The World's First 21st Century Leader
On Tuesday Barack Obama made history as the first black man to be appointed President-elect of the US. In the years and months ahead, he will make more history as he tackles unprecedented challenges: two bloody wars, a global financial crisis, the US's tarnished reputation, domestic security and healthcare reform.
But as the euphoria of his victory gives way to the hard work of transitioning to the White House, we should perhaps pause for a moment to reflect on Obama's other achievement: his emphatic arrival as the world's first 21st Century leader.
Let me explain what I mean by this. For much of the 20th century, academics, politicians and business leaders have researched, debated and tried to quantify leadership, the elusive quality that separates great men and women from the merely good. Yet a century on, apart from a few critical moments in history, the ideals of leadership remain little more than theories in textbooks or concepts to be debated in lecture theatres of business schools.
Yet this week, Obama changed the game: he has emerged as the living, breathing exemplar of leadership for our times. The first decade of the 21st Century has been a wake-up call to leaders everywhere: globalisation, war, geopolitical shifts, climate change, financial and economic crisis have rendered the old paradigms of leadership obsolete. Times of rapid change and uncertainty demand new qualities of flexibility, humility, adaptability, resilience and what I call "negative capability" (coping with the unknown).
The first defining event of the 21st Century was, of course, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. During that crisis new leaders emerged, such as Mayor Giuliani, who presented a calm, dignified and moral face of leadership. Yet few other leaders responded to the call to change.
Just after 9/11, I conducted my own research into leadership in crisis. I wanted to find out what effective leaders did to keep their people, communities, and businesses on track during a period of catastrophic change. I surmised that this could yield valuable lessons for leaders during times of less extreme change.
I discovered that change and crisis bring very different leaders than those who flourish in ordinary times - and this is why I believe Obama is the first leader to demonstrate the range of qualities needed to deal with our complex age and conditions.
First, let's examine what some of the most forward-thinking writers of the last century had to say on the subject of leadership. One of the central ideas of leadership in the last half of the 20th century was Max Weber's concept of charismatic leadership. In 1968 the German sociologist wrote that social crisis was precondition for charismatic leadership, a combination of intelligence, purpose, grace under pressure and consideration for their followers.
US academic Noel Tichy built on his work in the eighties and nineties, identifying transformational leaders - courageous, value-driven, visionary people who were comfortable with uncertainty. Transformational leaders emerge in times of crisis or change, in contrast with transactional leaders who manage in steady times, preserving the status quo and strengthening existing structures, cultures and strategies.
Other researchers believed that the measure of a true leader was the ability to display both transformational and transactional styles as the circumstances demanded.
Around the same time, Warren Bennis advanced the argument that in a complex and uncertain world, leadership can only be exercised by self-directed, strong, creative, purposeful and self-actualising leaders - those who have listened to their inner voice. Bennis later added that one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of leadership was the ability to learn from traumatic circumstances: emerging from these 'crucibles' of change, leaders were stronger and with a more defined purpose
In the 1990s, Peter Vaill of Antioch University added that values were the primary organising principle for action in a turbulent climate. When it is impossible to set goals, leaders need to rely on their inner resources, drawing on non-rational as well as rational abilities, in other words, their deepest convictions.
So how does all this theory relate to Obama and why do I believe that he is the world's first true 21st century leader?
The answer is that he embodies most of the qualities described by these great writers on leadership.
Although he remains untested in high office, Obama has nevertheless displayed a remarkable breadth of qualities.
As a man, he remains true to the values of his humble background. Raised by a single mother in Hawaii and Indonesia, he was no doubt tested by his circumstances. Yet he has matured into a thoughtful, considerate, inclusive, relaxed and level-headed man. He has shown humility and connectedness with ordinary people, remaining gracious under attack and undistracted by innuendo and smears.
As a charismatic leader, he has revealed a soaring eloquence, fierce intellect, gravitas, passion, conviction and a rare ability to mobilise and inspire diverse groups of people in the US and around the world.
As a transactional leader, he is a consummate professional, intellectual, dynamic, with tenacity, focus, grasp of detail, breadth of knowledge and intellect. His campaign demonstrated superb organisational ability, skilled use of technology, tenacity, focus, grasp of detail and breadth of knowledge.
Most important of all, he has emerged as a beacon of hope, showing unwavering faith in his country and its people. His willingness to step up to the plate, despite threats to his life and deep-rooted problems at home and abroad.
As he said in his victory speech, his aim is to restore the US's enduring ideals of democracy, hope, opportunity and liberty, rather than the recent attractions of wealth and arms. On a more practical level, his challenge is to unite Republicans with Democrats in the new administration, something he appears to be tackling as I write.
What are your views on Obama's leadership? Do you believe he is uniquely well-placed to meet his challenges? Where are his strengths and what are his blind-spots? What resonates with you and what advice do you have for him?