21st Century Leadership in a Nutshell

I was on a panel today about 21st century leadership and how leadership has changed over the years (which is ironic seeing as how I have zero experience leading in any other century. DETAILS). It was a good panel, though; we had thoughtful conversations about gender inequality in the technology workforce (a topic best saved for a future post, as I have many thoughts), Seattle culture, leadership philosophy, and we even touched on the Microsoft re-org (also a topic on which I have many thoughts).

I was asked near the end how I would define 21st century leadership in a nutshell (What?! Is that possible.) and like all good conversations, I wouldn’t have been able to concisely order my thoughts in any sort of articulate way without the backdrop of input I had received from the other panelists and the conversation throughout.

I’ve been thinking a lot about data vs. business development. If I don’t understand something fully, I feel absolutely comfortable saying so, and I like to understand something fully in order to make a decision. In my current role, I am tasked with making many decisions, some that require speedy deliberation. I fall short when I’m unable to make a fast decision because I don’t have all of the information at hand; this becomes a problem when the decisions that are needing to be made come from a business development standpoint and need to be made QUICKLY. I’ve learned that business development can be messy and rarely comes with the gift of good data.

Here’s the thing: all data comes from underlying assumptions. It’s impossible to collect all of the data in the world, so all of those spreadsheets or lists or maps that we use to make good decisions were generated from the creator’s initial assumptions. When I reflect back on great leaders throughout history, I’m fairly positive that those individuals didn’t get to where they are now by waiting to make decisions based upon data – they likely made their most significant decisions largely based upon instinct.

Making decisions based on instinct isn’t necessarily a poor leadership trait, but it can become a detriment to your company if your instinct is the only factor on which you readily rely. Think: Mad Men.

To me, making decisions based on data represent leadership traits that are only beginning to emerge in the sector:

  • Data-driven leadership represents empathetic business practices, meaning that you strive to understand your people from all ends of the supply chain – from employees to customers.
  • Data-driven leadership means practicing humility, knowing your weaknesses and hiring or gaining outside expertise for them.
  • Data-driven leadership means clearing a pathway for your people because you recognize that your team is the most important part of reaching your core business goals.

Likewise, making decisions based on gut and instinct represent leadership traits that are equally important, but have been celebrated for quite a lot longer in the sector:

  • Instinctual leadership represents innovation, meaning that you pull the trigger now and ask for forgiveness later.
  • Instinctual leadership means getting shit done, no matter what the cost.
  • Instinctual leadership represents less of a team dynamic, and more of one individual leading the organization forward.

Data-driven leadership and instinctual leadership are equally consequential, but can be destructive to a company’s success if there’s too much of one.

So, in my mind, 21st century leadership in a nutshell is growing to balance these two aspects of leadership into a more perfect harmony.

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