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Steering the way in times of change: What makes a good leader?

By Cranfield School of Management

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The question: ‘what makes a good leader?’ is one that businesses and education experts have been attempting to answer for many years, but no one has yet hit on a consistently winning formula.

Throughout history, there have been numerous models for strong, effective leadership, but the characteristics for success in each case have been radically different, depending on the climate in which they were needed. This makes sense – what worked for Napoleon Bonaparte in battle may well not work so well for the likes of Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos in today’s boardroom.

In a recent article on Business Because, Professor Michael Dickmann, Professor of International Human Resource Management at Cranfield School of Management, warns that the 21st century is going to be a particularly testing time for leaders, as they attempt to navigate challenges caused by rapid change in the political, technological and environmental spheres. 

Professor Dickmann stresses the critical role that education providers play in equipping future leaders with the skills and tools they need to create agile organisations that can adapt to this coming change.

He said: “[Leaders] need to be really clued up in order to identify the opportunities that new technology is making available, and to seize those and exploit them. [They] need to be pragmatic, motivational and focused, creating agile organisations that can react to that changing context.”

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Professor Dickmann believes the path to this skillset begins with a thorough understanding of oneself, one’s preferences and one’s ability to work with and influence others in a changing environment.

He explains: “You really need to identify your own strengths and weaknesses, and how you can maximise those to be effective long-term. This requires continuous insight and continuous learning.”

In an interview earlier this year, Cranfield alumnus Kester Scrope (MBA 2001), Chief Executive Officer at leading executive search firm Odgers Berndtson, described adapting to the fast pace of change as a challenge “everybody is wrestling with”.

He advised leaders to put their faith in the teams around them, saying: “I think the pace of change is simply too quick for one person to be able to understand all its ramifications, so you have got to be a leader who is very comfortable building a good team, and having a team you trust, will engage with and will empower. Because the idea that one person will be the fount of all knowledge and be able to flex quickly enough with these winds of change, I think is flawed.”

Mr Scrope advised businesses to do away with ‘old’ ideas of powerful, strong, rigid leadership in favour of more flexible, collaborative approaches. He said: “The modern world requires much, much more flexibility: more willow trees than oak trees. Because the winds of change are so strong and oak trees can crack.”

Recognising this situation, Cranfield’s new Master’s in Management and Leadership, developed in partnership with Grant Thornton, aims to help future leaders prepare themselves to face some of the challenges change is likely to throw at them. The programme offers participants access to psychometric instruments they can use to help develop their self-awareness, ability to influence others and understanding of their place in a team.

Professor Dickmann is the course director, and says the aim of using psychometric tools is to encourage ongoing good practice: “We enable them to understand themselves, but we also use these tools so that they can reflect on these insights, understand others better, and master a large range of leadership challenges,” he explained.

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