Competence is the new Charisma

Author: Dr Terri Simpkin, Associate at Portman Partners

We’ve all seen them. We’ve probably all been somewhat inspired by them and conferences and professional events often provide a premium platform for them.

​I’m talking about those identified as being a ‘charismatic leader’. Often seen to be highly successful in their field they are more often than not, articulate, polished and extroverted. They are exalted for their ability to ‘schmooze’ as well as get things done.

But leadership is a mutable construct. It must evolve depending on context and respond effectively to the needs of others. Leadership is not confined to one immutable fixed mode of operation, and leadership as an activity rather than a role is certainly gaining some attention considering the rise of popularism across the globe.

​About time.

​While theories professing the success of transformational leadership rose to prominence late last century, scrutiny of the fundamentals of yesterdays’ business contexts must give way to a reconceptualization of the organisation of tomorrow. While the pandemic has pushed this issue into the light, questions about how leadership should be enacted has been percolating for many years.

​Today, disproportionate success will be afforded to those leaders who re-envision their value to consumers, their communities and their people. The pandemic has amplified modified expectations, values and behaviours of leaders in business and in politics alike. This is not only in relation to how leaders define the ways in which their organisations behave (and specifically the digital infrastructure sector) but also how organisations might reinvent the work lives of those inside the business and interactions with the broader community.

​Where once being visible, decisive, strong and unwavering might have been quintessentially ‘leader-like’ we must now take a more inclusive view with a timely dismissal of the ‘hero’ leadership behaviours and identity of the past. Indeed, you’ll be more likely to run across words such as ‘humble’, ‘inclusive’, ‘vulnerable’ and ‘considered’ when examining the nature of today’s successful leaders.

Competence is the new charisma.

​Being good at what you do as a leader takes more than weight of personality. It takes knowledge of more than just ‘closing the deal’ with shareholder interests in mind. It takes more than traditional technical skills. Leaders operating in the digital infrastructure sector are now charged not only with navigating through volatility and accelerated growth in the short term, but with reforming the ‘better normal’ for the mid to longer term too.

​For example, as well as technical acumen, today’s DI leaders must have a capacity to understand circular economies, sustainability (in all guises including workforce and environmental) revised social contracts to operate and how an expansive stakeholder-based organisation is built and maintained. It’s timely to identify that leaders must examine and respond to the impact of the displacement of labour due to automation and other technological advances on how the DI sector operates with an ongoing labour and capability crisis.

​Leaders can’t do all this on their own. A collaborative approach via distributed leadership mechanisms is key. Certainly, the remnants of command-and-control leadership (often dragged from ‘parent’ sectors such as engineering, communications and IT) and singular ‘hero’ leadership narratives must make way for collaborative structures that flex with advancing technology and human engagement for more contemporary notions of productivity, sustainability and innovation.

​So, if leadership is not just about the bloke (and it is usually a ‘bloke’ in the DI sector, let’s face it) at the top, how does collective capability equate to leadership? Well, if there was a time when diversity of thought, action and behaviour was at a premium in the digital infrastructure sector, it is now. If there was ever a place for effective inclusive leadership practices, it is in DI organisations that seek to innovate, to reinvent themselves for the ‘better business as usual’.

​One person is not going to be able to meet all the current and emerging demands of an expanding and evolving digital landscape. Leadership must be seen as a bastion of diversity, driven by a more contemporary business ethos and set of values. This is giant step away from the singular point of charismatic leadership invested in a personality to a collective and distributed notion of capability that draws on knowledge, deep competence and diversity of skills.

​by Dr. Terri Simpkins, Associate Portman Partners