Reflections on Leadership

Global Issues

Organisations are looking for people who clearly have the ability to leave a legacy. This requires pragmatism plus vision: a proven track record of success plus the ability to develop visions and the volition to achieve them. More attention is being paid to communication … not necessarily personal eloquence, but the ability to make sure the messages get through … and to the art of enabling other people to take charge of their own development. And there is increasing demand for people with a wider knowledge of the world. At board level, for example, the direct energy and focus of the management team needs to be balanced with the wisdom that comes from a broad, mature worldview. More and more today, leaders are recognising the relevance of global issues and their impact on the business environment in New Zealand and Australia.

The strengthening focus on international best practice is a change that has a lot to offer Australasian organisations, especially those with ambitions to compete in global markets. An important prerequisite is for Australasian leaders to help their people develop a genuinely international outlook. Young nations like ours enjoy the energy and vigour of youth. But like young humans, we may have much to learn about our own limits. How well are we learning to be global citizens? A recent study highlighted a continuing need for international executives. That means people who can stand alone, in foreign environments far from their support systems, make decisions and take action that works. Increasingly it also means acquiring a genuine understanding of the subtleties of other cultures.

Shorter Life Cycles

The fundamental qualities of leadership have not changed in centuries. Good leaders then, as now, had vision, strove to do something different, and distinguished themselves by outstanding abilities of some kind.

What has changed is the knowledge that leaders need, and the requirement to refresh that knowledge constantly and to review their energy constantly to face changing circumstances. This focuses attention on the shelf life of leadership, and the need for leaders and organisations to plan renewal into their lives.

Recent business theory and history demonstrates the need to develop planning for the next life cycle while the current one is at its height. The principle holds as much for the individual as it does for the organisation: both have to strive for continual development. But the fundamental qualities of leadership remain the same.

Change is certainly the dominant challenge for leaders today, but is also a priceless resource. The life cycle of leadership is shortening. With hindsight we can see this was foreshadowed in sport, with the trend to appointing new coaches, choosing new players to renew the vigour of winning teams. We can see parallels in the political environment too.

Change is refreshing. It is as refreshing to the leader, to the coach, as it is to the team. So it seems likely that we will continue to see a shorter life cycle for leadership as both leaders and organisations choose to refresh their creativity through the natural energy of change.

Larger Goals

New styles of management are demanding – and rewarding – different sets of skills and qualities for people who are going to exercise authority and responsibility. Flatter structures in organisations tend to identify future leaders more quickly. If a manager hasn’t won recognition by around 40, there’s a temptation to think that the manager won’t make it into the top leadership level later. At the same time flatter organisations, which don’t offer the support of a rigid structure, call for smarter leaders, with more mature personal qualities. Often they’re older, people who are ready to give up small, individual goals to embrace the larger goals of the group. There is a higher premium on good experience. This means that increasingly we can consider older people with a shorter career life but richer personal resources when it comes to looking for leadership.

The fundamental qualities of leadership have not changed in centuries. Good leaders then, as now, had vision, strove to do something different, and distinguished themselves by outstanding abilities of some kind and had the ability to attract followers who shared their goals.

Anyone who aspires to lead must develop certain qualities and attributes. People usually bring their qualities with them, but attributes are more like skills and therefore easier to learn. These attributes are:

  • Trustworthiness
  • Fairness
  • Unassuming behaviour
  • Leaders listen
  • A leader is open minded
  • Sensitivity to people
  • Sensitivity to situations
  • Initiative, initiative, initiative
  • Good judgment
  • Broad mindedness
  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • The capacity to make sound and timely decisions
  • The capacity to motivate
  • A sense of urgency.

However, personal qualities of leadership are more important than ever in today’s environment, with growing pressures on the need for innovation and creativity. To find people with these qualities we have to reach beyond superficial judgments on the basis of work history.

Historically reference checking with a superior was routine. Today we take a more comprehensive approach. We talk to subordinates as well as superiors, close in on specifics like: how does this person go about building a team? Was he/she effective? How? What sort of results were achieved? What sort of leader was he/she? What sort of manager?

And at the end of the day we find someone who is an independent thinker, someone who is prepared to nurture a team, but someone who is prepared to accept the final responsibility of leadership.

More and more, leaders are being judged by what they do instead of what they say. For coming generations, the need to “walk the talk”, the need for a leader to live out the values that he or she espouses, will be even more acute than it is under the glare of today’s public scrutiny.

Already, the people in our community who win universal admiration are leaders whose sleeves are rolled up, whose hands are dirty. We will see this trend moving more strongly into organisations.

An important aspect of this is the growing perception that true leaders are dedicated to the task, not the glory. Recognition goes to the function rather than to the individual, to the action rather than the person. In organisations, this shift highlights the role of leaders in setting a style that underpins collegiate cultures, collaborate behaviour.

Greater transparency in organisations has profound implications for leaders, and in the selection of people who will be effective leaders. More than ever, it is widening the gap between leaders and managers. Flatter structures sharpen the edge of individual responsibility. There’s less blurring of roles, less room to hide. Leadership obligations are clearer, and the performance of leaders more open to scrutiny. At the same time, wider information sharing opens up internal cultures. There’s less opportunity for information politics. People can communicate sideways more easily without going through a hierarchy. At the top, that means less involvement with transferring knowledge, more involvement in leadership.

At Caldwell New Zealand we value the opportunity to share the thinking of our clients as we work together in the task of identifying and engaging the successful leaders of the future. They tell us that this is becoming more and more central to the task as they face the challenges of globalisation and change. They value the opportunity to talk with their peers and see it as one of the best ways to stimulate new ideas. New ideas help them to stay in touch with change. Leading organisations not only believe in and encourage this thinking – they demand it.

About the author

Simon Monks
direct +64 9 306 6632

Simon Monks is managing partner of Caldwell New Zealand with over 25 years’ executive search and leadership advisory experience in Asia Pacific and international markets.

As a senior member of the Caldwell global Board and CEO Practice, he has oversight of the Consumer, Retail & E-commerce, Industrial, Financial Services, Media & Entertainment and Private Equity practices in the Asia Pacific region. His functional expertise in addition to CEO/Board includes CFO, CMO, CSO, CCO and CHRO.


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