While the Internet era certainly makes new demands on leaders, e-leadership is not the answer.
The letter "e" is popular today. Placed before otherwise mundane terms, it can catch attention, create superficial buzz and signal a next-generation idea. So, it seems, goes the thinking behind the notion of the "e-leader". There is a barrage of "e-leadership" approaches being promoted, all of them with the message that leadership in this Internet age has only a faint resemblance to the leadership of yesteryear. Our era does present new challenges for leaders, but in this case, I don't think we need the "e".
Throughout history, whether it was the agricultural, industrial or information revolution, a new type of leadership has always been required to solve new problems and take advantage of new opportunities. Charting a course through changing conditions is an important part of what defines leadership. So it is today. Some changes are clearly making new demands on leaders. At the same time, though, other areas have stayed much the same.
Trying to comprehend and internalise the many glitzy e-approaches to leadership can not only distract you from fundamentals but can also make your focus superficial, driven by jargon rather than substance. Instead, let's take a hard look at what's changed fundamentally, what's changed by degrees and what's stayed the same.
What Hasn't Changed at All
The one thing that hasn't changed in this era, or in any other for that matter, is the character of people. People invent technologies. People solve problems and identify opportunities. Leadership is about choosing the right people and helping them be successful in creating change. Leaders have to recognise, attract and retain other leaders and help them gain the position and freedom to demonstrate their leadership.
As chairman and CEO of a new B2B Internet start-up, I made no decision more important than choosing the people to help me start and grow this enterprise. I looked for individuals with what I call the five Cs: character, competence, contacts, chemistry and commitment. And most of all, I looked for leadership - people under whom I'd be honoured to serve and who would challenge and complement me every step of the way.
There are a number of timeless reasons why people are such an important aspect of leadership:
People still have variable abilities to cause and adapt to change. Leaders help break new ground, develop the best players on a team and smooth the path for the others to come along.
People still need to believe that what they are doing makes a difference. Leaders help to articulate and communicate not only where an organisation is going but how to get there.
People still need to feel cohesion and a sense of collective identity as they pursue an adventure. Leaders are the ones who help to catalyse that shared feeling, image and set of values.
People respond in complicated ways to the ups and downs of any journey. Leaders are there when needed to help them move constructively throughthese responses. Leaders of any era have always had to buoy spirits, explain difficulties, celebrate gains and capture imaginations. You can be an a-leader, b-leader, c, d or e-leader, but you'd better be a leader of people first, cooking up alphabet soup last.
What's Changed by Degrees
It's true that much has changed over the years, but many oft-cited discontinuities are simply shifts by degree. For example:
Speed matters more as the rate of change continues to increase. Product development, executive decisions, company life cycles and technology penetration are all happening faster than ever. Massive deals are completed in weeks or days rather than months. Leaders today must be more decisive and more comfortable with rapid, iterative modes of action.
More complexity is needed to make things simple. The level of technical sophistication embedded in most businesses has increased significantly. But complexity doesn't sell, simplicity does. Leaders today must be more technically savvy and more adept at leading technical workforces with higher levels of specialised knowledge than ever before.
Greater diversity makes unity harder to achieve. The generational impact of younger employees on businesses is larger than ever before. There is also more cultural diversity in the work-place. Leaders today must be prepared to identify and attract young, adept, culturally diverse employees.
Global scale, integration and competition redefines what it means to be local. There have been global businesses in the past, but never so much potential for almost any business to go global. And once they do, there are larger competitors to contend with. The challenges of rapidly integrating networks, economies and societies are creating unique sets of problems and opportunities that today's leaders must be able to handle. In sum, the combination of speed, complexity, youth and global integration has created underlying conditions for business that require a new intensity, rather than a new type, of leadership.
What's Changing Fundamentally
The four truly fundamental changes that are taking place today have to do with digital information processing, our knowledge of life (ie, genetics and medicine), materials science (eg, nano-technology) and the capabilities of the mind. These are my picks, but yours might be different. The point is, any leader ought to have one corner of his or her mind open to thinking through such larger trends and their implications both today and down the road.
At least once every quarter, I hold informal sessions with my best thinkers in which we dream, project and plan what's coming down the road over the long term and what it means for us today. The practical benefits come in everything from patent applications and new product ideas to better radar for strategic partners and a sense of confidence in our overall corporate direction. To predict the future, I'm conv inced you have to look for it, envision it, plan for it and invent it. In short, true leadership means applying the best of what has always worked along with new elements that are needed as environmental conditions evolve. It is too rich a concept in too complicated a world to be enhanced by a single letter.
My advice is, forget about the notion of an "e-leader" and think for yourself. Think hard about your company, your environment, what's changing and what's not and, most of all, about how great a journey you want to take, where you're going to go and how you're going to get there. Your adventure is likely to be a compelling one, and there are bound to be others who want to go there with you.
Christopher Hoenig has been an entrepreneur, US government executive (director for information management and technology issues at the GAO), consultant (McKinsey & Company) and inventor, and he wrote a forthcoming book on problem solving and leadership techniques. He is now chairman and CEO of Exolve in Washington, DC, focusing on next-generation Web-based problem solving
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.