“If you want to be a leader, be a bridge”
In the VUCA world we inhabit - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous - there is barely any room for convention. Traditions and norms are under attack and there must be good reason to continue doing what we do, the rest needs to make way for the new normal. Moreover, in this rapidly changing environment, the workforce is increasingly made up of millennials – young people who question everything and have little regard for hierarchy. Previously, leaders were meant to be all-knowing and in control. Authoritative styles of leadership, stereotypically ‘masculine’ traits like assertiveness or dominance, and leading from the front determined success as a leader. Today, these have little relevance. How does one, then, lead into this unfamiliar future?
Leadership is a term debated and discussed ad nauseum in corporate and academic circles. But there is no defined meaning of the term; it evolves based on context and different situations. Over the years, authority gave way to collaboration – someone described it as ‘leading others even as one looked for the right answers, a bit like being the one holding the compass’. This style, too, isn’t adequate for the times to come. The expectations from a leader, I am told, are now are more like a ‘gardener’ – someone who can nurture and nourish; be empathetic; provide an enabling environment for growth and opportunity; acknowledge vulnerability and lack of control (to the weather, for example); and demonstrate immense patience. Things can’t happen faster always – just because you as a leader want it… a plant cannot be whipped into growing faster beyond a point. And so, the leader of the future must watch for change and respond accordingly, celebrating every new bud along the path. It sounds like leading, not from the front, but from behind – an oxymoron some would say.
If true, what does this mean for all of us?
To begin with, perhaps a change in the gender representation at senior positions. Traditionally, women have been dismissed as ‘weaker’ or more unfit than men for leadership roles, based on the idea that women possess ‘feminine’ attributes that run counter to the needs of leadership. This has meant dismally low numbers at the top, despite rapid economic progress around the world. Even in 2017, only 6.4 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and this remains the highest proportion of female CEOs in the 63-year history of Fortune 500. But going forward, this will change. Traits, stereotyped as ‘feminine’, i.e, empathy, collaboration, vulnerability, patience, and emotional intelligence, are now being recognised as critical for leadership and success in a shifting world. To ensure optimal and enabling workplaces, the future leader – whether man or woman – must possess these attributes. Women may find their way more naturally into this leadership style and help restore some of the balance.
But this also means that men must abandon their stereotyped styles - aggressive, assertive, controlling, dominating and so on - and discover some of the ‘feminine’ within them. As gender study experts will explain – what is considered masculine is only 5 per cent of the whole and what is feminine is also the same. Men and women are far more similar (90% of the attributes) than different – but we focus singularly on playing up the differences! The answer to the future – for both men and women - lies in discarding the extremes and inhabiting more ‘common ground’. This is our view, but what do you think?
With a toast to a fairer world and much joy in 2018,
– with Mohini Gupta
Anuradha Das Mathur, Editor, CFO India