The same story emerges in many industries. A young professional in the early days of a career takes an entry-level job with an organization. This job fits well with a particular talent held by the worker, and she quickly earns praise for her hard work. After a series of performance reviews where management begins the conversation about next steps and a career path with the organization, the employee gets a promotion. Instead of her daily work surrounding the specific tasks at which she flourishes, her work after the promotion has more to do with managing people in that department. This worker soon discovers that the new position is incredibly difficult and draining. While her previous work fueled her passion as she got lost in the complexity of her task, she now finds herself in countless meetings, treading lightly around personalities, and dreading negative performance reviews she will soon have to give. And to make matters worse, management has noticed. A person they once identified as a high potential employee is now a question mark. Is she a part of their long-term plan for success?

While this story illustrates a common problem of how the wrong metrics might contribute to an incorrect assessment of leadership in employees, there’s a tangible shift occurring in what it takes to be an effective leader. It’s time to think outside the old box.

Defining Leadership

The definitions of leadership assumed that good work in any given area meant that you could effectively manage people who are doing the same work and that you could lead them well. Leadership targeted the kind of people who could dream big and set a vision for where a company might go from the top down.


Photo Credit: GrowWear via Flickr/Creative Commons

But it turns out, leadership requires specific skills that will allow teams to flourish, especially with knowledge-based industries more-so than other trades. For starters, leaders must rely on a team of people with unique expertise. The leader doesn’t need to be the most skilled at all levels of the operation; her role is not to hover over the people directly reporting to her, questioning every aspect of the work. Instead, a leader ought to empower the team to be creative and to apply their skills optimally and collaboratively in their projects. The top-down, directive leaders of the past were charismatic, inspirational, and visionary. The leaders of today are required to be collaborative: bringing people together and empowering others to build something, rather than decreeing terms and micro-managing “underlings”.

The leader, instead, requires many people skills. There’s a level of negotiation needed, not only when it comes to discussions of salary, but also when it comes to workloads, and collaboration. Leadership also concerns conflict resolution. Can you be a successful arbiter of truth when both sides have compelling points and feel like they can no longer work with each other? Taken outside the work context, these people skills have become important elements to life, whether in friendships, marriage, parenting, or rec-league softball.

Even further, the notion of leadership is changing. Everyone in our work environments will encounter the responsibilities of leadership at certain points during the job. Perhaps it’s a specific project of which you are the lead. Perhaps you are earmarked to mentor the new intern. While classically, you are not “labeled” a leader, you are assuredly leading.

In many ways, the concept of leading defines an external demonstration of the values and beliefs of the organizations — the leader illustrates the values posted in the break room. They are a part of the organization; they know the organization.

The Cultural Component

Interestingly, this shift in the organizational role of leadership coincides with an inflow of millennials in to the work place. The way millenials see the world, in part, is a product of the current cultural shift. As an example, millenials care deeply about purpose; their work needs to count for something greater than a paycheck. The way a leader inspires them in this understanding can empower them and create growth in an organization.

For this reason, leadership requires keeping a thumb on the pulse of culture as a whole. The things that happen politically and in popular culture permeate the minds and hearts of the workforce and the way a leader understands and leverages these shifts can make all the difference.

So what factors of emotional and social intelligence should you consider if you are in a leadership role or have goals of achieving higher levels of leadership?

A leader in this day and age needs empathy.

Step in the shoes of your employees. What is it like for them to complete the tasks required of them on a daily basis? What does it mean for their families when you ask them to stay late? How do they feel about the direction of our company?

Empathy also extends to your customers. What are their needs? Are we meeting them?

A leader in this day and age needs self-awareness.

How are you presenting yourself? Is your communication inspiring? Are you willing to do the jobs you want your employees to do?

A leader in this day and age needs to be influential.

Are your ideas inspiring your team to collaborate and build into something greater? Are you able to unite everyone around a specific purpose?

A leader in this day and age needs to resolve conflict.

As mentioned before, are you able to listen to the issues and seek resolution between parties? Are you even trusted enough to be approached with issues in the first place?

A leader in this day and age ought to have followers.

Do people even want to follow you? Max De Pree famously noted,

“My definition of a leader is a person who has followers. Leaders are those from whom we learn. They influence the setting of a society’s agenda. They have visions. They acknowledge the authenticity of persons. They create. Leaders set standards. Leaders are those like Rosa Parks who endow us with surprising legacies. They meet the needs of followers, and their behavior and words positively reinforce the best in our society. Leaders trumpet the breaking up and the breaking down of civility. They offer hope and they say “There is hope.” They are givers and they are takers. They ask the painful and necessary questions. They are those like Mother Theresa who create trust, and they are those who accept responsibility for their own behavior.”

You can’t lead if you look behind you and don’t see anyone.

The Times Are A-Changing

The poet, Bob Dylan, reminds us, “The times, they are a-changing.” To lead is to empathize with and inspire those around you to unite under a common purpose. Instead of diagnosing leaders based on the skills they exhibit in their current positions, it means creating a new standard of measurement for the kinds of traits required to be the leader your company needs.

Wondering if you’re leading optimally? Looking to bring on some new leadership in your organization? Let us know; we’d be glad to walk you through the process and bring definition to the process.

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