The Challenges Of Modern Day Leadership

Nov 06, 2015 8 Min Read
man in a suit
Setting about transforming the theory into effective practice in the workplace

How exactly are businesses to move forward in the modern age of technological advances, globalisation, and evolving needs of employees?

As someone who spent a decade as a political journalist, it didn’t take 10 days to realise that politicians, business and human resources (HR) leaders are easy targets for criticism. When there’s a problem, we all become experts on how to fix things – safe in the knowledge that we’re not the ones having to make tough decisions, but resolutely sure that we would do a much better job nevertheless.

Even with the abundance of information available at our finger tips, transforming the theory into practice can be a laborious, difficult and often complex process.

For example, chief executive officers (CEOs) and senior managers know that, in order to motivate and stimulate their workforce, they should cultivate a strong culture that meets the needs of those under their direction – but what does that look like in practice?

How do we physically set about creating the kind of salubrious, productive working environment that would make Tim Cook weep with envy?

Transformation and service

Everything stems from leadership. Most of us know the phrase, “People don’t leave bad companies – they leave bad bosses.”

This might seem overly-harsh at first, as we presume all leaders try their best but, like it or not, the reality is that poor performance stems from poor leadership.

If a company has a high attrition rate, consistently fails to meet its targets, struggles with HR processes, and fails to attract and keep hold of top talent, how else are we to explain away such issues other than to suggest the area of leadership needs improving?

Having worked with small and medium-sized enterprises back home and listened to business leaders such as Sir Tom Hunter speak on best practices, I believe one of the key factors of successfully leading in the new world is the cultivation of transformational and servant leadership.

Transformational leadership sees an authentic desire in leaders to care for their followers, to encourage them, inspire them towards a vision and establish bonds of confidence and trust.

Through their approach, they transform the working environment through building and encouraging positive relationships.

Servant leadership focuses on meeting the needs of team members – leaders seek to serve, rather than be served. Servant leaders inspire trust and cooperation, which in turn leads to team members being reciprocal in their service, and this kind of relationship results in overall higher performance.

Leadership pipeline

Of course, as well as developing the capabilities of existing leadership, organisations also need to consider how they plan to develop future leaders.

In Deloitte’s 2015 report: Leading in the New World of Work, it is suggested that ensuring a pipeline of leaders to sustain business growth is being seen as increasingly important in South-East Asia (SEA).

From the report, business leaders are offered key areas on which to focus:

1. Taking a strategic view of leadership development

“Companies must view leadership as a long-term investment. Too many businesses equate leadership development with short-term training classes or a series of ad hoc events.

Many current leadership development programmes are very fragmented, making it hard for companies to architect integrated, yet tailored experiences their leaders need.

Without a long-term, holistic approach to identify, develop and retain leaders, it is not surprising that future leaders with appropriate skillsets are in short supply.”

2. Developing a clear view of what capabilities and experiences are required for each leadership position

“Being clear on expectations at each leadership level will help identify those with the potential to fill these leadership positions and dictate how to ensure that future leaders are developing the capabilities they need to succeed now and in the future.”

3. Investing in data-driven leadership assessment and development tools

“Companies need data to plan for succession and talent mobility to meet business challenges. Leveraging proven, data-driven approaches allows for assessing and tracking leaders at all levels.

Likewise, leaders desire greater awareness of available career paths and requirements to reach the next level of leadership.”

Concluding thoughts

There are easier challenges to tackle in the world of business than the development of leadership. Given that there are over 350 definitions of leadership, and that research has concluded there’s no one-size-fits-all formula to what makes a great leader, it can be difficult to know exactly where to begin.

The best leaders I’ve seen in action are those who proactively share not only their successes, but also their struggles – and how they overcame them. They avoid motivational fluff when offering advice, as seen in the example of Jim Duffy, founder and CEO of Entrepreneurial Spark.

Whenever budding entrepreneurs show Jim their projections, he’ll say, “Great! Who have you spoken to?” The confused fledgling replies, “My mum. She thinks it’s a great idea.”

“It is,” he replies, “but unless your mum is planning on gifting you your projected bottom line, you’d better get out and speak to customers and potential clients.”

Or as Sir Tom will say, “While you spend talking about your ideas and working on your fancy graphics, someone’s already taken what you’re planning to do and they’re off doing it.”

Young professionals are hungry to play a part in the kind of success that helps build a business and drive a nation forward. But it’s not enough to simply hand them a slice of responsibility and hope they come good.

They want consistent guidance, direction and support, as well as an element of independence to show what they can do. And, ultimately, it’s up to seasoned leaders to show them that leadership in itself is a lifelong learning process.

Ways to strengthen leadership

1. Overcoming the ‘Great Man’ obsession

We all love a leader with a vision, a heroic figure who has all the answers, an omniscient visionary. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Sir Winston Churchill – those sorts of chaps.

