What is leadership? For the purpose of discussion in this
article, I would like to consider the following simple, but
often-used definition: that leadership is the process of influencing
a group towards accomplishing its goals.
Given this broad definition, every one of us is a leader
or can be a leader, technically speaking. So why are we interested
in leadership, if not for the fact that most of us believe
in the important role that leadership plays in the success
of a group of people or even in the success of organisations,
communities and countries? In this context, leadership research
and experts have suggested that leaders in the 21st Century
need traits such as honesty and integrity. Furthermore, they
must have confidence, drive and the motivation to lead.
One suspects these are characteristics that must be cultivated
not when leaders are full-grown adults. By then, one’s
personality would already have become firmly entrenched and
it would be difficult to change. Instead, leadership development
and cultivation ought to start within the home: it is possible
to argue that all parents should take the first shot at leadership
development by imparting to their children all the right values
(e.g. honesty, integrity, caring for others).
However given the heavy stress that parents place on academic
performance, one suspects that they are doing a great disservice
to their children by under-emphasising the importance of acquiring
important life-long values. In addition, most parents are
not aware that they act as leadership role models, either
in the positive or negative sense. All the time, our children
look at our behaviour which reveals our implicit values. For
instance, extra change given to us at the supermarket checkout
counter that is not returned clearly signals to our children
that it is all right to take what is not rightfully ours,
so long as no one is aware; or breaking traffic laws while
driving indicates to our children that following rules are
not important; or children told to shut up at home often grow
up to be passive and docile employees; and so on. Hence, parents
must realise that leadership development of their children
starts at home. If we are aware of our roles and the impact
we have on our children’s lives, we might make better
Leadership experts have also suggested that apart from those
core values mentioned above, leaders in the 21st Century ought
to be visionaries, interpersonally competent, skilful communicators
and motivators, team builders, willing and able to empower
others, and developers of other leaders. I would like to group
this set of must-have qualities as core leadership skills.
These skills can be acquired: many organisations which have
experienced sustained periods of growth over long periods
of time—for instance, Johnson and Johnson, General Electric,
Southwest Airlines—are known to invest heavily in leadership
development activities either through in-house leadership
training activities or services provided by external consultants.
Some usual techniques in imparting such skills include the
use of classroom lectures, leadership exercises, a outdoor
adventure training, case analyses, 360o evaluation (which
is basically a technique involving the evaluation of leader
by his/her boss, peers, subordinates and the leader himself/herself)
and so on. Since different people learn differently, most
organisations tend to use a variety of techniques and tools
(instead of relying on a single method) to ensure that these
important skills are imparted effectively amongst the maximum
number of leadership trainees. If parents are pivotal in imparting
leadership values, the role of top level leaders in organisations
are equally vital in sending all the right signals to reinforce
those values. Top-level leaders who are honest, who care,
who show love and concern as well as who empower, will make
it that much easier for new and younger leaders in their organisations.
Sandwiched between the corporate world and the home is the
range of educational institutions such as primary/secondary
schools, junior colleges, training institutes and tertiary
institutions. Do they have a role to play in leadership development?
Definitely! To begin with, they can help to reinforce values
(e.g. honesty, integrity) emphasised in the home and should
thus seriously consider placing the imparting of values on
par with the imparting of academic knowledge. Next, educational
institutions provide excellent training ground for skills
in teamwork, communication, motivation, interpersonal relations
and planning/organising that will certainly benefit students
well during their adult life.
For instance, skilful crafting of classroom activities and
assessments such as putting greater emphasis on team projects
will mean that students will spend more time in team-oriented
discussions; such activities will help students to see the
advantages of teamwork, tolerate differences and enhance their
group decision-making skills. Non-academic activities such
as sports (especially team sports such as basketball, volleyball,
etc.) and co-curricular activities (e.g. the various uniformed
groups, choirs, symphonies, bands) also provide excellent
leadership development opportunities.
In addition, the behaviour of educational leaders (e.g.
teachers, principals, lecturers, top management officials)
will be crucial. Like it or not, they are leadership models.
What they say and do will shape the leaders of tomorrow.
To conclude, developing and cultivating the next generation
leaders is a complex life-long task that takes a concerted
effort from all concerned parties such as parents, educators
and current leaders in the workforce. The earlier this fact
is recognised, the faster we will enable more of our people
to become effective leaders for the 21st Century.