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Leadership in the 21st Century

By: Pam Buitendorp

Helping hand - hiker woman getting help on hike smiling happy overcoming obstacle

Prior to my life at SEI, I used to be a Vice President. After over 20+ years in corporate America, I felt the need to move in a different direction and joined SEI as a consultant. This was not an easy decision for me, as I truly love leadership and being able to drive a team towards measurable results. However, I’ve learned that leadership today is not about having a title or direct reports; and the absence of both those things can be far more challenging and rewarding.

Definition of Leadership

I find that it’s easier to define what leadership isn’t than what it is. It’s not management. It’s not just having a title. When I first started my career, I thought that you needed a title to be a leader and my goal became, like many early in their career, to climb the corporate ladder. There is a great Forbes article by Kevin Kruse titled “What is Leadership.” In the article, Kruse states that “leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” I couldn’t agree more.

How Leaders Behave

If I look at that definition, then it’s all about maximizing the efforts of other to achieve a goal. Well, I always work best when I’m encouraged and challenged to do my best when I have “just enough rope to hang myself.” If I translate this idea into how a leader behaves, I see it take many forms: a cheerleader, someone to hold me accountable, someone that gets out of my way and removes barriers, and someone I trust that will prop me up if fail.

Qualities of a Leader

I have learned that there is no perfect leader and no perfect style for every situation. I have seen my leadership style change dramatically over the years, but one thing has remained constant: my desire to listen, learn and improve. Leaders used to be appointed. Today leaders emerge. In “What is Leadership?” by Dr. Mario O. Barrett III, he states that the desire and willingness to lead is needed, but “taking action is essential to leadership.”

Leaders assess the situation, the people they are working with, and the goals they need to achieve and adapt accordingly. Today a leader must ebb and flow with the situation. According to John Kotter in the Harvard Business Review, leaders “prepare organizations for change and help them cope as they struggle through it.” They set direction instead of planning, they align people instead of staffing, and they motivate and inspire instead of controlling activities. Leadership today has been shaped by those that are willing to set a vision and take big risks to deliver, such as Jeff Bezos, Sundar Pichai, or Sir Richard Branson. What do they all have in common? They have been able to get people excited about their vision and produce a feeling that they are working on something bigger than themselves, which motivates people to deliver amazing results.

My New Leadership Role

Since joining SEI, I have found myself using and continuing to develop my leadership skills on a daily basis. This is true regardless of if I’m managing a project for my client or if I’m working with my SEI peers on developing our business. I need to use lateral leadership skills to exert influence without authority. I need to be able to set the direction and align people around the goals and build excitement to deliver amazing results.

I often get asked about why I left my leadership position, and the answer is that I haven’t. In fact, I feel that I am more of a leader today than I’ve ever been. I’m excited to continue to develop here at SEI where I am surrounded by other 21st century leaders. I don’t need a title to lead. Being part of a culture that emphasizes collective development and peer accountability fosters more opportunities to lead and provides an overarching sense of being part of something bigger than myself.

Pam Buitendorp


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