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Overview: Leadership Style of Contemporary Corporate Executives

by Harwant Khush, PhD, Research Consultant, Tero International

The leadership style of a company's corporate executives plays a vital role in formulation and implementation of that company's vision, mission, and policies. The question facing corporations is what leadership style, traits and techniques are most effective in the 21st century considering the complexities, diversity and rapid changes in today's society.

Various management experts and social scientists have provided definitions of leaders and leadership styles based on their effectiveness in organizations and corporations. Some of these definitions are cited as follows:

Leadership style is "the manner and approach of providing direction, implementing plans, and motivating people." [1]

Winston and Patterson provide another comprehensive definition of leaders and leadership styles as they state:

"A leader is one or more people who selects, equips, trains, and influences one or more follower(s) who have diverse gifts, abilities, and skills and focuses on the followers to the organization's mission and objectives". [2]

This definition recognizes the importance of using certain techniques and skills by leaders to instill enthusiasm in employees to accomplish the organization's mission and objectives.

According to Gareth R. Jones and Jennifer A. George:

Leadership is "the process by which an individual exerts influence over other people and inspires, motivates, and directs their activities to help achieve group or organizational goals." [22]

These definitions stress the fact that a leader should have certain traits and skills to inspire the employees to accomplish the objectives and goals of their organization. However, the vital question is which leadership traits and techniques are vital for contemporary corporations to achieve their goals and objectives.

Views about leadership styles have changed over time. The classical leadership styles were based on features such as strict supervisory control over employees, personal traits and behavioral qualities of leaders, formulation and application of policies by administrators. These styles were implemented by singularly making decisions, managing by hierarchical layers of supervision and through multiple controls. In the contemporary world, these methods of operation seem to be archaic, and leadership styles of corporate executives are going through a major paradigm shift.

In a global study of 389 leaders from 28 countries, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) concluded that 83% of the leaders believed that the definition of effective leadership has changed in the past five years [3]. One of the fundamental shifts is from the autocratic and directive leadership style of the twentieth century to a more participatory and democratic approach in the 21st century.

Some of the factors affecting leadership styles of contemporary executives are challenges of the information age, knowledge of workers, human rights issues, gender equality, ubiquitous use of technology, globalization, outsourcing of jobs and economic recession.

Faced with complex realities, the latest management models stress that to be successful, corporate executives should have a Collaborative Leadership style. According to CCL:

"Leaders need to build important relationships and work across boundaries to collaborate effectively. This is critical to providing greater agility and flexibility for organizations and their leaders in order to respond faster to changes in society." [3]

Leaders should have skills, traits and techniques to form collaborations, develop strategic alliances, network, form partnerships, and work across organizational boundaries for mutually beneficial results.


What is collaboration? The literal definition of collaboration is when two or more people work together to create or achieve the same thing [2]. For corporations, collaboration means forming interagency linkages based on traits such as shared vision and goals, well-developed and well-defined roles for participants, sharing of power, decision-making, and responsibility for risks and resources.

Corporate executives and social researchers have provided various definitions of collaboration. The definition given by Mattesich, Murray-Close, and Monsey encompasses the essence of collaboration:

"A mutually beneficial and well-defined relationship entered into by two or more organizations. The relationship includes a commitment to mutual relationships and goals; a jointly developed structure and shared responsibility; mutual authority and accountability for success; and sharing of resources and rewards." [4]

What is Successful Collaboration?

Mattesich, Murray-Close, and Monsey conducted an exhaustive literature review of the factors influencing successful collaboration, and ranked the following traits as the most important:

1. Trust and partner compatibility

2. Common and unique purpose

3. Shared governance and joint decision making

4. Clear understanding of roles and responsibilities

5. Open and frequent communication

6. Adequate financial and human resources

These traits emphasize that collaboration is the most formal inter-organizational relationship involving shared authority and responsibility for planning, implementation, and evaluation of a joint effort. Coalitions and collaborations are based on shared mission and vision, strong and trusting relationships, clear operating procedures, and involvement of employees in the decision making process. [19]

The foremost question for corporative executives is to determine what traits and techniques they should have to implement successful collaborations.

