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Is It Time to Rethink Your Leadership Style?

Alison Young

alison youngAs businesses evolve in this increasingly digital, entrepreneurial climate, the old qualities of leadership are giving way to new skills—like collaboration and negotiation—that are essential in the 21st century, says Alison Young, executive director of Drexel University’s Institute for Strategic Leadership at LeBow College of Business.  Read on for four qualities you need to be a leader today.

You have achieved success as a leader and it feels great.  Peers, colleagues and employees look up to you.  There are numerous awards and accolades to honor you.  And most times, that achievement comes with monetary rewards and incentives.  But the model of successful leadership characterized by traditional hierarchy may be becoming obsolete in 21st century businesses. The trend is heading towards leadership more by collaborative teams, or rather, organizations adopting a focus on group rather than individual successes.  Meaning, it’s time to rethink what it takes to be a successful leader.

Increasingly, businesses are exchanging tiered hierarchies for empowered employees operating as successful teams. Employers like Google, Comcast and others are screening new hires for traits like the ability to negotiate and persuade, self-awareness –  to know when to lead and when to step back, and humility; preferring to hire for the soft skills that indicate potential success as future leaders of teams and train other employees in technical skills, rather than vice versa.

This style of collaborative leadership is emblematic of a new way of thinking that assumes self-empowerment and self-responsibility are critical elements of effective teams in the workplace.  It embraces the concept that influence occurs in many directions, and that being part of the influence process and receptivity to others are important elements of effective leadership.  By sharing leadership and working with – not dictating down to – your employees, you empower team members to participate early and be a part of the solution, benefiting from their expertise and perspectives and ultimately gaining buy-in earlier in the process.

But if you’ve managed teams, you know that simply encouraging collaboration for the good of the order isn’t enough.  There are, of course, pitfalls.  New research from Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business found that while many organizations rely on teams to develop new ideas, engage employees and make decisions, assumptions are often made that all team members have the skills necessary to work effectively with others or to lead these cross-functional units. Often, these assumptions are in conflict with actual team experiences that are characterized by unequal contributions from team members, dysfunctional discussions or a focus on individual rather than team goals and compromises that lead to less than ideal decisions.

So how can you as an individual, rethink what it means to be a successful leader and redefine your leadership skills to understand potential pitfalls yet nurture those around you and create a successful team?

  1. Embrace an enterprise mindset.  If your goal is to have your employees working in high performing teams, set an expectation in performance reviews, group meetings and even water cooler conversations that self-centered goals and achievements are secondary to those that move the group forward as a whole.
  2. Develop your negotiation and persuasion skills.  In other words, be a collaborator, not a dictator.  To truly empower teams requires reducing your reliance on hierarchy and dictates. Get in the trenches with your employees, understand their functions and their challenges and communicate with them on their terms.  Your ability to negotiate and persuade is enhanced when you start from a place of mutual respect and understanding.
  3. Understand cultural and individual differences.  Diversity on teams can be hugely beneficial, and it comes in all forms.  Diversity of function, educational background and even time on the job can be just as important and diversity of race, gender and ethnicity when building high-performing teams. Understanding and embracing the differences in your employees will help you build trust and confidence in their ability to tackle large problems.
  4. Take personal responsibility.  True leaders are those who take responsibility both for the successes and the failures of the team.  Leadership isn’t the absence of failure, but learning from mistakes when they do come and finding the lesson from the experience.

Successful leadership is both an art and a science, and is always evolving.  Rethinking successful leadership leaves room to strive for personal achievements, but further embraces the role of the entire team to celebrate shared team triumphs and in the process, enrich and empower your employees.  For additional resources, including cutting-edge research and leadership training opportunities, visit

Alison Young is the executive director of Drexel University’s Institute for Strategic Leadership at LeBow College of Business.  She is a former White House official and nationally recognized expert on leadership and civic engagement.  Alison can be reached via email at [email protected]