The Coming Leadership Gap: What You Can Do About It

I recently completed a trip to Asia that included meetings with a wide range of clients in India, Malaysia, and Singapore. The economy is rebounding in that region much faster than it is in Europe or North America, and that is creating a lot of excitement and opportunity. But, in talking with many executives, this much became obvious: It's not any easier being a leader these days in Mumbai than it is in New York or London. These are complex times, whether you are a senior leader in a large corporation, a small business owner, or the manager of a nonprofit. We all face increased competition, skittish global markets, and constant demands for innovation. Without question, complex circumstances are partly to blame for why it's as difficult as ever to lead effectively. But there's more to it than that. Increasingly, we are also responsible for our own leadership struggles. We're heading into a promising but very uncertain future. To thrive in it, certain leadership skills will be absolutely crucial—and many individual leaders and organizations don't have all of them. At the Center for Creative Leadership, we spent two years surveying more than 2,000 leaders from 15 companies in the U.S., India, and Singapore. We asked them to consider a set of 20 leadership skills, from "decisiveness" and "doing whatever it takes" to "putting people at ease" and "employee development." We had these leaders rank those skills in terms of how important they will be for business success five years from now and how accomplished they and their colleagues are at them now. Four Crucial SkillsBased on our survey, there are four skills that executives all over the world believe will be most important just five years from now: leading people, strategic planning, inspiring commitment, and managing change. And guess what? Our research also found these four skills are all weak points among today's leaders. A glaring gap exists between the leadership skills we have now and the ones we will need in just a few short years. At CCL, we call this the "leadership gap." This gap can be closed—assuming we thoroughly understand these four critical skills and how to develop them in ourselves and our organizations. In this column, we'll review the keys to leading people and strategic planning. In my next column, we'll look at inspiring commitment and managing change. So let's start with the skill ranked most important for the future: leading people. Essentially, it's about directing, motivating, and engaging your colleagues. As a senior leader, you need to be very good at this yourself and so do others in your organization. Knowing how to lead people means you can delegate effectively, treat others fairly, and hire talented people. Many of us never get a chance to develop these skills before we're thrust into management roles. You know how it goes—a top salesperson becomes a sales manager, an ace reporter becomes an editor, a standout teacher becomes a principal. This seems like a logical progression, but it's also problematic. Think about Michael Jordan. He's arguably the greatest basketball player who ever lived. But by his own admission, his stint in management with the Washington Wizards was a struggle. His role as a basketball executive called for leading people and letting them perform, not just taking charge personally on the court as he'd done as a player. As the manager, Jordan made questionable personnel moves and clashed with some of his players. The team never improved during his time there and only became a winning franchise after he left. Talented individual performers fall into that trap all the time when they are put in charge of other people. A Knack for Leading PeopleStill, you really can develop, in yourself and throughout your organization, a knack for leading people. First, make sure you and your managers know the behaviors and skills fundamental to managing others well. Then complete some 360-degree assessments to find out what your leadership strengths and weaknesses are. With that knowledge base, you can offer training programs and assignments that help you and your people build on your strong points and shore up your weak areas. The more you encourage feedback and open discussion in the office, the more strides you and your team will make in leading people effectively—and your organization's performance will improve. That brings us to skill No. 2: strategic planning, which calls for translating vision into realistic business strategies. Ann Mulcahy, who recently retired as the CEO of Xerox (XRX), offers a great example of this skill in action. She became CEO when Xerox was on the verge of bankruptcy and led a remarkable turnaround. By working closely with her top executives and listening carefully to clients, Mulcahy identified several strategic keys to success—reengaging with customers through a strong sales team, launching innovative products driven by investments in R&D, and reinventing the company's approach to managing operating expenses. She developed a detailed vision of the future for Xerox, linked it to a series of concrete objectives, and got her colleagues on board with the plan. As Bill George recounts in his fine book True North, one of Mulcahy's first moves as CEO involved asking her top 100 executives to stay and fight for the company's future—and 98 of them did. No one can sustain excellence without the right team. Strategic Planning FundamentalsMulcahy embodied the fundamentals of strategic planning. First, once you have a good strategy, it's absolutely crucial to share it throughout your organization. If no one understands what you're trying to achieve, no one will buy in. Executives, to be honest, often struggle with communicating strategy. They tell their management team what needs to be done. They send out a memo or two to the entire organization. Then they assume everything is taken care of. It's not, of course—which is why so many smart strategies ultimately fail. As you share the strategy, arrange training to help colleagues develop their own expertise in strategic planning. Remember, you want this to be a fundamental skill throughout your organization. At the same time, cast a wide net. Involve young leaders in developing your strategy, talk about it with your frontline employees. The more input you get from your men and women, the better. After all, they are the ones who will bring the strategy to life. There's no question we can build greater skill at leading people and strategic planning in ourselves and our organizations. But making it happen requires a sense of urgency—and knowing that the leadership gap will only widen if we stand by waiting for it to correct itself. If you and the leaders in your organization work on these skills a little every day, the cumulative impact will be enormous. You will be a better leader yourself. The overall leadership capacity in your company will expand. And you will have the leadership skills needed to tackle the challenges that are bound to come your way over the next few years.

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