Traits of Successful Collaborative Leaders

Review of literature provided by multi-disciplinary scientists and management experts point to some fundamental qualities and traits of successful collaborators.

Madeleine Carter identifies five main traits of Collaborative leaders. These are:

According to Archer and Cameron, the fundamental traits and qualities of successful collaborative leaders are to:

Chrislip and Larson also stress the fact that collaborative leaders are visionary. Vision is focused on how people can work together constructively. Collaborative leaders define their roles and practices differently than the traditional positional leadership. [7]

In addition to risk taking, the traits of forecasting and decision-making are also vital to form successful collaborations. CEOs not only personify these characteristics themselves, but also expect the same from their employees in an environment of freedom, responsibility and accountability. Collaborative leaders are always prepared to deal with the consequences of risk-taking. Risk-taker leaders do not blame employees for poor results, nor do they constantly monitor and supervise their juniors. Decision-making process lets the employees anticipate the impact, social and business ramifications of their decisions. Risk takers are innovators and have little patience with the traditional approaches to leadership based on standard operating procedures, maintaining the status quo or conducting the "business as usual" approach. Commitments to the cause and zeal to accomplish goals in spite of risks are the driving forces of collaborative leaders. [7]

The traits of shared vision, mission and goals help collaborators to work effectively among the collaborating business alliances. CEOs need to ensure that all the alliance members are striving to achieve the mutually agreeable, clearly defined, and quantifiable goals. The result should not be about "I" or "me", rather what "we" believe in, and are committed to achieve. This view of shared vision and mission contrasts with the formulation of vision in classical hierarchical corporations where leadership is implemented through chain-of-command and layers of supervision. In the words of Mathew Glotzbach (Director of Product Management for Google enterprise"... to be an effective enterprise we need to change from individual productivity to group productivity." [8]

Leaders also need to make sure that programs and agendas of collaborating companies are in proper alignment. Leaders should understand their shared responsibilities and priorities. Steve Jobs, a visionary leader, strongly believed in collaborations to come up with the final high-tech products. Even if some business deals generated revenue, he would prefer to shut down deals if those were not in alignment with his vision [9]. The success of a collaborative CEO depends on formulating the vision, communicating it with the collaborating partners, and making sure all the activities are in proper alignment to achieve corporations' goals and objectives.

Techniques to Promote Successful Collaboration

Servant Leadership

The philosophy, values and principles of servant leadership are fast gaining popularity for collaborative leaders [10]. Collaborative leaders are assumed servants of their employees.

Leaders nurture, help, guide and make sure that not only employees' personal needs are met but there are also opportunities for professional advancement. Leaders are expected to consider their organization, community, and employees' needs first before the satisfaction of their own needs. The leaders' sayings "may I help you?" or, alternatively, "what can I do for you" are some of the examples of servant leadership.

Such leaders show a genuine concern for the well-being of their employees and seek ways to develop and encourage their skills, effectiveness, and participation in the organization's decision-making process. Customers are valued as individuals, worthy of care, to receive quality goods and services. Some of the most successful entrepreneurial companies such as Southwest Airlines and Starbucks are based on servant leadership philosophy [11]. In the collaborative servant leadership companies, employers find a high level of loyalty amongst their employees and customers, and have highly effective corporate culture.

Leadership as a Process

Collaborative leaders understand that leadership is a process. It means there is continuous and incessant plan of work amongst all collaborators, employees, and their leaders to accomplish shared goals. This leadership process is accomplished by motivating, inspiring, and developing good working relationships, trust and accountability among employees, stakeholders and stockholders.

Some common and effective leadership techniques for inspiring and motivating employees include leading by example and rewarding initiatives of employees. Team building workshops, leadership development programs, and employee rewards are some of the examples of leadership as a process. [12]


To foster an environment of empowerment so employees can be productive, dynamic, and creative is one of the vital attributes of collaborative leaders. They realize that loyalty, commitment, and trust can be built if employees have opportunities to exceed, excel and satisfy their higher end needs. According to Stephen Covey: "An empowered organization is one in which individuals have the knowledge, skill, desire, and opportunity to personally succeed in a way that leads to collective organizational success." Leaders should understand that investment in human resources brings higher returns. Leaders ensure employees that they are valued and judged based on their contribution, and would be moved to higher ranks if they would excel on their job. The result of empowerment is that employees feel a sense of ownership and commit themselves with great zeal to achieve goals and vision of the corporation.

