Fall 2008 | The Next Chapter
New times, new leaders
By David Wegge
Professor of Political Science
We are in the midst of a transformative era in the world that challenges the leadership of every institution from nation-states to multinational corporations, from educational institutions to small businesses.
It’s not so much that “the times they are a-changing,” to quote Bob Dylan. We could easily alter Dylan’s chorus to say “the times they are a-changing, and a-changing, and a-changing.” It isn’t simply the change itself that is driving these challenges; it is the pace of the change. Virtually every institution is impacted. The demands on leaders have never been greater than they are in the 21st century.
Two authors recently summarized many of these changes and their potential effects.
Thomas Friedman, the foreign affairs writer for The New York Times, states that “The World is Flat.” In his bestselling book, Friedman argues convincingly that the world’s playing field has been flattened as a result of the convergence in the early 21st century of three major developments: the creation of a global web-enabled environment; the shift from a vertical to a horizontal chain of command value creation; and the addition of three billion people, primarily from China, India, Russia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, into the marketplace.
More recently Fareed Zakaria, columnist for Newsweek, has built on the work of Friedman in his new book “The Post-American World.” Zakaria contends that one of the major ramifications of the flattening of the world is that, as we left the 20th century – a century that was dominated by the United States – we entered an era that Zakaria characterizes as “the rise of the rest.”
The flattening of the world and the rise of the rest are producing significant transformations in economic, social and political realms. We see new economic players at the table, a substantial increase in diversity, a movement for more individualism, expansive growth in information sharing and the shifting of social structures, to name a few examples.
These transformations impact the context within which organizations must successfully operate, as well as the internal structures and operations of organizations.
Leadership in the 21st century
Naturally, some of the same skills and talents that have always been requisites for successful leadership remain important today. Successful leaders, those that are both effective and ethical, have always needed to have a vision, integrity, a strong moral compass, effective communication skills and the ability to mobilize their followers.
These elements are still required and, in fact, are needed more than ever in this new environment – but they are also more difficult than ever to successfully deliver.
What has changed so dramatically in the past few years is the context within which these organizations must function and leaders must lead. The external changes also permeate the internal operation of an organization.
As organizations move from vertical hierarchies to horizontal networks, new skills are needed by leaders so that they can build effective teams that will accomplish much of the work of the organization. These teams often include members internal to the organization, as well as those external to it who come aboard for a short duration.
Leaders need to retain authority while at the same time relinquishing some control. They will need to surround themselves with expertise to handle these burgeoning external and internal complexities.
New realities require new skills
Leaders today, and in the future, must have the capacity to see the big picture. They will have to see the landscape from 30,000 feet. Understanding the complex nature of the world around them and being able to connect the dots of seemingly disparate events will be critical for successful leadership.
In a sense they will be required to be futurists, or at least surround themselves with those who are. It is only with this view and understanding of the world that leaders will be able to craft their vision for the future of their organizations. Their vision will be critical, but it also may be more difficult than ever to convey, sell and rally the organization around, because it will often challenge the status quo. Therefore, a leader’s success will often hinge on their ability to teach and educate their followers in order to achieve acceptance of that vision.
In responding to this transformative era, leaders will need to be creative innovators. The organizations that remain static will atrophy. Leaders will need to be open to taking responsible risks with their organization’s resources, for it will only be in taking those risks that organizations will find their future.
Nokia took risks. The Finnish mobile phone company is not a new entity. It dates back to 1865, when it was a rubber boot manufacturer. It expanded into cable and rubber products during the 1920s and into electronics in the 1950s. Then, in the 1980s, its leader, CEO Jorma Ollila, pushed Nokia into a single industry – telecommunications – and then, later, into microprocessor-based cellular phones. Today, Nokia’s revenue is about the same as that of the government of Finland.
The values of leaders and their organizations will also be challenged in new and numerous ways in this emerging era. Therefore, it will be incumbent on leaders to have a strong moral compass and the sound value foundation that will ensure that compass remains appropriately set.
In recent years we have seen the values of many of our leaders fail this challenge. Whether in business, government or nonprofit organizations, they have not been able to keep their moral compass pointed in the correct direction.
The new realities of the 21st century will call upon leaders to be flexible and nimble. They will often be challenged to respond to changes in their environment quickly or miss out on significant opportunities. In the new era, organizations will continue to be more and more diverse, both demographically and attitudinally. Increasing diversity means leaders must have the ability to understand people from different traditions, cultures and backgrounds.
In addition, that diversity will require that leaders have significant skills in consensus building – skills that will be easier for those leaders who have high levels of social intelligence. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis argued that social intelligence – the ability to connect with and influence others – is a critical factor in successful leadership. The demands placed on leaders in the 21st century are great and succeeding in this new era will present a difficult challenge.
A season for new leadership
What evidence do we have that new leaders are emerging? Certainly at the national level in the 2008 race for the presidency we saw strong proof. Diversity was one of the key new dimensions of this election.
On the Democratic side we had Barack Obama as the first African-American nominee for president. One year ago Hillary Clinton was the leading Democratic candidate and thought to be the presumptive nominee. If she had been successful, she would have been the first woman presidential nominee.
The Republican Party also produced a diverse ticket, with John McCain who, if elected, would be the oldest United States president to take office, and Sarah Palin, as the first Republican woman vice-presidential nominee. In January 2009 the country will have a new leader for new times.
St. Norbert College has also selected a new leader for this new era. Like all organizations, colleges and universities today, more than ever, face challenging times. The rise of competitive forces, the increasing cost of providing high-quality education, the changing demands of the marketplace, the rapidly changing environment, and the need to balance increasing expectations of trustees with the incrementalism and independence of the academic culture – all create a vortex of challenging demands on college presidents. The college sought someone who could integrate collegiate and corporate models of governance.
President Thomas Kunkel, St. Norbert College has for the first time selected a leader who is not a priest or simply a traditional academic. Kunkel’s career blends a highly respected scholarship and academic credentials with substantial experience in the world of journalism and newspaper management. Today at St. Norbert College we have a new leader for new times.
David Wegge is a professor of political science and the director of leadership studies at St. Norbert College, where he has taught since 1979. He is the founder of the St. Norbert College Survey Center. In that position, and as a private consultant, he has appeared on CNN and ABC New York, among other media outlets.