Guest Column

10 Attitudes for Effective 21st Century Leaders

by Jane L. Sigford and Robert J. Ostlund

Isn’t leadership the same whether it is in the 20th or 21st century? In the United States or in Zimbabwe? In an industrial world or in a “flat” world?

We have to understand what is different now compared to even 20 years ago. Three key points come to mind.

First, the speed of exchange of information has increased in geometric proportions. With a push of the “send” button, any information can go around the world in a matter of seconds.

Second, because of that connectedness, isolation disappears. We are as close as a personal computer screen to anyone in the world owning a PC.

Third, the possibility of change explodes as the speed of access to information increases.

Therefore, it is hard to describe a discrete set of necessary leadership skills. So what makes a leader different in a flat world is attitude.

Key Attributes

In the late-night style of David Letterman, we now list the top 10 attributes that contribute to an effective leader in a global society.

No. 10: Looks forward, not backward. To quote the prolific Classical Age writer Anonymous: “If you continue to do what you’ve always done, you’ll continue to get what you’ve always gotten.” The past should be a foundation, not an anchor. A global leader must look outward toward the future to the land of the possible.

No. 9: Uses the new three R’s — Relationships, relationships, relationships. A global leader is collaborative, which can only happen in the context of relationships. Therefore, a leader must be interested in others — who they are, what they believe and what they need.

No. 8: Understands paradox. A leader who has power is the leader who gives that power to others. Much of leadership is ruled by such paradoxical concepts.

No. 7: Is comfortable with ambiguity. Life is messy. Change is messy. The world of absolutes is disappearing.

Organic Change
No. 6: Sees change as a fractal. Change is not a linear process; it’s more like broccoli. On a stalk of broccoli, many florets are joined to a stem, which transports food and water back and forth from the roots. The photosynthesis that is occurring in one floret is isolated from another until the food joins at the stalk and descends to the roots.

Change is like that. Different initiatives occur at different locations. When the change is united into a stalk and information is conveyed to the roots, then the change affects the entire organism. What causes change to occur is the information that is shared and internalized through the relationships within the organization.

Change needs strong roots, a strong stalk and many different ideas before it looks recognizable. Change brings new absolutes. Like broccoli, when mature, change goes to seed and new ideas can spring forth.

No. 5: Isn’t afraid of fear. A leader in a flat world definitely experiences fear. If a leader does not take risks or closes off options because of fear, missed growth opportunities are likely.

No. 4: Embraces travel experiences. A leader in a flat world needs to travel in order to get out of the normal comfort zone. It is difficult to lead in a global society if one has not had an array of experiences. Sadly, only about 30 percent of Americans have been outside of the United States. Traveling within the United States or outside of its borders is important because it makes one richer and wiser.

Finding Joy
No. 3: Likes differences. A leader in a flat world likes different types of music, art, books, literature, theater and people. Differences are the source of creativity.

No. 2: Enjoys a challenge. A leader in the flat world is energized by a challenge and recognizes that mistakes are growth opportunities. A flat world leader recognizes the truth in Nietzsche’s quote, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

No. 1: Sees joy in little things. There is much to be said about the simple value of enjoying a sunset, rejoicing in the first smile of a child or being excited when a child learns something new. Thich Nhat Han, a Buddhist philosopher, said, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” A leader in a flat world knows that smiles and joy are portable, recognizable in any society and wherever one leads.

Shel Silverstein, the poet, says it well in his poem “Put Something In”:

Draw a crazy picture,
Write a nutty poem,
Sing a mumble-gumble song,
Whistle through your comb.
Do a loony-goony dance
’Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain’t been there before.

Jane Sigford is executive director of curriculum and instruction in the Wayzata Public Schools in Wayzata, Minn. E-mail: Robert Ostlund is superintendent of Wayzata Public Schools.