Attributes of a 21st Century Leader

It is imperative that leaders in the 21st century should radiate certain attributes if they are to flourish, let alone survive in their organisation. Paradoxically, the key to becoming successful is to become faster, smoother and smarter in running operations but certainly these remain only as means to an end and not an end in themselves.

This article will not delve much on what is a leader, whether they are made or born. No, this debate we have heard. The objective of the article is to bring to the fore attitudes, behaviours and skills a leader should endeavour to embrace and exude in the organisation they lead despite them being made or born.

Today’s organisational leadership calls for what has been termed ‘dual focused management approach’ that seeks to incorporate what is best for individuals and best for a group as a whole, simultaneously. Developing an understanding of the various parties’ worldview is critical. By world view, we mean learning to incorporate everything an individual believes about the organisation and operating environment. In our Zimbabwean context, a leader needs to understand how the current economic trends are likely to impact on the various individuals in a workplace. For some the world is coming to an end, for others its business as usual. An individual‘s worldview therefore defines an individual’s beliefs, attitudes and opinions. Regrettably, this worldview translates to one’s operating instructions on how they interfere with the world. If as leaders we do not take into consideration how individuals interface with the world, their perceptions and attitudes etc. we tend to lead from a weakened and incoherent position. Knowing and appreciating the composite views of the world by individuals becomes a pillar for any successful leader notwithstanding the many diverse and sometimes conflicting views of  individuals within the organisation. This worldview will also help shape the leader’s ethical, moral and communication styles.

Successful leaders of the day will need to capitalise on their strengths and manage their weaknesses as a 21stcentury attribute. To be successful in this role, understanding oneself is critical. Identify your own style, and then gain insight into the way your preferences unconsciously shape your style of leadership and communication. You can be surprised to discover that your very style stifles the very creativity and innovation you seek from others. 21st leaders set the tone for behaviours and subsequent culture they want to see in their teams. Leaders watch out on the extent we understand ourselves.

The how of communication has become a critical business tool when individuals interact. Always tailor your communication for the receiver, bearing in mind all the time that a message send is not necessarily received. Effective communication takes place when you as a leader understand what is known in business as VABEs (Value, Assumptions, Beliefs and Expectations) of those you are communicating with. 21st century leaders have moved beyond communications barriers like appearances, vocabulary, looks, accent etc. of an individual and now focus on the message of the speaker.

This type of leadership is not about being in charge, it’s about enabling staff to participate towards the attainment of organisation’s goals. A key skill therefore, is influence and not authority! This occurs when leaders understands that organisations now thrive on broad based skills set, diversity, innovation and adaptability to change. 21st century leadership is therefore based on relationships and network at all levels. There is not much room for bureaucracy, hierarchy and high protocol here. 21st Leaders empower staff by decentralising decision-making thus enriching and empowering lower positions and relieving dependency on a few people at the top. The almost 2 centuries old, words of former US president John Q. Adam have remained relevant in the 21st century, ‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and became more, you are a leader.”

Rapid changes in the market, changing customer and employee preferences require leaders who are able to exercise their emotional intelligence to adapt to these changes. Interestingly, the 21st century business environment also calls for pace setters and visionaries, who jumpstart change and do not just wait for it.

Your ethical conduct also plays a big role in defining your success or failure. Ethics help in balancing truth and loyalty. It is the lens by which any leader approaches a problematic situation. Ethical leaders always strive to look out for hidden alternatives in ethically questionable situations. They uses the ethical compass to navigate not only the right versus wrong in a situation but also the right versus right, according to Rushworth Kidder in his book, Moral Courage. Always demonstrate empathy and considering beyond the business case a person’s social position.

The question now is, ‘Is it possible to master these attributes and more?’ The answer is in building strong teams to support your leadership. Innovation is most likely to come from frontline staff, way down from the top. Aspiring 21st century leaders, need to weather this storm, by undergoing a shift in mind-set. Move away from the thinking “I have got to stay in control” and start operating outside your comfort zone. Lead from a different place which entails transforming the operating state and space.

Emmanuel Jinda is the Managing Consultant of PROSERVE Consulting Group, a leading supplier of Professional Human Resources and Management services locally, regionally and internationally. He can be contacted at Tel: 263 773004143 or 263 4 772778 or visit our website at