24 October 2023
Modern leaders recognise every moment offers the opportunity for us to leave a positive impact on others.
Modern leaders are not perfect. Far from it. Leading, like living, is a series of missteps and challenges, setbacks and lessons learnt. We will be invariably learning some of the same lessons our entire lives.
The art of being a modern leader is knowing what balance of leadership attributes is needed, and when.
In any given situation, context or conversation you will need to draw on skills from both the head and heart to be the most effective leader you can be. It is impossible to make a critical decision based on well-researched data without also considering the human cost of the decision.
There is no one way of leading well. Everyone will do it differently. The more attributes of a head and heart leader you can draw upon, the more effective you will be in the widest range of situations you might find yourself leading in.
In some situations, to get the best possible outcome in a conversation or a crisis, you will need to use different skills depending on the situation.
Knowing what leadership attributes to use, and when, is the art of modern leadership.
It was in the wake of the 2019 Christchurch terrorist attack that Jacinda Ardern, one-time disc jockey and the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, first came to the world’s attention as a modern leader able to lead with her head and heart.
In the days following the attack, Ardern addressed the nation and managed to create a sense of belonging and embrace the pain the nation was feeling. She also signaled to the nation that inclusion and compassion in this moment were critical.
This wasn’t a moment that was all heart. Ardern also captured the anger of the nation and set the tone for how the country, and the world, should treat the gunman. “He may have sought notoriety,” said Ardern. “But we in New Zealand will give him nothing—not even his name.”
The day after the attack, Ardern visited the traumatized, grief-stricken Muslim community most deeply impacted by the violence. In a simple act of kindness and with deep insight into the context she was leading in, Ardern borrowed a scarf and wore it as a sign of respect to Muslim traditions. A simple act with profound consequences.
Ardern demonstrated the power of leading with both wisdom and perspective while at the same time demonstrating self-awareness, empathy, and humility. She was able to attend to the crisis both intellectually and emotionally.
Far from New Zealand, another modern leader captured the world’s attention in 2022.
The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, had a public life before politics that has become well known. Zelensky was a comedian and successful television producer who played a role as the nation’s president before undertaking the role in real life. It is hard to know where the fictional world ends, and the real world begins.
It would be easy to critique Zelensky as an entertainer, staging his performance as a wartime president. But to do so would be a disservice to the head and heart leadership he has consistently displayed and the loyalty and combined sense of purpose he has built among Ukrainians in their darkest hour. Zelensky knows his role is to serve the people of Ukraine and he reinforces his role through the way he dresses, the way he communicates, and the way he demands action from the Western world.
Zelensky is masterful at “reading the room,” adapting his message to the greatest effect for his audience. When speaking to politicians in the House of Commons in the UK, Zelensky channeled Shakespeare. When he spoke to the US Senate, he reminded them the United States is the leader of the free world. When he addressed the European Council summit, he invoked memories of World War II when Hungarian Jews were murdered on the shores of the Danube.
While Ardern and Zelensky exemplify the style of modern leadership needed in the world today, remarkably this kind of leadership remains rare.
The reason Ardern’s and Zelensky’s actions are notable is because we don’t see modern leaders behave in these ways nearly often enough, especially not on the world stage. What makes Ardern and Zelensky stand apart is their ability to seamlessly integrate their personal qualities and authenticity with the authority invested in them through their formal roles.
It is clear the world needs modern leaders who understand they are continually learning and re-shaping the best way they can lead in any given moment. Our world needs modern leaders who are eager to understand how they can have a positive impact on those around them.
We already have the skills and attributes we need to be modern leaders. The art of modern leadership is knowing which attributes you need, and when, as well as understanding that the modern leader we need in the world––is you.