Effective Modern Leadership

This posting covers leadership skills and traits from the past, the present and as projected to be needed into the future. Following on from the basics of what people can do and what they can learn is that of the effectiveness of leadership both now and in the future, and how the approach to leadership needs to change to compete in the future, based on both relevant references and personal experience. The motivation for this discussion is the need for modern American companies to be able to compete in a new hyper competitive and highly diverse global economy, which is also an enormous opportunity for new and much larger markets for American goods and services. One of the problems is that some American leadership seems to be slow to change to new modern flattened leadership styles and that corporations are already or soon will be falling behind competitors. The result is that American corporate leadership must modernize if it wants to compete in the new creative economy of a new global economy, which is filled with the reality of opportunity rather than threat.

The goal here is to analyze leadership skills and traits, of the present and for the future, without simply reeling out facts and references, but covering how leadership can be both effective and ineffective.

Leadership Skills and Traits

There are skills and there are traits where skills can be learned and personality traits are a part of personality. There are of course some people who think that traits can be learned behaviors, and they may well be correct because if a person with a head injury can learn to walk and talk again, then anything might be possible.

Thinking that anything is possible is another leadership trait.

Past, Present and Future Leadership Attributes

The skills and personality traits required of leadership does change over time. In days of old when knights were bold and we ran around hitting each other with clubs, brawn might have been more important than brains. Somewhere in between the feudal system and the industrial age we ceased bludgeoning each other and began to use machines and more industrious methods. In the late twentieth century people started building electronic gadgets like computers that did paperwork for us, and life got even easier still, and some of us as leaders moved beyond the operational, quality control, make lots of the same stuff over an over. Now we have to figure out how to lead the use of new technological inventions where all the library books of the world are at our fingertips. So somewhere in the last few millennia we have progressed from leadership by brute force to an environment of having to negotiate with and listen intently those we lead – because any other approach is just too difficult.

Modern Day Leadership Attributes

Leadership techniques and requirements have changed and the gap between leader and follower is growing ever smaller – even followers can now be found leading anything from meetings to entire initiatives. In the modern world the person in charge often seemingly simply plows a path of least resistance. A company I recently worked with was curiously stuck somewhere between the devil and deep blue sea with this process of change of leadership techniques, possibly because it is distributed globally and affected by localized cultural styles. For example, some of the leadership in more conservative parts of the United States are more often autocratic where leaders simply coerce and dictate and expect compliance from followers. Those same coercive leaders sometimes have trouble working with people from somewhere like Northern California because those on the West Coast expect people in more inward looking conservative groups to think for themselves, which is difficult of course. In addition, there are people from India who are a mix of all things from autocratic leadership, ranging through to those who are so progressive where there appears to be hardly any leadership hierarchy at all. Truly global companies with globally and culturally diverse teams can be a mish-mash of differing approaches, where sparring factions can often be spinning their wheels as a result of incompatible and dated approaches to leadership.

Future Leadership Attributes

The same company I recently worked with uses IQ intelligence tests to assess people because as they say, you will eventually meet someone more intelligent than yourself; So what!? Unfortunately, IQ testing does not always appear to be a good reflection on competence as I have encountered highly intelligent people with sometimes decades of experience, who when faced with a moving target or a flexible situation, are out of their depth and incompetent.

Does anyone ever test EQ? Is it possible to test Emotional Intelligence? Do HR people in the world of coercive leadership take the all too important soft skills seriously? Doesn’t it ring bells that Dale Carnegie and Daniel Goleman wrote books about winning friends, influencing people, and emotional intelligence decades ago? Are we still catching up?

Intellectual intelligence helps but it does not determine leadership ability and it probably never has. When I was a teenager I went to high school with a friend who barely scraped past in every subject, from languages, to mathematics to biology; but he can run a business and has done it repeatedly multiple times because he just gets people. The top layer of leadership, over millennia has always been emotionally intelligent and only the best managers ever reached the leadership layer. In the new world of the information age, all managers and leaders must be emotionally intelligent and much more effective than in the past because knowledge can function much more effectively when allowed to  flex itself with a little independence. In reality, knowledge can be spread as specialized skills and experience across teams of people working together in productive functional units.