But just as we love a leader, we love to romanticise leadership and so we fall into the trap of thinking that an inspirational quote and a desire to win is all it takes to succeed.

Few of us will work for a Steve Jobs; fewer still will be a Steve Jobs. Today, there is an increasing need for collaborative leadership, where young professionals need to feel part of the decision-making process and shaping the overall vision.

Bill George, author of Discover Your True North advises that “charisma, image and style have been replaced by character, humility, and service”.

Today, we need to find new, innovative ways of practising leadership, ways that involve a collaborative process of humility and service, rather than trying to be the next “Great Man”.

2. Striking a balance between vision and reality

Professor Richard Boyatzis, of Case Western Reserve University, suggests that the best leaders are those who are able to inspire through their vision, while at the same time being honest with where the business is at.

Great leaders actively work to overcome challenges that obstruct progress and growth.Leaders who place all their focus on vision are almost certain to lose touch with their reality.

Tony Blair’s former director of communications, Alastair Campbell, describes this as “when leaders become caught up in their own bubble” – leaders in this position are often blind to the issues facing their company, let alone able to solve them.

Similarly, leaders who place little value in having a vision are likely to find difficulty in inspiring their employees and motivating them in pulling towards the bigger goal.Successful leadership is able to present an inspiring vision while dealing with the reality of the company’s current state.

3. Nailing Down Details

Picture a ladder without any rungs, propped against the wall you want to climb over. You know where you want to go, but how are you going to get there without the rungs in place?

This problem can be seen in business, where leaders have their grand plans, but don’t know exactly how to get there.

Here’s where Steve Jobs is often quoted as saying, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.

So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” Anyone who has read about Jobs’ life will know how fastidious he was – of course, once you’ve helped to build a billion-dollar empire, it’s easy to suggest that the universe conspired and the stars aligned in your favour.

Leaders have to know where they want to go – but they also need to know how they’re going to get there.

4. Developing resonance and authenticity

Daniel Goleman, a prominent thought leader on emotional intelligence, advises that resonant leadership, being authentic with those we lead, creates the kinds of connections that are conducive to healthy, fruitful working relationships.

In his book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, he writes, “Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion.

When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large.But when we focus on others, our world expands.

Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”

Resonant leadership is no longer a fanciful concept leaders might consider if they find the time; rather, it’s a vital necessity if they hope to establish genuine connections with their employees and lead them in a meaningful and purposeful manner.

Establishing a robust culture

Leaders who believe that culture boils down to having a gaming area, in-house gym, good house plan in general and the occasional “team away days” are likely to run into challenges ranging from hiring the right fit for their company, to keeping hold of their top performers.

As social psychologist Ron Friedman writes, “Given the frequency with which resort-like workplaces are recognised, it’s become easy to assume that to build a great workplace, you need to turn your office into an amusement park. Not true.

“To thrive at work, employees don’t require luxuries. What they need are experiences that fulfil their basic human needs.

As decades of academic research have demonstrated, we perform at our best when we feel competent, autonomous, and connected to others.”

A robust culture – one which provides certain flexibility within a defined framework of practices – not only better enables organisations to shape the road ahead, but it instils confidence in the workforce, providing clear guidance and direction within individual roles as well as teams.


3 Key findings from Deloitte’s ‘Human Capital Trends 2015’ report (South-east Asia)


1. “Softer” areas such as leadership, as well as culture and engagement, have become critical business issues

Issues once considered “soft” are now urgent challenges impeding business sustainability and growth.

CEOs and operational leaders have become aware via research and personal experience of the tremendous impact so-called “soft” issues have on business results.

Therefore, they are taking a more active role in managing programmes to enhance leadership capability and driving culture and engagement.

2. Developing workforce capability and learning have dramatically increased in importance but the capability gap is widening

As economic growth in SEA continues, companies see an accelerating demand for highly qualified talent at all levels of the organisation.

These challenges saw the greatest increase in importance ratings from last year but even greater decreases in readiness.

These results suggest that even while organisations see these as critical needs, they are beginning to appreciate that their current methods are increasingly ineffective at keeping pace – much less closing the gap.

3. HR organisations and processes are not keeping up with business needs

Compared with last year, the capability gap for virtually every issue increased in magnitude. Furthermore, the SEA capability gap for each of the top 10 human capital trends is larger than the corresponding global capability gap.

This finding implies that HR is struggling to keep pace with growing business needs. Our experience with firms around the world tells us that high performing HR organisations tend to demonstrate strong capabilities across all areas.

Therefore, HR and business leaders who continue to focus on reinventing HR will be better positioned for success across the board.

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Tags: Executing Leadership

Sandy is a former Leaderonomics editor and is now a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. As editor of, he has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.

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