Re-defining the word in the 21st century context
Who is a leader in the context of the challenges in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Business leaders, government leaders (speak politicians), non-government activist, social entrepreneurs, parents, or maybe all of them? And how do we define if somebody is a leader? Leaders have long been associated with organizational roles they hold; in a company, the CEO may be a leader, but not an accountant, salesman or marketer. But does this assumption still hold true in times where courageous action and responsible behavior is expected from almost anybody at any level of any type or organization, including at home?
Kathy Miller in her recent blog suggests that leadership entails “seeking solutions to wicked problems most always through collaboration with others”. She also reflected on how few true leaders there are on her horizon. Her definition suggests a much larger field of action of a leader than previously considered. When I went to business school in the early nineties, things were still clear. A leader is in charge of managing his company. Period. Ever the Rio Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012, it has become clear that business is expected to deliver far beyond only satisfying internal needs, including those of employees and shareholders. Having included external stakeholders in selected consultation has become a fashion since the start of this decade. And yet, the SDGs introduced in 2015, take the stakeholder engagement perspective even a step further suggesting that business may need to operate far beyond its current set of stakeholders.
I entirely concur with Kathy’s definition of leadership. Even a traditionally defined leader, a person who holds a top position in an organization, is expected today to not only manage her business, but also to engage with players in a growing ecosystem that represents the trillion dollar business opportunities of engaging in solving burning societal and environmental issues. For this, we need to replace the outdated idea that leadership is attached or connected to a specific role or position. Everybody, in every position and role of an organization, no matter how small, needs to embrace the responsibility to seek solutions to the “wicked problems” as Kathy suggested. Is that realistic or even necessary?
At BSL where I work, we see how demanding self-organization is on individual. Self-organization demands a high degree of personal responsibility and emotional independence to allow the organization to thrive. But that is not a realistic expectation. There are many people who for various reasons do much better in an environment where they can rely on emotional support, political support, and a bit of clarification on priorities from somebody better apt at defining these. We have learned the hard way that personal responsibility is not something that can be expected or necessarily developed in a person who is not open to this. We all have effective defensive systems that prevent change and development. Often for good reasons. So what does that mean?
I suggest that the word leader needs to be reinterpreted. Rather than being reserved to those holding a specific role or position, it should be used for those exceptional individuals who have the capacity, energy and competence to build on a high degree of personal responsibility so that they can not only do their day-job but can find synergies between what they do and what can help solve wicked global problems. Such people can be found everywhere, but – and this is a realization I must admit – they cannot be expected everywhere. They are exceptional human beings and I suggest that they fully embrace their responsibility as global citizens and can hence be considered as the 21st century leaders. Such a shift really means that we have come to consider Leadership as engaged Citizenship. And for this, we certainly need to adjust the way we educate such leaders in business and management schools. Or should they be called citizen-schools in future?