5 things that make smart leaders different

December 07, 2018

Digitization requires a new generation of smart leaders

Leadership in the spotlight: digitization requires a radical rethinking of companies - and above all, a new way of leadership. Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy, talks about a new generation of smart leaders, what they need to do differently and what that means for their employees.

Picture with the silhouettes of a group of smart leaders
Digitization requires a radical rethinking and a new type of leadership - smart leaders.

Smart Leaders are authentic, follow through with what they say and stay at eye level

What makes someone a Smart Leaders and what makes him or her different from other leaders? Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy, is convinced: "It is unthinkable that managers hide behind their desks and have no direct contact with their employees. Smart leaders are present, vulnerable and open; they inspire others with their visions. The big players in digital business are certainly a role model, but the characteristics of smart leaders are in demand in all industries today.

Barbara Stöttinger has identified five behaviors that make smart leaders different from managers. A tip for readers complements each characteristic of smart leaders.

1. Feedback is indispensable

Criticism is allowed and necessary - but please in both directions. Smart Leaders actively demand criticism and feedback from their employees. They do not hide behind their leadership position, but are tangible. Feedback gives leaders new energy and helps put the vision into practice. Direct communication becomes an essential part of corporate culture.

In practice: Hierarchical differences or the tendency to shy away from conflict often prevents employees from giving open and honest feedback. Therefore, actively encourage your employees to do so and explain to them the special value of feedback. If you adhere to the rules of constructive feedback, you and your team will make new experiences and reduce inhibitions.

Picture of a chalkboard with 3 different smileys on it
Constructive feedback is valuable and helps to reduce inhibitions within the team. Photo © CC0 Licence

2. Non-binding? No thanks!

A mediocre attitude usually does not help employees. Smart Leaders take a stance and defend their ideas and their company. They know what they are representing. They are neither detached, nor do they lose themselves in a vision, but stay down-to-earth.

In practice: Managers must be clear that it is completely legitimate to change their opinion sometimes. Nowhere does it say that decisions are carved in stone. Talking openly about one's own doubts and uncertainties makes it more humane and therefore more tangible for all those involved.

3. Without empathy it won't work.

Customer orientation is undoubtedly important for a company, but it is also necessary for smart leaders to be able to empathize with their employees. They must understand what is important to them and be able to identify the source of their concerns, even if it is not always obvious to their employee. Smart Managers know that dependable customer orientation is not possible without motivated and qualified employees.

In practice: “If we truly care for our people, they will truly care for our customers, and business will take care of itself”, says Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International.

4. Leading, not managing

Classical, strongly hierarchical management actions are now taking a backseat to the new management style of Smart Leaders; this is rather about empowering employees - the magic word is "enabling". Smart Leaders create the space where innovation and practical implementation become possible in the first place. Instead of tight guidelines and constant controls, the actions take place within a framework that guarantees freedom, promotes individual strengths, but still sets clear goals.

Picture of a working team
Smart Leaders create a space where innovation beccomes possible in the first place. Photo © CC0 Licence

In practice: The widespread argument, “That all sounds amazing, but it wouldn’t work in my team” is not correct. Every person needs a mixture of freedom and clear guidelines, the question is just how much freedom and which guidelines. This is exactly where managers need to find the right balance for each individual member of their teams. A complex task, but it pays off in any case.

5. Smart Leaders are courageous

Whoever is afraid of honest opinions and likes to stay under cover is not ready to be a Smart Leader. This new role definitely demands the courage of proactively communicating yourself and your idea. You should not only tolerate diverging opinions, but also actively demand it.

In practice: As a manager, it is important to accept that mistakes can happen. Yet this approach is often difficult to accept because of the fear of failure. An open discussion about mistakes AND successes will help you reflect on the past, learn from it and make progress.

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