Effective leadership plays a critical role in shaping the success of any society or organization. As American author John Maxwell declared, “Everything rises and falls on Leadership”
In our complex and connected world, society faces mounting environmental and humanitarian crises. Leaders must help drive societal change by taking into account not just profits, but also people and the planet. They must help society determine what type of growth is necessary and sustainable and what type of growth we can no longer afford. To accomplish this, today’s leaders need three essential traits:
They must be visionary. Bold, forward-thinking leaders see farther and more clearly than others, often anticipating what lies ahead. They motivate teams to perform at their best.
They must be collaborative. Such leaders encourage a greater diversity of ideas to flourish, and they make sure no one individual or entity shoulders the entire burden of any task. Collaborative leaders know how to share responsibility across all sectors to solve pressing societal challenges.
They must be willing to learn. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and large language models introduce leaders to new challenges on a regular basis. Leaders must be ready to constantly learn, unlearn, and relearn diverse skill sets to keep up with the changes. By embracing innovation and creativity, leaders can move beyond current restrictions and unlock more possibilities, iteratively creating new and improved realities.
To discover what qualities accomplished leaders should possess, Ausso Leadership Academy conducted an inquiry in partnership with AACSB. The academy is a mentorship program in Lagos, Nigeria, that I founded for executives and entrepreneurs. Our investigation showed us that leaders must develop capacity in three areas: depolarization, paradox, and compassion. These skills are so important for future leaders that business schools should provide opportunities throughout their curricula for students to develop them.
I speak about these capacities in a YouTube video on the #BusinessInsightsWithAO channel, but here’s a closer look at each one:
Depolarization is the ability to reject black-and-white thinking, embrace complexity, and explore alternative perspectives. It requires self-awareness, an open mind, and a non-judgmental attitude that allows us to engage in meaningful dialogue.
A professor could teach students about depolarization by dividing them into two groups that stand at opposite ends of the room and study a graphic on the floor. From one perspective, the graphic will look like the figure 6; from the other perspective, it will look like the figure 9. Students should discuss how they see the graphic from their position, and then switch sides with their peers.
This exercise teaches students that they must learn to listen to each other, acknowledge their different viewpoints, and find common ground. It shows them that people can create a more peaceful and harmonious world when they come together with respect, empathy, and understanding.
Paradox is the willingness to embrace uncertainty and acknowledge the interdependence of opposing forces. It involves operating with a curious and inquisitive mindset, recognizing personal limitations, and being honest with ourselves and others.
A faculty member could teach the concept of paradox by giving all students pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that depicts an elephant. Based on the pieces in their hands, students should try to guess what the whole image is. Those who see only the tail might think they’re looking at a rope; those who see only the thick legs might think they’re looking at a tree. The true image only emerges when all the pieces are put together.
Through this exercise, students are invited to explore the complexities of the human experience. They learn that sometimes the things that seem irreconcilable can be connected in ways that are not immediately apparent.
Compassion is the capacity to empathize with and understand different cultural backgrounds and personal experiences. It necessitates maintaining a broad perspective, avoiding confirmation bias, and striving to understand as well as to be understood.
Compassionate leaders radiate warmth, kindness, and understanding; they exude a sense of serenity that eases the burdens of those around them. Quite often, a high-performance member of the team falls on challenging times and simply needs an empathetic ear. If the compassionate leader offers a comforting word, the team member will feel a sense of hope, knowing that someone is willing to help.
To teach compassion, a professor can ask students what they would do if a team member dropped the ball on an important project. The class is likely to respond that the colleague should be removed from the team. Then the professor should remind the class that the individual is historically a high performer and suggest that the person might be going through some personal difficulties. At this point, students might view the situation differently and conclude that they should support their team member through this tough patch by showing compassion.
The importance of generative listening
In addition to developing these crucial capacities, leaders must possess the ability to communicate effectively. Communication is always a two-way track, and the key part is generative listening, which happens when people listen intently, with curiosity and openness, to what each person has to say. Generative listening is not about waiting for a preconceived answer, but about creating spaces where others can feel heard, valued, and understood.
Generative listeners are not just waiting for their turn to speak, but truly seeking to understand and learn from each other. They offer words of encouragement, support, and affirmation, making each person feel safe to share their thoughts and feelings. They reflect back what they hear, ask thoughtful questions that deepen the conversation, and create spaces of respect and authenticity.
