The 4 Questions Part III: How Leaders Can Rise to Today's Challenges

From globalization to the rise of AR and remote work, leaders are being tested like never before


Editor’s note: This piece is part of a weekly Voice series by Rishad Tobaccowala, the author of Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data.

Four questions that most companies and individuals seek answers to:

1. Change Management: How does one navigate change?
2. The Future: What will the future be like?
3. Modern Leadership: How to lead today?
4. Purposeful Growth: How does one grow/remain relevant?

This week’s column focuses on the cauldron of leadership.

Leading today is challenging for myriad reasons

These reasons include (but are not limited to):

  • Speed of change: Somebody left their finger on the fast-forward button of the modern world.
  • Globalization: From climate change to the rise of China to Covid, every business is exposed to global forces.
  • Intergenerational challenges: Everywhere there are differences in expectations, lived experiences, communication methods and much more between the multiple generations who need to work together.
  • Disruption from technology: We are living in a platform age where the next generation of quantum computing, exponential leaps in machine learning, rollout of 5G and the rise of new interfaces (voice, augmented reality and VR) will make previous disruptions look like child’s play.
  • Managing remote and distributed workforces: There will be no return to five days in the office, so companies are going to have to manage hybrid and distributed workforces.
  • DEI: The importance of diversity, equity and inclusion is essential for companies to attract and retain talent, remain innovative and meet customer expectations.
  • Environment, Social and Governance (ESG): Every company is being watched on ESG metrics by investors and consumers.
  • Purpose and values: These are the keys to remaining competitive.
  • Empowered key constituencies: Employees, partners and customers now have access to how people feel about leadership and company culture by visiting online destinations such as Glassdoor.

The leadership traits that illuminate the path forward

Everyone can learn and build the traits of a leader if they wish to and are disciplined about it.

Competence: To be a leader in any field, at any level, you need to build proficiency. One needs to learn a craft, hone their skills and continuously improve to remain relevant. Rapid changes in technology and culture mean the half-life of whatever one has learned rapidly decays, and the fuel tank of competence needs to be continuously filled.

Time management: The three time skills needed to become a leader are the ability to balance the needs of today while setting yourself up for success tomorrow; delegating responsibilities to allow yourself to think and to grow the talent around you; and zero-based time budgeting, which means eliminating something from your schedule every time you add something to it.

Integrity: Trust is an invaluable currency.

Empathy: Leaders bring about change and achieve goals by bringing other people along with them. To do so, it is key to understand where people are coming from—what are their fears, concerns and challenges, as well as hopes, desires and dreams?

Vulnerability: This is a strength, not a weakness. By speaking about things one worries about, one reveals humanity and comes off as believable.

Inspiration: After the facts, the data, the PowerPoints and the spreadsheets, we often remain unconvinced, disbelieving and hesitant. Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”—storytelling is what gets people to rise to another level.

Advocate for the truth

Successful companies and individuals often engineer their own downfall. This happens due to some combination of hubris, incestuous thinking and improperly aligned incentives.

Think of the folk tale about the emperor who had no clothes. No one spoke up either because they were scared, or leaders looked the other way, or were delusional enough to convince themselves that the emperor was indeed wearing his finery.

The best leaders build an environment where people can call out what they see, and are constantly looking for it themselves. Here are some suggestions:

  •  Say what you think. If you can’t, you might be irrelevant.
  • Assume people know what the issue is. If you bring it up, you will be more respected.
  • Do not go against your instincts. Group and crowd dynamics often take over in decision-making.
  • Do not work for a boss who cannot bear the truth or whom you fear. We are living in a time of change, when even leaders sometimes need to be told that their core beliefs may no longer be true.

One improves slowly over time—some days you’re the teacher, others the student. A practice of continuous improvement is what drives not just success for athletes, but for all people.