Will Leadership Become More Effective?

Leadership must adapt to the information age where knowledge workers often know far more about subject matter than their leaders. The best leaders have always known this, and constantly surround themselves with talented people to cover detailed tasks, where good leaders spot talent and fill in the gaps that each person is best suited to. The needs of modern and future business will demand that all leadership and management is practiced at a higher level (Blanchard, Leading at a Higher Level).

What is Effective Leadership?

Effective leadership should succeed and excel above competitors. In the text Test of a Leader (Iococca, The Test of a Leader) and The Leadership Gap (Leslie, The Leadership Gap), sets of skills and character traits are listed out and compared. Most of what Iococca mentions appears to be in the realm of general life skills; Leslie discusses more generic skills in a theoretical and conversational manner. Is it possible that Iococca is perhaps self taught and is Leslie a good researcher? The differences in the approach of these two people might indicate that leadership can be learned but not always, and also that some leaders learn very fast under adversity, but also that some do not.

Specialized Leaders can be Highly Effective

Carly Fiorina talks about leadership being all about change (Fiorina, Tough choices). Or is she a leader who is exceptionally capable at managing change? Leslie, 2009, The Leadership Gap. Do different leaders have different skills and are the most effective leaders those who succeed in applying specialized skills in order to solve problems directly related to the specialized skills of each leader? From my personal experience in informal leadership roles, it can be difficult to survive as a leader when one initiates and drives change because a devil’s advocate can become a target over time; in my case as a technical subject matter expert there has to be high level support in order to manage implementation.

My Personal Experience of Effective and Ineffective Leadership

Are coercive leaders going to able to change themselves enough to compete, and are the future skills described in available texts sufficient to help solve problems? People do not like change as people like Carly Fiorina might tell us that leaders changing themselves voluntarily is even more difficult than changing processes and employees because the leaders are usually the last to change, because they don’t have to and are busy trying to change those below them. Buzz phrases often described as essential people leadership skills using emotional intelligence include phrases such as Leading People (too vague and meaningless), Inspiring Commitment (requires giving commitment as well), Participative Management – all of these do not begin to describe what is needed. Leadership skills are always described as vague lists of general items that nobody really understands – and emotional intelligence elements should all be at the top of those lists. The video at (Talgam, 2009, Lead Like The Great Conductors) is a good demonstration of the kind of leadership needed for the hyper-competitive new global economy, showing how orchestral conductors create an environment in which creative contributors can flourish and produce their best – musicians are very creative and have to be strongly encouraged to contribute their best willingly – creative work is often voluntary to a certain extent. Some modern tech. companies have an ineffective barrier against their partially voluntary highly skilled knowledge workers finding new jobs – the company forces employees to sign a highly restrictive but unenforceable employment contract. Why? Is force effective in slowing down a high impact turn around of people? Or should leadership style be more cognizant of the fact that knowledge workers are mobile, and perhaps figuring out more effective way of skills retention would be effective, as opposed to the more primitive option of force.

Successful Leadership is not Always Effective

Some of the most seemingly intellectually challenged people make the best leaders because they have great people skills – they are self aware, empathetic, self critical and are great communicators. Also, some of the most intellectually capable individuals often have dreadful people skills, and consistently get much less than the best out of their helpers because they do not see those people as equal participants.

Do incompetent leaders end up doing everything themselves, and doing more doing things and less leading in the process. One of the arts of leadership is finding good help and assigning each the most effectively accomplished tasks.

In the modern information age, sub standard leaders are doomed to failure because their people- skilled New Age counterparts have the edge of a voluntary team, and will out-compete them in the long run. New Age leaders are often better at delegating and thus have more time to strategize and think about how to defeat their out of date and less capable competitors. In an article in The Economist (Schumpeter, 2014, Bumpkin Bosses), primitive leaders are not flexible enough with diversity.


The information in this posting matters because established industrialized national corporations are now faced with enormous competition from new additions of billions of people in the new global economy. These billions, in parts of the world like the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia, use leadership methods that are in some respects way ahead of what is used in The West, and if we are to compete economically we must adapt and find new ways of both and running and yes properly leading our businesses and sources of wealth, into an exciting new global creative economic future.