There are so many, many books on leadership that it feels awkward to refer to just one of them, but here goes. On Leadership is Harvard Business Review’s selection of leadership articles for its “HBR’s 10 Must Reads” series.
The most classic of the ten articles (it’s the oldest, from May 1990) is John Kotter’s “What leaders really do”. Two things make this article stand out from the other nine: firstly, it’s so classic that it actually talks about Kodak in a positive light; secondly, according to the book index, it’s the only article that refers to young people at all.
When we think of leaders, we tend to think of people at senior career levels. And when we think of young leaders, we tend to think of young people on the development path to leadership. It’s as if we deliberately ignore the actual, current leadership of young people so that our beliefs about the world are simpler to handle.
This post is about how young people lead their organisations today. It’s not about their future potential, it’s about their present behaviours and outputs.
Kotter distinguishes leadership from management by three actions:
1. Leaders develop a vision of the future, rather than set step-by-step plans to get there.
2. Leaders align people by openly communicating the vision, rather than via specific organisational command structures.
3. Leaders motivate desired behaviours, rather than control them.
Consider these actions carefully: none of them necessarily depend on seniority. None of them are exclusive to any official C-level role, and as Kotter points out, “dozens of people can play important leadership roles in a business organization.”
So, in celebration of young leaders, here are Kotter’s three actions reinterpreted:
1. Young leaders innovate as readily as senior leaders. Whether it’s a product, service or business model, nothing can stop breakthrough ideas coming from young people. In fact, their position often enhances their capability to find new opportunities, since they’re typically in regular contact with customers and clients. Young leaders distinguish themselves from their peers by confidently speaking up about their visions, whether invited or not. When Einstein published his first paper on special relativity, questioning centuries of mechanics, he was 26.
2. Young leaders communicate more intensely than senior leaders. Since they don’t usually have formal communication channels to broadcast their vision, young leaders—more than senior managers (have a look at research on informal leaders)—must campaign via numerous communication modes to realise a vision. No weekly newsletter from management will do: young leaders actively seek conversations and presentations with diverse stakeholders, from peers to customers to the CEO, comprehensively building their legitimacy.
3. Young leaders master the art of persuasion to succeed. And since they don’t usually have the authority to instruct others to pursue a new direction, persuasion is the central communication goal of young leaders. Those who do it well are constantly mindful of the interests of stakeholders, and they seek to align those interests with the broader vision they wish to realise. Young leaders manage to surround themselves with collaborators—people who have been motivated to give their time and expertise in spite of organisational structures.