Great leaders are often recognized by the stories told of their successes. In the past, these stories were crafted in private. For some leaders, privately crafted stories were true and accurately represented the leader’s role in whatever was being covered. Yet for others, a privately crafted story was fiction. The actions of many unnamed contributors could be swirled into the leadership story, with one person – the leader – laying false claim to the entirety of the success.
Minimal public access to reliable data sources, and an inability for contributors to tell their own stories meant that ‘crafted’ stories were often accepted as reality. Contributors - the people who worked long hours, made suggestions, provided extra effort and sometimes created the breakthrough success by themselves – were silent because they had no mechanism for telling their own stories or adding to the one being told by the leader. If their efforts weren’t included in the privately crafted story presented about or by the leader then their place in the effort was often lost.
This is no longer the case as the internet has changed everything.
Into the future, stories about truly great leaders will be elevated, and the shaky foundation of fictitious narratives will be uncovered. Great leaders will have their stories supplemented, verified and corroborated by the words of others. Fictitious stories will be challenged, opened up and retold by those who will now be able to lay claim to their own work. By 2025 the continued shift in individual access to information sources and distribution channels, will alter the landscape of leadership success stories and alter leadership practice itself.
Attributes of the Great Leader of the Future
Great leaders will respond to this shift with the appropriate humility and consistent honesty they have always relied on as great leaders.
Appropriate humility means that leaders are able to see themselves as no more and no less important to the success of the organization than they really are. With an appropriate view of their own role, they are able to clearly see, appreciate and support the contributions of others.
Consistent honesty will be reflected in leaders’ ongoing efforts to provide straight answers to questions, to follow through on their promises and to insure that policies and practices within an organization are implemented according to guidelines and values. Honesty will support the acknowledgement of faults and mistakes as well as successes and progress.
Great leaders will actually welcome these changes as the stories told about them will still be recognized as true AND they themselves will be better able to ensure that true stories are told about others. This will help assure that leadership is seen in its proper context within the overall narrative of what makes for a successful organization.
Appropriate and consistent are not terms that evoke glamour, perceptions of high-risk strategy, or cutting edge products yet they are needed in order to pursue all of those things – or any number of characteristics that one might assign to a great leader. A leader’s own abilities will come into play when people start telling stories about the gutsy move that saved the day, the visionary choices made, and intense hard work that pulled off a new market coup. Yet successful leaders will be those who move beyond their own talents to encourage others participation, recognize multiple contributions and activate collaborative creation.
Leading in the Age of Information
The job of being a successful leader in the future will be more personally challenging yet also provide opportunities for great professional reward. The open-information society we are moving towards brings with it fewer places to hide mistakes and missteps and greater exposure of actions. For great leaders this is a positive occurrence, as it will allow for the fast and accurate transmission of good works and an ability to constantly learn from failures or missteps.
Yet this will also pose challenges as organizations learn how to communicate with more clarity and less spin. In the end, open access to information coupled with honesty should enable a broader understanding within and outside an organization of the entirety of what it takes to be a successful leader.
For those not initially prone to sharing information broadly, the open-information society may prove challenging though it should help to weed out those people seeking leadership roles for their own glory rather than because they are truly capable of leading people forward.
Leaders Who Won’t Succeed
Who are the leaders who won’t be as successful? People with egos disproportionate to their skills, people who take others ideas and claim them to be their own, people who obfuscate and people who equate leadership with bullying and manipulation. While these leaders are also often less successful in today’s world, it takes longer to discern their faults now than it will in just 10-15 years of improved information access and distribution.
With fewer places to hide, these ‘non’ leaders will struggle. Hopefully many of them will change and, with helpful personal and professional support, be able to shift their style to embrace greater humility and honesty. As these non-leaders fade from the organizational landscape their behaviors should also fail to be replicated in the next generation of leaders.
The upside of all of these changes is that great leaders should be able to focus more of their energy on actually leading – assessing uncertainty, plotting a strategic course towards an opportunity, and leading the way – getting people to come with them who are engaged, well informed and prepared with the needed tools and talents. People will choose to engage with and follow leaders who are able to communicate their vision for the opportunities ahead and clearly articulate why each person and their work is important to the success to be achieved.
Leaders who successfully move through uncertainty to take advantage of opportunities will do so on their own solid foundation of appropriate humility and consistent honesty. If they forget the foundation they will get called out quickly because many people will have access to information and will be able to distribute that information with lightning speed.
Time Spent Leading
Great leaders of the future will spend their time leading. Their leadership talents will determine their success as leaders. Non-leaders will be challenged for trying to live in a fabricated story. While this may be painful in the moment it can also be instructive. Non-leaders who have potential to be great leaders can seek development opportunities for growing and learning. Non-leaders without leadership potential can become excellent team members and individual contributors, and have their talents and contributions recognized as part of the success of everyone’s efforts.
Truly great leadership is akin to an artistic endeavor in which one aspires to a level of achievement or success that is unreachable - because the aspiration always exists into the future. As with much compelling art, the process of creation – in this case the activities and achievements of the organization – reflects clearly and strongly on the final results.
Over time the medium may change, with different tools, techniques and inputs leading to different outputs. The great leader, like the great artist, will continue to create with what is at hand, seeking out new opportunities and talents to develop and utilize, inviting people to be part of the creation. Appropriate humility and consistent honesty will attract people to the leader. The next creation will evolve from their mix of talents and abilities, nurtured by great leadership. This is where the new stories will come from.
Amy Lyman is co-founder of the Great Place to Work® and researcher/writer. Her current focus is on the key contributions of Trustworthy Leaders to the creation and support of successful groups and organizations.