HELEN WILKINSON: working@life

HELEN WILKINSON: working@life - The workplace of the 21st century requires a different set of skills from those that characterised the industrial age, and a different kind of leader. In an economy where knowledge, creativity and innovation are prized, peo

by HELEN WILKINSON, founder and CEO of elancentric.com(hwilkins@netcomuk.co.uk)
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The workplace of the 21st century requires a different set of skills from those that characterised the industrial age, and a different kind of leader. In an economy where knowledge, creativity and innovation are prized, people are the new bottom line and their potential must be harnessed, rather than instructed. The age of the command-and-control leader has long gone.

The new leader is softer, guiding rather than controlling, coaching and mentoring rather than managing by diktat. Increasingly, the most admired and successful CEOs are those who tap their company's potential not through a dirigiste and hierarchical management style but by understanding the work ethic and values of their employees, and empowering them to thrive.

We are seeing the birth of a new kind of corporate leader suited to the strategic imperatives of the knowledge economy.

Deep-rooted changes in the nature of work are behind this shift in style as technology transforms the way work is organised. More and more businesses outsource non-core functions to smaller companies, consultants and e-lancers.

The e-lancentric organisation is a more flexible one, better able to manage growth and cashflow.

But that is to downplay the people dimension. For the first time, the potential exists for a fit between new organisational forms and workers' needs and preferences, as hierarchical work environments give way to networked organisations and the locus of control shifts from outside ourselves to inside.

This shift from hierarchy to wirearchy also represents a move away from masculine values and styles to more feminine ones. Within leading-edge firms, interpersonal and communication skills are at a premium, and the emphasis is on teamwork, co-operation and openness, on running meetings democratically, on listening and generating empathy among team members.

Not that masculine skills are irrelevant in competitive global markets.

Far from it. It's just that, to retain the competitive edge, business leaders recognise that they need to back up hard leadership skills with interpersonal skills. The mix of feminine and masculine characteristics is vital.

But that's not all. Leadership has taken on a more spiritual dimension.

The values of leading-edge businesses in today's knowledge economy are directed inwards - they are those of innovation, inspiration, integrity and intention, all of which are rooted in intuition.

Some of the most insightful books about leadership are found in the new-age section of bookshops. Their perceptions derive from the disciplines of religion, spirituality and psychotherapy. David Kyle's The Four Powers of Leadership, for instance, roots these powers in inner-directed qualities: presence, intention, wisdom and compassion. To lead effectively, a leader must develop and harness all four.

Emphasis on the spiritual style of leadership implies that the most successful leaders are those who are chief executives of their own inner lives. This suggests a crisis of leadership at the top of many blue-chip companies.

After all, CEOs are rooted in the old organisational hierarchies and values, a working culture that demanded a disconnection between work and the rest of life, often at huge personal cost.

For Kyle, this gap between personal and positional power, this disconnection between soul and work, has produced a leadership style that impedes human potential and creativity.

If the knowledge economy depends on people's insights, creativity and innovation, then cultivating a new leadership style is crucial to the bottom line. Leaders must evolve away from an executive style and learn to empower the team to take decisions. New-economy leaders are evangelists rather than technocrats, visionaries rather than managers Many of them deploy the motivational techniques of the sports coach or the missionary, acting as guardian of the vision, inspiring people to become leaders in their own right. For CEO read chief evangelising officer.

How can you tell a new-age leader from an old one? First ask your organisation how it uses technology to empower people and promote discussion and decision-making. Visit the new-age section of your local bookshop and circulate a book review to your co-workers. Remember that, even if you work for a dysfunctional boss, you can still be the chief executive of your inner life. And if you are suffering under the strain, take action: sign up for a course on neuro-linguistic programming and learn to harness your personal power.

Wire yourself up to be a 21st-century leader and become an e-vangeliser.

Spread the word. There is another way to lead.

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