Leadership Q+A: The changing face of the leader

MT'S LEADERSHIP WEEK IN ASSOCIATION WITH UNILEVER: Leena Nair, a director at Unilever, says the future of leadership is about humanity and compassion.

Last Updated: 05 Jun 2013

Q What does the leader of 2020 look like?


Leena Nair: The leader of 2020 will be a person who is authentic - someone who is willing to share their strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. They will be more inclusive, and more collaborative in the way they lead and manage. They will be more engaging and they will know how to get the best out of everyone around them. Words like listening will be even more important. One leader alone will not have the answers to the complex world we live in and the changes which are taking place. They will reach out to their teams to create the answers.

Q: Are there distinct ‘male’ or ‘female’ styles of leadership?


It is wrong to generalise and to make firm distinctions between how men and women lead. But there is evidence to suggest that the qualities which are becoming more important for leaders – those such as collaboration, partnership and empathy – are qualities more typically found in women leaders.

Q: Is leadership just the responsibility of senior management?


I don’t think it is. At Unilever we have many frontline sales people who lead teams of 10 or 20 people. They represent the company every day in a leadership job. They might be lower down the hierarchy than, say, the executive board – but they still have a really important job.  They are advocates of the company and they represent the business every single day. Being in a senior position doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the only leader. Leadership moments come every day in people’s lives. Everyone can play a leadership role.

Q: How can leaders tackle the challenge of the remote and increasingly virtual workforce?


Making the most of all the technological solutions available is key, but there’s much more to it than that. The challenge of managing a remote workforce is huge and requires a lot of planning and preparation to ensure you stay connected with colleagues who work in different time zones.

Q: What are the leadership hot topics in your organisation at present?


We have been looking at the type of leaders we need for 2020 in the context of our ambition to double the size of the business whilst reducing our environmental impact and increasing our social impact. It’s really important we create leaders who can live and breathe that vision every day, and who can be leaders who can adapt to the changes we all face.

Q: Is there a recipe for leadership? Or is ‘authenticity’ more important?


I don’t think there is a recipe for successful leadership. If there was, we wouldn’t have so many books on the subject of leadership! Our understanding of great leadership will always evolve. But authenticity is really important – play to your own strengths and don’t try and copy anyone else. Every leader is different.

- Read the full debate on leadership here.

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