I often field compelling questions faced by today’s leaders such as the Q&A below initiated by Bill Raker, President and CEO of U.S. Federal Credit Union, about the evolution of leadership.
Bill: I am mentoring a junior executive in a large credit union in Michigan. During our last call, I constantly glanced at my copy of The Art of Servant Leadership that I keep handy and refer to often. It occurred to me that I would gain further insight from your thoughts. Please share your perspectives on these five questions: First, “What do you consider to be the major changes in the definition of “leadership” over the past 10 years?”
Tony: The most significant changes have been from short-term, command and control thinking to a sustainable, collaborative approach. We see a movement from positional authority to character influence; from profitability to sustainability; from a focus on tasks to a return to universal principles. Talking is being replaced by listening. Work-life balance is shifting to integration of the whole person.
Bill: What key challenges can you identify regarding leadership issues over the next 5 to 7 years?
Tony: The greatest challenge is our global market that plays by different rules on commerce. Leaders will be tested to maintain integrity using a true north compass and retain a competitive edge in the global market. They will be challenged to maintain a non-anxious presence while steering a ship in a storm of changes. The executive, if truly a servant leader, also must find a path beyond wholesale rejection of cultural influence and wholesale acceptance of status quo business.
Bill: What are the critical leadership areas where you believe there is great uncertainty as to what future demands on leaders will be?
Tony: To balance efficiency and ethics. There will be an ever increasing tension between improving efficiency within the organization while maintaining the dignity of the individual and the team. The traditional narrow focus on efficiency to improve profit must be balanced with employees’ entitlement to be treated with respect and to have meaningful input.
Bill: How well do you believe that leaders have anticipated the major events of the past 7 years?
Tony: Like all people, some leaders are more adaptable to change than others. They set aside their ego and are students of the trends that may result in threats or opportunities to their organization. However, most leaders simply refuse to let go of what worked in the past. This hubris results in inflexibility and blame. The future demands flexibility, trust, and leadership with humility.
Bill: Do you believe leaders have learned from the events of the past 7 years?
Tony: Yes, no, and maybe. Forgive me if this sounds like a slippery response, but it is true. Executives trust what has made them successful. Unfortunately, many leaders believe their success is based more on their leadership skills than external factors. They cling to the methodology with which they are comfortable. Learning requires the ability to set aside the comfortable and to have the humility to accurately access reality.
In closing, I notice that several of the questions have time sensitive context (7 years, 10 years.) I’m sure you will agree that definitions and belief systems do not adhere to a linear system where one time period ends and another neatly begins. I often look at movements, definitions, and belief systems like the Olympic rings. Each circle intertwines with another so there is a period where both definitions and movements are in tension with one another until another definition emerges.
I love the way you think, Bill! The right questions are often more powerful to develop the mind, heart, and spirit than the answers provided.
Question: How often do you look back to reflect on leadership challenges? What do you do to accurately access reality?