Leadership In The 21st Century: What Good Leadership Looks Like Today

What would Dwight Eisenhower and Steve Jobs have in common?  Possibly more than we might first imagine.

One worked within a centuries-old system; the other created a new structure based on an entirely new technology.  One was a hero more than half a century ago, the other a legend for our current times.

But both were dynamic leaders.  And both provide insights into what it takes to be a good leader in the 21st century.

Both Eisenhower and Jobs were blazing new trails, just under different circumstances.  Eisenhower was responsible for strategically organizing the largest military force in history, adapting it constantly to changing battlefield conditions, and still keeping it moving toward its goal—while making attempts to minimize destruction and loss of life.  The enormity of the task is daunting.

Jobs, on the other hand, was building a juggernaut from scratch.  He found ways to take new technology and give it mass appeal, not just once, but many times over with the computer, with music, and with the telephone.  He had an alchemist’s touch—he discovered a way to connect with people that suggested that barriers were meaningless, that there were new ways of embracing familiar things to make them better and reinvigorated.  Again, this was an enormous task.

How did they both achieve extraordinary results in entirely different circumstances?  Here are a few commonalities.

Both were able to change perspectives quickly.  For Eisenhower, the entire world was a state of flux—battles would change resources and dynamics by the hour; political winds could change even more rapidly.  Eisenhower had to adapt to these fluctuations and get his staff to do likewise.   Jobs often found that approaches to solving problems didn’t work, or just created other problems.  Instead of becoming frustrated or too focused, he would have to abandon originally “good” ideas and start over.

Both were master communicators.  They were able motivate as well as inform.  And they made their messages credible enough that people followed them despite duress or skepticism.

Both insisted on accuracy from their teams.  In fast-moving situations, reactions are only as good as the information that triggers them.  Eisenhower had meteorologists run weather predictions for the coast of France almost incessantly up until he made the decision to launch D-Day.  Jobs frustrated many a staffer by forcing him or her to defend software and hardware decisions, even during the testing and experimentation processes.

Both could shake off setbacks and stay focused on goals.  Eisenhower dealt with numerous defeats in battles and mistakes, with grave consequences.  Jobs at one point had to be rescued by rival Bill Gates.  Each responded by adjusting and finding new ways to success.  And they persevered until they did succeed.

Neither stopped changing their worldviews.  Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander during war, later warned against the military-industrial complex.  Jobs changed his approach to living, especially as he faced health challenges.  Neither felt it necessary to cling to the past if it was no longer relevant.

These are all lessons that transcend the times; however, they may be more relevant for 21st century leaders, because:

  1. The world moves much faster today, requiring the same flexibility and adaptability that Eisenhower faced on a battlefield.
  1. The ideas of today will not be as valuable in the near future, so they must be used when relevant.
  1. The fact that we have access to more data today still doesn’t matter as much as having access to the right data.
  1. Problems are not the problem.  Failure to deal with them is.

When we blogged about leadership before, we suggested that there are three factors that leaders have in common:  an open mind, avoiding judgment, and being able to empathize.  In addition, leaders had to take responsibility for their actions and their organizations.

Though decades apart, the responsibility that Eisenhower and Jobs assumed was Herculean.  But their ability to keep that burden to themselves while concentrating on ways succeed is what made them indelible in our history.

What do you want to build today?