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Being an Effective Leader in the 21st Century

This article was based on the TED Talk, “What it Takes to Be a Great Leader,” by Roselinde Torres:


What it takes to be a great leader | Roselinde Torres


Traditional Leadership Development Programs

Have you ever thought about what qualities make for a great leader? Too often our ideals of leadership embody a superhero image from another time.  This type of thinking can lead to outdated leadership development programs and a lack of true leaders for the generations to come.


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Roselinde Torres helped conduct a study of 4,000 companies, asking them to rate the effectiveness of their leadership development programs. The results showed that fifty-eight percent of the companies reported significant talent gaps for critical leadership roles. That means that despite corporate training programs, off-sites, assessments, and coaching, more than half the companies lacked impactful leadership programs to develop great leaders.


A Disturbing Trend

Throughout her years working with top companies and executives, Torres noticed a disturbing trend in leadership programs. What she found was that leaders with great potential were becoming frustrated and losing their initiative. This made her wonder why the leadership gaps were widening when there were considerable investments in leadership development.  She also wanted to understand what great leaders do differently to thrive and grow.

To answer these questions, Torres traveled to different parts of the world to learn about effective and ineffective leadership practices in companies, countries and non-profit organisations. As part of her study, she traveled to South Africa to understand how Nelson Mandela anticipated and navigated his political, social and economic context. She also met many non-profit leaders who, despite very limited financial resources, were making a huge impact in the world, often bringing together seeming adversaries.

What Torres found was that in today’s global and digitally transparent world, relying on traditional development practices can stunt the growth of a leader. In fact, popular assessments like 360-degree surveys and outdated performance reviews can make people think they are more qualified as leaders than they are in reality.


Ask Yourself These Three Questions

Leadership in the 21st century is defined and evidenced by three questions:

  1. Where are you looking to anticipate the next change to your business model or your life?
  2. What is the diversity measure of your personal and professional stakeholder network?
  3. Are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made you successful in the past?

To answer the first question about anticipated changes, take a look at the people and activities that surround you. Identify any potential discontinuities and make a decision to prepare for change. Great leaders are not head-down and reactionary; they see around corners, shaping their future.

The second question about diversity involves your network and your capacity to develop relationships with people that are different from you. Understand that despite fundamental differences, people can connect and trust each other enough to cooperate in achieving a shared goal. Great leaders understand that having a more diverse network is a source of pattern identification at greater levels.

The final question challenges you to grow and seek new practices for success.  Many leaders find something that works, abandoning change for comfort. Great leaders dare to be different. The most impactful developments come when you are able to build the emotional stamina to pioneer change.


Great Leaders Do Things Differently

Leaders who thrive have found a way to continually grow and do things differently.  They are women and men who are preparing themselves not for the comfortable predictability of yesterday but also for the realities of today and all of those unknown possibilities of tomorrow. More than traditional leadership programs, answering these three questions will determine your effectiveness as a 21st-century leader.


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