To become empathetic listeners, leaders must quiet the voices of judgment, cynicism, and fear and open themselves to the expectation of learning something new. They must step outside themselves, realizing that the truth is more conditional and experiential than their lone egos can fathom. Sometimes leaders are so arrogant that they are fully confident in their own incorrect views. Their need to be right trounces their need to learn what is true. But truth is the essential foundation for producing good outcomes.
A professor can teach generative listening by having students imagine a mathematics classroom for children. In this class, the teacher presents an addition problem to a young student named Mary: “If I give you these two apples and then I give you two more, how many apples will you have?” Mary confidently replies, “Five.” Instead of chiding Mary for her incorrect answer, the teacher should ask how she came up with that number. At that point, the teacher would learn that Mary already has an apple in the lunch bag that her mother packed.
Professors also can show students the power of generative listening by inviting them to share their experiences and learn from each other.
An analysis of leadership attitudes
As a leadership consultant and an entrepreneur-in-residence at Columbia Business School in New York City, I spend a great deal of time considering the traits that distinguish leaders from each other. I have determined that one critical quality is their attitudes toward delivery (producing the desired goods and services) and accountability (taking responsibility for how the work gets done). Are their attitudes influenced by courage or by fear?
Delivery. Fear-based leaders seek reasons outside of themselves when things go wrong and they can’t deliver what they’ve promised. Their language often is punctuated by the phrase “because of,” as they seek to explain why something is not their fault. These leaders often accept commendations for success but avoid taking accountability for failures. Their attitude can discourage learning and promote a culture of excuses, resulting in subpar performance from their employees.
Conversely, courage-driven leaders prioritize action and performance when it comes to delivering goods and services. Instead of seeking excuses, they go above and beyond to achieve their goals. Their conversations often include the phrase “in spite of,” and they serve as examples to their teams by delivering exceptional performance.
Accountability. Fearful leaders tend to avoid accountability by attributing failures to external factors. Instead of taking responsibility for their own actions, they blame others, sometimes even using team members as scapegoats. This creates a culture of passing the buck and prevents the team from learning and improving.
By contrast, courageous leaders take full responsibility for their actions, even if they delegate tasks to team members. They recognize that accountability cannot be delegated, so they take an internal approach to fault-finding. By modelling this attitude, they encourage their teams to take ownership of their work and learn from mistakes, leading to continuous improvement in performance.
One way faculty can highlight the importance of courage-based leadership is to conduct a class poll that asks students, “To whom are you most accountable?” The multiple-choice answers might include customers, shareholders, suppliers, employees, the community, the organization, and the government—but one choice should always be myself. After the poll results are in, the professor should explain that myself is the most appropriate answer for courageous leaders who take responsibility for their actions.
Leaders often feel obligated to the people who nominated them for certain positions or to the governing boards of their universities. Because of this sense of obligation, leaders could be tempted to align with certain groups when it seems most expeditious to do so. But the best way for leaders to be fair to all stakeholders is, first and foremost, to be accountable to themselves.
To make the point even clearer, professors can share one of the famous sayings of West African scholar, writer, and political leader Usman dan Fodio: “Conscience is an open wound; only truth can heal it.” This quote speaks to the importance of living with integrity and being true to oneself. It helps students understand that when they act against their own consciences, they create internal conflicts that can be resolved only by facing the truth and aligning their actions with their values.
Bold and compassionate leadership
Fear-based leaders often spend so much time feeling anxious and worrying about what others think of them that they have little time left to deal with actual adversities. But courage-based leaders inspire trust and high performance not only within their organizations, but also in society at large.
It is crucial for leaders to be authentic and brave, focusing on accomplishing goals rather than seeking affirmation. They should value significance over security and long-term sustainability over immediate victories. By doing so, they can lead their organizations and society toward a better future.
Okere is a thought leader, and business mentor. Currently an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Columbia Business School, New York, Austin has also facilitated at the United States International University in Kenya and consulted for the Sustainable Development Goals, Africa Centre in Rwanda.
Austin was appointed to the Advisory Boards of the AACSB International and the Global Business School Network in recognition of his contribution to the development of business education and knowledge transfer in Africa. CWG Plc, the company which he founded has been recognised as a ‘Global Growth Company’ by the World Economic Forum and is the largest security listed in the Technology Sector of the Nigerian Stock Exchange.