Have You Got What It Takes?
By Thomas A. Stewart

(FORTUNE Magazine) – "You Must Know Everything" is the title of a story by Russian writer Isaac Babel. Maybe the phrase ought to be inscribed over business school entrance gates as a challenge to entering students. Tomorrow's captains of industry must be e-commerce adept and old-economy tested; must have powerful analytical skills and superb instincts, including perfect pitch when it comes to hiring people; must know EPS, TCP-IP, ROE, HTTP, EVA, and WAP; must be innovators, visionaries, and change agents; must know the difference between a thin client and a lean supply chain; must be able to say no in a way that doesn't demoralize and to inspire people to exceed their own expectations; must be coaches and team players; must have spent several years working on another continent; must be able to work harder, longer, than most people, while keeping their personal lives in balance; must be young at heart but mature in judgment; and must have good teeth and look great in a suit--and on Friday in trousers and a sweater.

What's a poor schlumpf like me supposed to do?

The question is provoked by an impressive study from Andersen Consulting called "The Evolving Role of Executive Leadership." Led by Andersen's Cathy Walt and Alastair Robertson, with help from leadership experts Warren Bennis, John O'Neil, and others, the study team interviewed dozens of current CEOs from around the world, together with hundreds of younger people whom Andersen consultants had tagged as candidates for leadership roles in the future. Their inarguably good purpose: to create a "profile of the global leader of the future." Implicit in the goal, though, is the hypothesis that future leaders will be unlike previous ones. Say Walt and Robertson: "The leadership models of the past provide little guidance for the business context of the future." That's debatable.

Walt and Robertson define 14 dimensions of leadership. The perfect leader, if she existed, would be someone who thinks globally, anticipates opportunity, creates a shared vision, develops and empowers people, appreciates cultural diversity, builds teamwork and partnerships, embraces change, shows technological savvy, encourages constructive challenge, ensures customer satisfaction, achieves a competitive advantage, demonstrates personal mastery, shares leadership, and lives the values. It's a terrific list; I'd add only "possesses physical and mental stamina."

The leaders and leaders-to-be were asked to rate the importance of these traits on a scale of one to ten, with ten tops, for leaders of the past, present, and future. The "past" and "future" were just five years ago and ahead, which says something about the attention spans of business people or perhaps about career spans, half a decade being about the average tenure for a CEO.

The respondents said that every one of the 14 traits is getting much more important, whether it's "thinks globally" or "embraces change" or "lives the values." Not one leadership dimension ranked above 6.6 in the respondents' view of the past; not one will rank below 8.2 in their view of the future.

That's just silly. I doubt the standards for leaders are higher now than they were in Alexander's day, let alone five years ago. Satisfying customers was every bit as vital in 1994 as it will be in 2004, though the respondents say it's rising from 5.95 to 8.83.

Why, then, this perception that leadership is getting ever more demanding? First, there is evidence, notably shareholders' increasing willingness to dispose of a CEO who disappoints them, that we expect more from leaders. Globalization, deregulation, and information technology have turned strategy into a three-dimensional game of chess in which threats and opportunities come not just from traditional rivals but from anywhere in the world.

Second, business lives on the idea of progress. Sales go up; stock prices rise; productivity improves; research produces inventions. "New and improved!" have always been the most powerful words on Madison Avenue. Note the paradox: They've always been powerful. It's a dead giveaway. We're in the presence of knee-jerk optimism and its corollary: Every day, in every way, we're getting better and better. We're more capable than our fathers; our daughters must be abler still.

Third, the one thing we know for sure about the future is that it's unsure. As GE's Jack Welch put it to me, "I know a train's going to come through this building one day. I just don't know where it's coming from." So we pray for a leader who drives, chips, and putts equally well.

Walt and Robertson recognized this problem of inflated expectations. To study it, they asked the leaders to rate not only 14 leadership dimensions but an additional 82 subcharacteristics, like the ability to identify priorities, or genuinely listen to others, or demonstrate self-confidence. Instead of looking at absolute ratings of importance, Walt and Robertson examined their relative standing. When you see which of these characteristics ranked in the top ten for the past, present, and future, a revealing pattern emerges.

Back in the mists of prehistory, 1994ish, the leader's most important challenges were to demonstrate self-confidence, create and communicate a clear vision, and strive for personal excellence; after that, he should expect high standards from others, be a role model for values, and identify priorities. This leader was a hero, a general, a tribal war chief who got his job because he was brave, brawny, and canny.

Nowadays, self-confidence, vision, and personal excellence remain the leader's top three attributes. Setting priorities moves up from No. 6 to No. 4, followed by increasing shareholder value (No. 10 before). Some new attributes emerge: The leader views business from the customers' viewpoint and ensures commitments to them are met; he creates effective teams, genuinely listens, and inspires people to commit to the organization's vision. This guy's a boss: Tough, caring, paternalistic, he got the corner office because he can plan better than you.

And tomorrow? Vision, values, and setting priorities are 1, 2, and 3. Next come having a customer perspective, team building, and listening. Then come four traits not listed before: building alliances with other organizations, making decisions that reflect global considerations, building partnerships across the company, and treating people with respect and dignity.

This is an image of the leader as partner, dealmaker, social director, and broker--primus inter pares, first among equals. Getting results--i.e., making money--doesn't figure in the top ten attributes of tomorrow's leaders. What does figure is getting the process right--making sure the right people are talking to one another about the right things and have the right tools to do what they decide needs doing.

That could be the kind of mushy nonsense that often dominates management talk in a boom, only to disappear when profits shrink. But I don't think so. The leaders and future leaders are describing a clear agenda for a knowledge-based economy. The leader of the past, they're saying, is a doer; of the present, a planner; of the future, a teacher. Her job is to develop capabilities: not to plan the company's actions but to increase its capacity to act, its responsiveness, and its repertoire; to create intellectual capital rather than deploy other assets. This kind of leader doesn't need to know everything; on the contrary, she'll want to be surrounded by people who know a whole lot more but trust her to weigh their competing claims.