How do we define leadership in 2017 — and what should companies look for in their leaders of tomorrow?

It’s an interesting question at a time when leadership seems sorely lacking in both the public and private sectors.

A Lack of Leadership

From Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s questionable management of the company he co-founded to the shocking missteps by CEOs at companies including United Airlines and Wells Fargo, there’s disturbing evidence of toxic corporate cultures.

And where do we even start with politicians of every stripe, who are too often driven by impulsivity, anger, and arrogance?

Some say defining a great leader is sort of like defining pornography. To quote the late US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 definition of obscenity, I know it when I see it.

But what traits tip the scales in favor of strong leadership? And what character traits doom a leader to fail?

Leaders Have Lost Touch With People

In their 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, Deloitte consultants Josh Bersin, Tiffany McDowell, Amir Rahnema, and Yves Van Durme argue the most successful organizations today are those that can move faster, adapt more quickly, learn more rapidly, and embrace dynamic career demands.

“Today, many organizations need a completely different kind of leader: a ‘digital leader’ who can build teams, keep people connected and engaged, and drive a culture of innovation, risk tolerance, and continuous improvement,” the report explains.

But few organizations have moved rapidly enough to develop digital leaders, promote young leaders, and build new leadership models.

Even worse, a global study of CEO perceptions by Korn Ferry found a majority of CEOs place a higher value on technology and tangible assets than the people within their organizations.

The global advisory firm conducted in-depth interviews with 800 business leaders in multi-million and multi-billion dollar global organizations. It found:

  • 63 percent of those surveyed think technology will be the firm’s greatest source of competitive advantage within five years
  • 67 percent say that technology will create greater future value than people
  • 44 percent say robotics, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will make people “largely irrelevant” in the future of work

Leadership Needs to Evolve

But as ARKE CTMO Chris Spears maintains, technology is just an enabler, a tool to help business get work done. It’s neither a silver bullet nor a substitute for people.

As reporter Ron Miller wrote earlier this year, technology can’t replace the human touch:

“This is not about being a Luddite. Technology marches relentlessly forward, and it would be foolish to argue otherwise, but some things remain fundamental, and people-to-people communication will continue to be one of them. Just because the tech is available, doesn’t mean it’s always going to be the best option in every situation.”

According to Deloitte, leadership can transform an organization from one that does digital things to one that “is” digital. It suggests this involves three types of transformations:

  • Cognitive: Leaders need to think differently
  • Behavioral: Leaders need to act differently
  • Emotional: Leaders need to react differently
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Leadership for the Future

For all its strengths, technology isn’t going to save your business from leaders who lack the warmth, empathy, and compassion to treat customers and employees with respect.

Excellent leaders embrace more than the latest technologies and embed cultural changes about work, work practices, and company management.

Those concepts are clear in a new Korn Ferry report, which It highlights eight leadership development imperatives. It found leaders can better manage teams, think strategically, and inspire others if they:

  1. Embrace new experiences
  2. Adopt deliberate practice and reflection
  3. Learn from others
  4. Foster a growth mindset
  5. Leverage emotion
  6. Optimize stress
  7. Practice mindfulness
  8. Enact behavioral commitments

Sarah Hezlett, a senior assessment scientist at Korn Ferry and co-author of the report, said these eight imperatives will keep leaders from defaulting to old, ineffective “approaches, habits, and routines.”

Transformational Leadership

Leadership is about setting a clear direction for the organization and then motivating people to achieve their best.

Organizations that lack sound leadership tend to focus just on getting tasks done, without any sense of purpose. Employees in those organizations do things the way they have always been done because they have no incentive to change.

The best leaders help everyone understand what the organization is trying to do. Then they empower their people to find the best way to reach that goal.

As researchers from Penn State University, Claremont McKenna College, and Tsinghua University so elegantly stated in 2012, leadership is less about power than service.

Transformational leaders help and guide people to achieve what they want to achieve. They nurture self-guided teams by cultivating trust and autonomy. And they lead teams that achieve more and are personally more effective and successful in their job. Moreover, they

…”create a strategic and innovative vision that is compelling, and they then communicate that vision to all employees so that they too will believe in it and will become excited by it. Thus, employees are more likely to believe that their work is important and their organization has a better and more meaningful future.”

How do you define leadership? How is your company growing leaders? Can your company embrace the possibilities of the digital era as well as the infinite potential of its employees?

Noreen Seebacher is the content evangelist at Arke, where she researches, writes and continues her long career in news reporting as a brand journalist. Noreen lives in Beaufort, South Carolina with her husband, her dog and four formerly homeless cats.