Understanding the Role and Responsibilities of Leaders Today

Businesswoman in front of a team

Leadership is a timeless practice of guiding others in pursuit of some goal, destination, or desired outcome. At the most fundamental level, a leader is someone who motivates, inspires and guides others towards pre-established goals. And while these leadership behaviors are timeless, our world of uncertainty and change places a premium on a variety of additional skills and abilities.

This article describes the role and core responsibilities of leaders in today's hectic environment.


The Classic View on the Leader's Role:

The classic view to the role of a leader is one who articulates or describes organizational goals and then guides, motivates and coordinates individuals and teams in pursuit of those goals. The leader was often seen as someone who presided from on high, dispensing wisdom, reward and discipline when the situation called for it. The historic view of the leader is one of command and control, where the leader takes a strong role in issuing directives and enforcing their execution, while remaining at a distance from the daily work. 

However, much as the times have changed, so has the role of the leader.

A New Era Demands a Different Approach to Leading:

Today's leader is focused on identifying and developing talent while laboring to create a healthy environment that allows individuals to apply their talents and skills in pursuit of key objectives.

Creating this effective working environment requires the leader to focus on instilling and reinforcing key values; modeling proper behaviors; instilling a sense of accountability and helping teams and work groups succeed with their tasks.

Instead of leading from on high, today's leader is in the middle of the action, providing support along with ensuring proper direction. 

Leading and Vision:

Today's leaders understand the importance of developing and gaining support for team or firm-wide vision. The vision is an idealized state of the future or a future destination that provides context for organizational, departmental and individual goals and activities.

The vision might focus on succeeding in certain markets; becoming visible as a leading firm in a market or customer segment or striving to become the most innovate firm in the industry.

Regardless of the actual vision, the leader must create and instill the idea of this destination in the minds of the firm's or team's employees. A clear, strong vision serves as a rallying point for employees. It helps people and teams prioritize investments and improvements. It gives everyone in an organization something to strive for in their daily pursuits. 

Leading and Strategy:

A strategy is the collection of actions organized in a plan to work towards a vision. Leaders own the responsibility for working with employees, customers, partners, suppliers and stakeholders to define, implement and execute on a strategy that helps the firm succeed in the marketplace.

In prior eras, strategy was something addressed annually or bi-annually. Today, working on strategy is a continuous process involving a wide array of people and focused on experimentation and learning.


Leading and Motivating: 

Leaders motivate team members through goal establishment, coaching, feedback and through providing ongoing developmental support. While money is a component of why everyone works, assuming that compensation is fair, other intangible factors, including rewarding work and the presence of opportunities for professional development are powerful motivators. Effective leaders are constantly on the lookout for ways to tap into the drive and passion of their employees. 

Essential Skills and Tasks of Today's Leaders: 

A leader's core role is to safely guide a group from one destination to another. Leaders must:

  • Engender trust.
  • Provide clarity for direction.
  • Take responsibility for their team members and their team's results. 
  • Guide a continuous strategy refinement process.
  • Cultivate and motivate high individual and team performance. 
  • Support experimentation and learning.
  • Develop talent.
  • Guide decision-making. 
  • Teach.
  • Establish and ensure accountability.
  • Develop and support core values. 
  • Communicate with transparency. 

Developing as a Leader:

While some individuals are naturally strong communicators or strategic thinkers, leaders are mostly made and not born. Developing as a leader takes time, experience and ample mistakes. While there are libraries filled with books about leading, the only way to truly learn to lead is to engage. Training programs, books, and other materials are invaluable supporting tools, but learning to lead is a full contact activity. Actions you can take to gain experience and promote the development of your leadership skills include:

  • Volunteer to head problem-solving teams in the workplace.
  • Spend time serving as a project manager. 
  • Get involved in volunteer leadership opportunities outside of the workplace via local schools, not-for-profits or your religious institution. 
  • Ask your boss for opportunities to guide or lead initiatives in your department. 

As you gain experience supporting and guiding the work of others, the challenges grow in complexity and ambiguity. One consultant describes leadership development as moving outward in a series of concentric circles, with the most basic leadership activities at the center and the most challenging work of senior leadership and organizational strategy and development at the far outer rings. Continually seek challenges that move you beyond the known and comfortable areas into new and increasingly complex problems. 

The Bottom Line:

Great leaders have a remarkable impact on the people they encounter during their journeys. They are motivated to achieve big things and do it by guiding, challenging and supporting others. The work is difficult, sometimes vexing, and remarkably rewarding. 


Updated by Art Petty 

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