more to add. For now, I suggest that boards look for the following characteristics for a successful 21st-century leader:

• Purpose driven. To lead in the 21st century, we need leaders who act with positive intention in the service of the greater good and who see it as their responsibility to orchestrate cohesive and comprehensive initiatives that drive change for good.

• Possesses higher-level consciousness. This may be the most important quality for leaders to develop. 21st-century leaders’ consciousness will need to evolve beyond being impulsive and defensive to unitive. In other words, from separated to integrated and from individual to collective. The work of Susanne Cook Greuter and Robert Kegan shines a light on this and points the way: when consciousness at a higher level is considered, the bar for the qualities our world leaders need to possess is raised significantly. Qualities we should be able to observe in our leaders include: 1) the capability to hold multiple perspectives simultaneously, 2) the skills to navigate paradox beyond simple polarities and cut through complexity, and 3) the ability to understand the multiple systems at play and recognize their interdependency.

We will need leaders who can think systemically and appreciate the essential interconnectedness of all phenomena and be construct aware, recognizing the constructed aspects of all perceptual positions and boundaries, objects, self-identity, and the stories we tell ourselves about life and nature.

• Visionary, compelling and persuasive. To win both hearts and minds of their followers, especially if their agenda is full of challenge and change, leaders more than ever will need to convince a wide range of audiences to trust them and inspire their engagement.

• We will need leaders who are willing to be courageous and have much-needed conversations about extremely sensitive and complex topics. Challenging conventional thinking; raising topics that are uncomfortable, controversial, and tricky to navigate; and leaning into them voluntarily and early will take courage.

• Those who lead the most impactful organizations and institutions that shape our world will need to make a step change in how they frame and analyze the critical dilemmas that must be addressed if our society is to change for the better and learn lessons from the past.

• Inclusive. Listening to all stakeholders and understanding others’ experiences, perspectives, hopes, fears, and ideas will help ensure leaders are informed by diverse opinions and a richer, more eclectic range of information sources. In the process they will have built their standing with a wide range of stakeholder communities. Being skilled in creating inclusive cultures, where everyone feels valued and has a true sense of belonging, will be critical. Creating psychological safety will be a prerequisite.

• Humility. We will need leaders to have the maturity to recognize that they cannot expect to be in possession of all the knowledge and have all the answers alone. To get to better answers, they need to be both motivated and able to harness the wisdom of the collective.

Collaborative. We will have to face difficult and challenging questions and dig in deeply to find better-informed and enlightened insight if we truly want to be better placed to develop more effective and sustainable solutions. We must have a willingness to collaborate, bring groups together, leverage peer groups and business forums, and sponsor think tanks and cross-industry initiatives—even with those seen as competitors.

• A sponsor that embraces and positively harnesses human ingenuity, innovation and creativity. For sustainable change for the better, new ways of working collectively will need to be successfully brought to life.

• Tech savvy. Without question, fantastic advances in technology continue to accelerate possibilities that hitherto seemed far-fetched, and this will mean exciting applications can be developed that are enablers to change for the better how we live, work, and interact.

• Long-range vision. Have longer-term horizons to truly understand the consequences of the important decisions made and changes driven, as we need them to have lasting, positive impact. Balancing the short with longer term has always been a presenting challenge for leaders—going forward an emphasis on stewardship will be required.

• Values multidisciplinary and multilateral approaches to driving change. We will also need to understand the importance of blending expertise from multiple fields to address multidimensional problems. Being able to recruit expertise from constituents in the wide range of interconnected systems that sit inside and outside their organizations will be key.

• Authentic and transparent. These qualities will be needed as leaders contend with additional stakeholders to satisfy, increased regulatory requirements for transparent reporting, and stakeholder scrutiny. The environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) agenda is here to stay and is already driving the need for transparency and a requirement to operate with highest levels of integrity to satisfy a wider stakeholder community. Green-washing or running corporate social responsibility (CSR) as an adjunct to the core business will no longer be enough or be tolerated.

• A proactive influencer. Leaders have an opportunity and the potential for having the most positive impact on a wide range of environmental, social, and economic issues. They will need to participate in the development of new programs so they can shape and influence international and regional government policy and regulatory affairs. Business has an opportunity to help policy makers get the balance right to create incentive for business to act in ways that go far beyond mere compliance.

• And finally, resilient. Leading has always been a huge, energetically demanding role. It comes with privilege and power and some might say onerous responsibility. Understanding and embedding routines and disciplines that ensure physical, emotional, and mental health is critical to ensuring leaders are fully resourced to show up at their best.

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