It is undoubtedly true that we all have an idea of what leadership is. It is one of those concepts we feel we'll recognise when we see it or experience it.

Take a moment. Ask yourself whom do I think of as a leader? What pops into your mind?

When I ask this question in training courses, people tend to list historical leaders such as monarchs, generals, and politicians: someone at the front of a battalion or the top of a government hierarchy. Interestingly they rarely mention business leaders although they impact us all directly in our daily working lives.

Our current default concept of leadership is, in many ways, old fashioned. However, we are the product of both our psychology and society. From the days of our cave dwelling ancestors we have been socialised to respect authority and strong leadership. The question we need to answer now is "what does leadership mean in the modern digitally enabled world?"

There is no one answer           

Thankfully we live in a more complex society than the cavemen. In his Harvard Extension School article, The Paradox of Leadership, Michael Shinagel points out not only "that leadership clearly is a crucial and abiding topic of interest to countless women and men in society" and that there are many styles of leadership which are appropriate in different situations.

From personal experience I would say that in an emergency I want command and control. Tell me what to do and I'll follow orders. In my working life I want to have responsibility delegated and to feel I can make a genuine and unique contribution. In a volunteer organisation I may lead though indirect influence.

Taking on board the idea of variety in leadership, we can also say that in business there is a trend away from multi-layered hierarchy, that leadership now requires greater trust and a different communication style.

Away from hierarchy

  • The radical approach

            Ricardo Semler developed a revolutionary leadership style at Semco. Living in Brazil he inherited the leadership of his family engineering business. He took it from small and local to international success though evolving workplace democracy and radically transforming the organisational culture. He has gone further than most leaders in expecting co-workers to take responsibility and to operate a model of shared leadership. You can read more in his bestselling book Maverick. This is an extreme example but it highlights the trend.

  • Pushing leadership down

            In recent years we have seen the acceptance of self-managed teams, particularly in large organisations. Senior leaders set the direction and let people work out the best way to achieve their part of the objectives. Warren Bennis, the leadership guru, personally epitomized the view of a leader as someone who made "people feel that they're at the very heart of things, not at the periphery" [Steve Denning writing in Forbes].

              Perhaps the mantra from Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg is useful to remember here. "Done is better than perfect." Modern business leadership requires the ability to not only get things done yourself but to trust others to take action too.

  • Trust is key

            Part of the challenge for leaders is learning to trust their colleagues. In a self-managed team, for example, people will not always take the route you expect. If you are used to feeling in control, even if this is an illusion, it may take you time to adapt. One of my old bosses used to delegate then return within a few minutes saying "have you done it yet?" Attempting to trust a self-managed team would probably have put her over the edge. Trust breeds commitment and loyalty though this is one of the hardest leadership lessons to take on board, especially when it is your investment that is on the line. One important aspect to remember is that trust is a huge motivator.

Inevitably technology is giving us opportunities to work differently and is placing new demands on our ideas of leadership.

Digital impact

  • Communication

            Remember when Barack Obama was elected? He effectively used social media to crowdfund his campaign. He attracted support and small donations from millions of voters. In his own unique way Tweet Master Trump has demonstrated the power of social media to galvanise and maintain support for his leadership.

                        In business we now expect greater transparency and speedy communication. Leaders can no longer hide behind boardroom doors. The informal style of online

communication means that leaders need to be more open: showing their personal style and developing more immediate rapport with both colleagues and wider audience.

  • Connectedness

            The development of collaboration tools mean that working digitally is an everyday experience, with the ability to work with others in different locations and time zones. However, it goes beyond working with dispersed teams. Nick van der Meulen at the University of Amsterdam says: "Connectedness refers to the extent to which employees can engage - with each other, with stakeholders and customers, and with information, knowledge, and ideas." It moves away from the rigidity of traditional silos. The research he is engaged in shows that the most effective leaders empowered people to make decisions to serve customers directly and get their work done well.

Leadership as a mission

If you want inspiration to help you on your leadership journey try googling Amal Clooney. You'll see how, using her experience as a human rights lawyer, she is taking on leadership in the fight to support Yazidi refugees. Or read about the nominees for Commonwealth Young Person of the Year. This celebrates outstanding young adults who are leading initiatives ranging from poverty alleviation to peace-building. These are all example of leaders who have looked at a situation and said: "Something needs to be done. And I will be the person who will take action."

In conclusion

As the leader of business, particularly if you are an entrepreneur or leading an SME, you need to be the engine that drives the vision and direction. This is something even Ricardo Semler had to be before he could achieve the dramatic democratisation of his company.

As leadership guru Warren Bennis says: "The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born" - that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That's nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born. We need to let go of the old-fashioned stereotypes of leadership and let ourselves learn and evolve into the leaders that our business needs.

Dorothea Stuart is a distinguished member of Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills globally