The 21st Century Leader – Taking Employees to the Next Level

By | October 20, 2003

A major complaint that we hear from executives throughout the world is the changing work ethic and lack of commitment by employees. With the lack of leadership evident today, I am amazed that we have any work ethic or any commitment by employees.

Employees rebel against the authoritarian leadership style and if they are forced to endure it, they are probably performing at a maximum of 20 percent capacity. Nor do they want the “flavor of the month” new management technique.

People want to be led; they want leaders with human values and respect for people’s unique talents and the contributions they can make. Employees want leaders who will create an environment that nurtures excellence, risk taking and creativity. And what do they get? Managers who intimidate, manipulate and lie to the masses. How many times have we heard management proclaim, “Our greatest asset is our employees?”

In 1995 a national survey found that 73 percent claim that employees were their company’s greatest asset. This same survey found that 98 percent of executives agreed that improving employee performance would significantly increase company productivity. But when asked to rank business priorities, these same executives relegated investing in people to fifth place on a six item list.

Success in the future depends on people, and in order to achieve success, people depend on leaders. What we need in all walks of life and all endeavors is leadership.

Robert H. Rosen, in his book, Leading People, has identified eight principles of successful leaders, and when integrated together form wisdom in action.

Leaders need to develop the vision for the enterprise, and need to articulate that vision to the entire organization. This creates a common purpose with everyone working towards a common goal. This communication needs to be face to face, not videos, publications or large meetings. For front line employees this means their supervisors, not the CEO or the executive team. In 1993, a survey by the Wyatt Company investigated 531 U.S. organizations undergoing major change. Wyatt asked the CEOs, “If you could go back and change one thing, what would it be?” The most frequent answer was, “The way I communicated with my employees.”

Without trust, vision becomes an empty slogan. Asking employees to take risk, be entrepreneurial, and give up the known for the unknown requires a strong foundation of trust. Managers and employees view change differently. Senior managers consistently misjudge the effect of this misunderstanding, and do not understand the effort required to instigate change. Nordstrom, a U.S. department store, issues its workers just one instruction: “Use your good judgment in all situations.” For employees to trust their leaders, their leaders must walk the talk. To talk about change without any visible change in the behavior of the leaders is like shoveling sand against the tide.

The leader’s challenge is to unleash the intellectual capacity of his/her organization. Getting everyone involved in contributing to both the development and implementation of the organizational vision. Getting virtually everyone within a company to contribute and shape its vision so that all employees will feel they own the work. Each employee is responsible for the success or failure of the company.

Studies show that companies that train workers involved in the decision and give them a stake in the business are more profitable than those who do not. The truth is that paying attention to what many analysts term the soft side of business (developing skills) in management leadership and interpersonal areas of communication is the real key to a successful change in management strategy. Make a decision to become a superior learning organization and apply this knowledge to create real customer value.

Today’s leader has a deep appreciation for people’s differences. Their definition goes beyond age, gender, ethnicity, and includes differences in lifestyle, religious beliefs, working habits and personalities. The best leaders are not threatened by individuality. They know that people are simply less willing to abandon their identities to the organization. As a result, people who retain their cultural heritage and things that are important to them provide far more committed employees. Different people require different forms of leadership. One leadership size fits all is not applicable. And, what’s the most important thing in diversity? Having a culture of respect. The leader understands that we are created equal, and people who feel equal and respected are likely to deliver superior performance.

In today’s fast paced world, creativity is essential. Today, if you cannot create or sell products or services, your future looks bleak. The market is over for bureaucrats. Leaders who create a climate for creativity are encouraged and rewarded. The leader focuses on the strengths of his/her people and helps them manage their weaknesses. The greatest contribution a leader can make to an employee is to help him/her to discover his/her talents and how those talents relate to the job at hand. Create the environment for people to experiment, take risks, and fulfill their creative potential. The secret is to discover what people do well and ask them to do more.

Today’s leader is a person of authenticity, honesty and integrity. They stand for something. Companies with ethical reputations attract the best employees. They also attract and retain loyal customers. Consumers like doing business with honest and honorable people. Most leaders, I believe, want to be ethical; but in business there is a constant challenge involving conflicts and compromises and doing the right thing isn’t always easy. So when it comes to ethics, the leader must show his/her people the way. Leaders never sacrifice their long-term benefit for some immediate short-term gain by compromising their ethics.

Today’s leader does not just measure his/her success in terms of the profitability of the enterprise or his/her individual earnings. They measure their success by what they do for others. They also measure their success by their contribution to society. Leaders, by caring beyond themselves, find a deeper sense of self-fulfillment and gratification by the contribution they make to their community and the world at large. The leader is fully aware that we are all dependent on our environment and the leader is committed to preserving his/her surroundings. Being a leader means having an awareness of the environment and educating employees and customers about environmental responsibility. Leaders and their companies receive incalculable returns by engaging with their communities.

Roy E. Chitwood is an author and consultant on sales and customer service. He is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle, (800) 488-4629, To subscribe to his free Tip of the Week, e-mail

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