What makes a great leader? Insights from ‘The Emerging World of Work’

What makes a great leader? Team in a meeting room with a person leading the conversation

When we launched The Emerging World of Work podcast, we decided to focus our first season on the theme from a Global Peter Drucker Forum, which was “Management: The human dimension.” Our take on that was simple: we wanted to talk to guests who could tell us what it means to be a great leader. What are the skills, perspectives and qualities of exceptional leaders, and how do they inspire their people to reach their full potential while also serving the goal of delivering business value?Lucky for us, our guests really rose to the occasion. Given their varied backgrounds – we spoke to researchers, professors, executives, authors – each one came to the table with a unique perspective on the factors that help leaders to both deliver new ideas and motivate employees to do their best work.

We wanted to share a few of their most interesting insights here as food for thought. Whether you’re an aspiring leader or a current executive looking to do some self-evaluation, we think you’ll find these just as useful as we did.

Expertise is necessary, but not a condition for finding success in new ideas

In our very first episode, we talked to Professors Joseph Pistrui and Dimo Dimov about their recent research into the mindset of entrepreneurs. I asked them how an entrepreneurial mindset helps leaders bring new ideas to market. As Joseph explains, it’s all about understanding the ways in which your personal style of thinking benefits – or stifles – positive results when you’re put in the position of having to be innovative.

Most leaders got to their current position by building a track record of success in having the right answers to big questions, and they’ll often lean on those past experiences when faced with new situations. “When the future looks a lot like the past, that’s a good formula for success,” is how Joseph explained this typical way of thinking.

But, when you need to come up with new ideas for new challenges, that experience might not always be useful. Instead, you might need to call upon a different toolset, or mode of thinking. Listen to the full interview to learn more about the entrepreneurial mindset.

Physical space sends a signal about the intent of leadership

In episode three, Guillaume Alvarez of Steelcase explained why physical space is one of the least-utilized but most effective tools that leaders have to empower their employees. Companies often make the mistake of segregating leadership from the rest of the company as part of the office floorplan, but that creates a huge gap – both physical and psychological – between employees and leaders. For staff to do their best work, they need to feel like they have access to all of the resources they need to be creative and innovative, and that includes the people at the top of the org chart.

At the same time, it is possible to over-correct and force staff and executives into awkward or uncomfortable interactions. In the full interview, Guillaume provided several great real-world examples of companies that have struck a balance, one that allows leaders to organically collaborate with and influence the people who make innovation happen in their business.

Anytime you’re in a position of authority, it’s no longer about you – it’s about the people you serve

Randy Salley spent a long time as SVP of retail technology for Walmart. His decisions had a major impact on the large group of people who reported to him, either directly or indirectly. In our conversation, he demonstrated an admirable level of self-awareness about this responsibility.

“You’re trying to lead to help them grow in their careers, help them be successful with their endeavors at work,” he said. “And that’s a huge mental shift that a true leader has to make. To not think about themselves and their next promotion, but to be focused on their people and the leadership in the service that they’re providing back to them.”

Randy’s insights here really get to the heart of what “servant leadership” is all about. You can dive more into that topic in my recent column for Forbes, and listen to the full interview with Randy here.

This is really only scratching the surface of the types of conversations we had in season one – and that we continue to have on The Emerging World of Work. You can listen to all of our previous episodes here on the website, and be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite podcast app to receive the latest episodes as they are published: