Leadership in the 21st Century


I had the enormous pleasure of attending Leadership in the 21st Century, with Harrington Starr. My role was simply to summarise the morning for the 200 business leaders in attendance, and to identify a few lessons that we could take from the event. How do you summarise several hours of rich and insightful content into just a few minutes? When do you realise that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew? In my experience it is whilst chewing. On reflection, I don’t think I did the event justice in my summary yesterday. Hopefully this short blog will give a better view and help to identify the powerful messages that leaders can take-away.

I’m in the process of researching my next book, which focused on how leaders enable their teams to deliver world class performances. I’m guided by the same kinds of questions that I asked when writing How to Shine. What differentiates the very best? What characteristics do great leaders and teams from vastly different disciplines share? How can we adopt these principles to enhance our own performance? The panellists and speakers at Leadership in the 21st Century are all exceptional leaders from a wide variety of fields; sport, business, the military and even polar exploration. So what are the common themes that cross all of these disciplines?


The Challenges

In every one of these domains, leaders face significant challenges. Admittedly, not all leaders have to fish team members out of the Arctic Ocean, or complete their mission with artillery shells raining down on them. However, many of the challenges are fairly generic. Many leaders are focused on getting their team to deliver the target. Leaders in all disciplines face the pressure of delivering outcomes that are outside of their control. Conversely, there is the challenge of mobilising a team who have become complacent or to manage mavericks within the team.

Perhaps the one challenge that unites all leaders is that of navigating the unknown. However well we plan, there will always be unpredictability. How do leaders enable their teams to successfully over-come the uncertain, unpredictable and unknown challenges?


The Importance Of…


As the panels of leaders from business, sport, the military and adventure shared their insights and experiences, I noticed a few common messages. There are some things that seem critical to successful leadership in any domain. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is the need for a compelling purpose. Leaders need to ensure that the organisation has a strong and compelling reason, which is shared by its members. There needs to be alignment and congruence between the vision, purpose, values and strategy throughout the organisation. When these are in place, we have the foundations on which to engage team members.

It sounds pretty obvious, right? There is nothing Earth shattering there, so why do I feel the need to highlight it?

We often have a habit of over-looking the simple, obvious elements that we see and hear time all the time. These are the elements that are easily said but rarely done. The temptation is to think, “I know all that; move on”. Another thought would be, “So, how well do we do this at the moment? Knowing that this is crucial, is there a way we could improve? How compelling is our purpose and vision at the moment? Have we got a strong alignment throughout the organisation? Do we actually do the things we say we value?”.


Decision Making

One of the prominent features of leadership is decision making. During the event we saw that decision making takes many different forms. Arguably there is no “right way” or “best way” to make decisions. Alan Chambers explained that in the Arctic they may sit tight, put the kettle on and take seven hours to make a good decision. In extreme conditions, a hasty decision could be a costly one. He also explained that many of the significant decisions were made months before they hit the ice, in the relative safety and comfort of the training base. This ensured that important decisions were made outside the ‘pressure cooker’ of the immediate crisis. Obviously, there are times when we don’t have the luxury of time when decision making. Bomb disposal expert Major Chris Hunter needs to decide which wire to cut now. Pilots under fire won’t opt to put the kettle on before making decisions either.   

Whilst there clearly is no ‘best way’, the discussions highlighted the importance of understanding the “what”, “when”, “how”, “where” and “who” of our own decision making.

When should we make the decision? Is there a need to make it right now, or would we be better off putting the kettle on?

Where should we make the decision? Which decisions should be made outside of the ‘pressure cooker’?

How should we make the decisions? On our own? With the team?

Who should input?

What information do we need to ensure we have access to?

Mandy Hickson described the D.O.D.A.R. decision making cycle from aviation – Diagnose, Options, Decide, Act (or assign) & Review – which might help to answer some of these.


How Do We…?

The panellists offered some very simple, yet powerful, methods that leaders use to implement these principles. The central theme in all of these is learning. Practice, coaching and debriefing are central to success, whether you’re trying to cross an ice-cap, win Olympic gold or bring your team home safely from combat.

Many business leaders tell me that, unlike sport and the military, they simply don’t have the luxury of being able to practice. They tell me that from start to finish, they perform every day. I would argue that the gap between ‘practice’ and ‘performance’ is simply a matter or perception. In sport there are days when we practice, and days when we compete. If we call today ‘a competition day’ (because there is a trophy up for grabs), does it mean that we cannot learn? If we call today ‘a practice’ does it mean that we are not competing or aiming to produce our very best performance? Is there really a difference? Could we decide to simultaneously perform at our best AND learn as much as possible regardless of whether we call this ‘practice’ or ‘performance’?

Each of the leaders explained the importance of reviewing and debriefing. A thorough, robust and brutally honest debrief seems to be absolutely central to their success. I would argue that we all have the opportunity to do this. Alan Chambers ensures that his team debrief in the tent, at -60 degrees, after a 28 hour day walking across the Arctic. RAF pilots ensure they debrief each incident (including the near misses) after an intense combat mission. In both cases there must be a temptation to say, “I haven’t got the energy to debrief, I’m tired, let’s just call it a day”. Crucially, the very best leaders don’t choose to call it a day; they know it’s just too important.


Top Tips for Team Building.

You might like to try a few of these tried and tested team building exercises with your team.

1. Lock your team in a freezer at -38 degrees for the weekend – It worked for Alan Chambers.

2. Put your team in a situation where they are ambushed and get shot at. In Major Chris Hunter’s words, “It’s great for team building”.


My Quotes of the Day

These are both from Polar Expedition leader, Alan Chambers.  

“Leadership is service”

“Leaders are team members”


And I’ll leave you with this from Frank Dick

“You are unique. There is only one you, there has been only one you, and there will only be one you in all of history. What is your gift to humanity”


For more on leading world class teams, follow @worldclasssimon on twitter.