Effective Interpersonal Skills

People skills, social skills and interpersonal skills are vital skills to succeed in contemporary corporations. These skills include active listening, written and oral communication, and relations building within and outside the corporations. In an IBM study of 1,709 CEOs around the world, the researchers concluded that CEOs realize that mass email and phone strategies to get a message out are no longer sufficient. Business partners and customers prefer communication at a personal level. Interpersonal communication builds trust and allows for direct clarification of issues [14]. Goleman expresses similar views, asserting that emotional intelligence is twice as important as technical skills or IQ to enhance leadership performance. Successful corporate leaders realize that competency in interpersonal skills facilitates consensus building, improves conflict management, and promotes team building to enhance productivity. [15]

Team Building

Corporate executives and their employees are often challenged to take multiple team roles to implement their programs. Forming multi-disciplinary and multi-task professional teams whose work ethics and goals are properly aligned with the objectives of the corporation is a fundamental role of each executive. Business executives should have skills to deal with virtual teams and geographically dispersed teams [16]. In this inter-connected world, employees share responsibilities, deadlines and projects, but not office space. These groups form unique sets of challenges. An IBM research study of 1,500 CEOs in 2010, suggested that opinions, ideas, and experience of a single leader might not be sufficient to manage corporations. Group decision-making rather than individual decision-making is vital to success [17].


Collaborative leaders' success depends on their capability to work with a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-generational workforce and client base. Management of diversity at the workplace is one of the challenges that contemporary CEOs face. Diversity may be based on culture, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, intellectual perspectives, values and interests.

Effective management leaders need to adapt their management styles, communication skills and conflict management strategies to successfully deal with challenges of diversity. Globalization, out-sourcing of jobs and multi-disciplinary work forces are facts and vital challenges to the contemporary business world. Leaders constantly need to adapt and build on the strengths and power of diversity to improve their problem solving abilities and to build collaborations [18].


The above discussion shows that for businesses to survive in difficult economic times, to build international clientele, to stay viable, productive and effective, contemporary CEOs have to realize the value of forming collaborations and interagency linkages. Successful CEOs realize that forming alliances, networking, and reaching across national and international boundaries are vital for corporations to remain productive and effective.

Thus, the collaborative process has become the guiding ideology of the leaders of this millennium.


  1. 1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leadership_style

  2. http://www.regent.edu/acad/global/publications/working/integrativedefinition.pdf

  3. http://www.ccl.org/leadership/pdf/research/natureleadership.pdf

  4. Mattessich, P., Murray-Close, M. & Monsey, B. R. (2001). Collaboration: What makes it work. Saint Paul, MN: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

  5. http://www.socia.co.uk/site/DefaultSite/filesystem/documents/collaborative%20leadership_lr.pdf

  6. http://www.leadershipeducators.org/resources/documents/conferences/fortworth/miller.pdf

  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Servant_leadership

  8. http://www.businessexpertwebinars.com/content/view/594/29/

  9. http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/leadership-process.htm

  10. http://www.forbes.com/sites/markfidelman/2012/05/22/ibm-study-if-you-dont-have-a-social-ceo-youre-going-to-be-less-competitive/

  11. http://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader/ar/1

  12. http://www.adventureassoc.com/solutions/far-flung-teams.html

  13. ftp://public.dhe.ibm.com/common/ssi/ecm/en/gbe03350usen/GBE03350USEN.PDF

  14. http://www.crosscollaborate.com/2010/05/diversity-improves-collaborative-problem-solving/

  15. http://www.chairacademy.com/conference/2007/papers/leading_successful_interinstitutional_collaborations.pdf

  16. http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/business-brains/16-lessons-in-collaboration-from-federal-government-executives/25843

  17. http://www.northbaybusinessjournal.com/31336/luttrell-on-leadership-core-of-servant-leadership-is-collaboration-trust-ethics/

  18. http://www.ehow.com/about_5386863_definition-leadership-theories.html

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