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What does it take to be a leader in the 21st century?

What does it take to be a leader in the 21st century?

Three tips to make anyone a more effective leader

February 14, 2024 at 3:40pm

Today’s leaders confront new challenges unknown to other generations. With the deep impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health issues on the globe as well as the rise of technological advances such as artificial intelligence, the workforce has changed and continues to shift in unexpected ways. Leaders — at all stages of their careers and across fields — need to be prepared.

FIU’s Center for Leadership recently brought to campus leadership experts and business consultants Dan Fisher and Steve Garcia, co-founders and managing partners at Contemporary Leadership Advisors. Their firm has worked with executives at Fortune 500 companies and prestigious brands such as American Eagle Outfitters, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Goldman Sachs, Google, Scholastic and more. At FIU, the duo spoke with students, faculty, staff and community members. They discussed key leadership development areas and findings they’ve learned through their research and work. The event was part of the center’s Leadership Lecture Series, which has featured more than 45 speakers — ranging from high-level business executives to military leaders to entrepreneurs to culinary celebrities — in over a decade of programming.

“Our whole goal is to engage broadly with the university community in both very practical and academic conversations about leadership,” said Nathan Hiller, the center’s executive director and a professor in the College of Business. “We get to bring great speakers, many of whom are globally sought out, and we serve the university community by bringing them leadership education. FIU is a university that has broad impact, and this is part of that mission.”

Hiller emphasizes that the conversation was particularly salient as technology, society and other dimensions of life change before our very eyes. “These transformations really highlight the need for adaptive ways of engaging with the world, including leadership,” he says. “We brought Dan and Steve because they have a lot of experience and insight helping individual leaders and corporate clients from leading organizations deal with this and figure out how they can adapt not only their organizations, but individually to change. If there is ever a time to rethink how we are doing things, this is the time.”

So, what are some things that will help leaders thrive in the midst of complex, rapidly evolving circumstances? Here are three key takeaways anyone — whether a student or a top executive — can use to become a more effective leader.

1. If you want to be a great leader, build a great network.

“For leadership, it’s not about you,” Fisher said. “It’s about relationships, networks and how [leaders can activate] those networks.”

Garcia added, “It’s not just what something is made of, but how the parts are connected to one another that really determines the properties or the outcomes of the thing.” He shared a powerful visualization: Graphite is dull, soft and opaque. A diamond is brilliant, hard and transparent. Both substances are made of pure carbon, so why are they so different? It comes down to the way the atoms are arranged — the way the atoms connect with each other.

“Organizations are made of connections,” Garcia explained. “These connections have a really dramatic impact on what the organization is able to achieve. Your position in the network has a really dramatic impact on how you are percieved and your performance.”

This doesn’t mean you need to know all the top leaders of your student organization or company to thrive. But it does mean that building strong, reciprocal professional relationships in which both you and your colleagues are willing to help each other get your jobs done is a key factor of success. According to the speakers, you don’t have to try to build strong professional relationships with every single person you meet.

CEOs, Garcia shared, typically manage hundreds of professional relationships, but, they only have about 12-18 strong, reciprocal professional relationships. The latter are the ones that really help them get their jobs done.

If it seems like it’s all about building networks with those who have more influence than you, that’s not the case. Garcia said that oftentimes informal networks can be extremely beneficial and that the most valuable networks are “horizontal” ones — connections with people outside of your team and perhaps across from you on organizational charts. In fact, audience members learned that people who have connections to teams across their organization are those who are in the best position to think creatively and collaboratively. Why? They have access to more perspectives.

Reflecting on the topic, Hiller added, “The way we are able to get things done, the way we are seen as innovative, it depends on the quality of our networks. It’s not whether they are powerful. The biggest thing is that we need to know and be connected to people who are different from us, who have totally different connections and see the world in different ways. Those are the people that can help us."

2. Listen to others and be humble.

When asked about advice for students who want to increase their leadership skills, Fisher’s response was something most people would never have expected: listen to learn.

Leaders need to listen to the people around them to truly understand their perspectives and their ideas. Fisher shared that, according to scholar Jennifer Garvey Berger, there are three ways to listen: listening to win an argument, listening to fix a problem and listening to learn what the other person is saying.

If you’re focused on winning a debate, proving you’re right or trying to come up with a solution, you’re not going to be as effective as if you just listen.

“As you’re starting out, if you can engage in listening to learn, you’re so far ahead of the game,” he said.

He also discussed another topic that may sometimes be left out of conversations surrounding leadership. “One of the things I try to stress is the critical importance of intellectual humility,” he said. “If you think [global issues] are simple, you’re going to run into some walls.”

It’s important to respect what others are saying and to avoid assuming that you already know the solutions to complicated problems, he added. If you approach each conversation with humility (try to think that the person who is speaking to you is at least 20% right, Garcia suggested) and an ear toward true listening, Fisher and Garcia said, then you’re well on your way to building authentic, professional relationships and finding solutions to complicated problems.

3. Develop ways of making sense of situations.

“Sensemaking” means being able to analyze a situation and create some kind of roadmap of what the solution or path to follow could be. According to the speakers, this is one of the top qualities leaders will need as we dive into a future ripe with new opportunities and challenges.

Will AI take over part of a person’s job? How will people be able to fact check professional information in a world in which “deepfakes” and technology threaten accuracy? How can organizations respond to the wellbeing needs of employees or supply chain issues in the midst of potential global health concerns or geopolitical instability?

“In a more complex world, every situation is going to be more unique than it was in the past,” Garcia said. “The ability for leaders to make sense of the situation is really critical, both coming up with a map in their mind and communicating that map to others. One of the ways to do that is to get as many different experiences as you can."

For students, this might mean participating in a wide variety of student organizations and combining that with an array of courses in different disciplines. For those already in the workforce, this could mean gaining experience in different areas, roles or sectors.

The more diverse your experiences, the more you’ll have to draw on as a leader in the 21st century.

Nathan Hiller with Steve Garcia and Dan Fisher
From left to right: FIU Center for Leadership Executive Director Nathan Hiller and leadership experts Steve Garcia and Dan Fisher during a meet and greet after the lecture.