Reinventing Leadership

How advances in education, technology and the global economy have changed the way we lead

For Ned Burmeister, bn’81, there is no end to the business day. Even as he sleeps, emails from staff members pile up from half a world away, filtering in from places such as  Malaysia, Hong Kong and India.

“This really is a 24/7 job,” he says of his role  as senior vice president and chief operating officer of Principal International, Inc.

The company, based in Des Moines, is a subsidiary of The Principal Financial Group. Spanning five continents, Principal International develops and sells pension and mutual funds in 10 countries, generating $1 out of every $6 the corporation earns. Principal is not alone in pursuing an international strategy. As U.S. companies continue to expand overseas, the ability to lead others at a distance, known as virtual leadership, is crucial.

Virtual leadership represents just how dramatically the practice of leadership in America has been transformed in recent years. Due to rapid social change, leaders now face situations that did not exist a mere 20 years ago and must rely upon a new skillset to help them meet the challenges of an ever-evolving world.

Burmeister is well aware of these issues. As chief operating officer, he monitors the performance of Principal’s international companies and ensures they have the resources and expertise they need for daily operations. This includes the management of numerous individuals working overseas.

The biggest challenge in his job, Burmeister says, is communicating effectively because  electronic communications, such as phone and email, take away many of the nonverbal clues that are important to understanding human interactions. In addition, he says, the distance has required him to learn new techniques and adapt to new styles of leadership.

“It’s hard to learn and accept the fact that you have to let go, you have to trust the people working for you,” he says. “Your first responsibility is to hire good people overseas. At the end of the day, you have to trust those people because you can’t run every aspect of those businesses from Des Moines. You have to get comfortable and realize you don’t need to know what is happening on a day-to-day basis.”

And, he adds, “You have to learn to sleep on an airplane.”

A new way of thinking

Though virtual leadership is a relatively new development, the practice of leadership has been changing for some time. Today, leadership is more equitable, collaborative and increasingly focused on engagement and communication — a sharp contrast to old models of command and control. This shift began more than 100 years ago, as America began the slow march from manufacturing and agriculture to a knowledge and service-based economy.

The command and control style of leadership was epitomized in Harry Truman’s iconic desktop sign: The Buck Stops Here. In a world of factory production and assembly lines, orders came from the top. Leaders made decisions and only their opinions mattered. With this came the idea that leaders must be smarter, more charismatic and, interestingly enough, even taller than the average man. It was believed leaders were born, preordained for greatness.

No more. Greater access to education, an increasingly globalized world and the rapid progression of technology have changed the way leadership is viewed and practiced in the United States — and one of the first conventions cast aside was the idea that individuals can lead with an iron fist. Because America’s workforce is now the most educated in history, employees bring skills and expertise to the table that their leaders may not possess. Thus, individuals expect to take ownership of their own work and want their leaders to guide  instead of direct.

“No longer can one person by edict dictate where we need to go,” says Tom Westbrook, professor of education, who teaches master’s-level leadership courses in the School of Education and serves as chair of the undergraduate concentration in leadership education and development. “There is automatic pushback on that. So leadership is more about language, our ability to engage and our ability to get buy-in.”

Establishing a vision

The ability to get buy-in from others is critical. A huge part of a leader’s success derives from inspiring others to rally around a common goal that extends beyond the completion of day-to-day tasks. In a world of constant fluctuation, leaders must not just cope with change but drive it. While top-level managers and CEOs often lead this type of change, innovation can occur at all levels of an organization, expanding the practice of leadership to any individual who can shift conventional thinking and convince others to believe in a vision.

“The myth of leadership is that it must come from a public or political leader, the captain of the football team or the student body president,” says Westbrook. “But when you think about it, Einstein was a leading physicist; Picasso, a leading painter; and Martha Graham a leader in ushering in the realm of modern dance. If you think about all those people, they were leaders because they assisted us in thinking differently about their domain.”

The need for innovation is being seen in every field from business to the sciences. In the fields of pharmacy and health care, rising costs, longer life spans and a proliferation of prescription medications have led to a demand for new ideas.

“It has always been important for there to be people to invent new solutions — but now it is to the point where there need to be more than a few people doing great things,” says Renae Chesnut, professor of pharmacy practice and associate dean for student affairs in Drake’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (CPHS).

According to Chesnut, who recently completed her term as president of the Iowa Pharmacy Association, pharmacists are beginning to embrace the idea of entrepreneurial leadership. The movement is based on the belief that every pharmacist must work to improve patient care by identifying potential problems and coming up with creative solutions that are economically viable.

“The idea of entrepreneurial leadership is about instilling the mind-set that every individual, no matter what position that person has within an organization, needs to be looking for ways to improve the process, product or service to create a better environment for patients,” she says.

Faculty members in the CPHS encourage both pharmacy students and health science majors to be leaders in their fields. In addition to courses on entrepreneurial leadership and management, the CPHS offers the Student Leadership Development Series, which brings in guest speakers and gives students the opportunity to enhance their understanding of leadership through monthly activities. Through the DELTA Rx Institute, a Drake organization whose mission is to promote “the spirit of change and innovation” within the field of pharmacy, the college offers the Next Top Entrepreneur Competition, which encourages the development of original ideas to solve problems in health care.

Building relationships

While a knack for ingenuity is important, the abilities to communicate that vision and to relate to others are equally valuable qualities in a leader.

Because so much of leadership today is focused on collaboration, leaders must be able to gain trust and form sincere relationships. Leaders must also serve as mentors, empowering those around them and helping others to accomplish their own goals.

“Some define leadership simply as a relationship building process,” says Ina Purvanova, assistant professor of management and international business.
“If you can’t build a positive relationship with someone, how are you supposed to do your job as a leader, which is to influence others and motivate them to do a good job?”

She adds that these behaviors are important because they get to the heart of what the majority of people desire from life.

“If you really look at these behaviors, each one satisfies a primal need that humans tend to have: the need for relationships, to grow and to learn, and the need to know why. Once those needs are satisfied, people are more able and willing to go above and beyond and really contribute to their organization.”

Learning to lead

Purvanova is quick to dispel the notion that leaders are born and instead says anyone can develop the characteristics necessary to lead in the 21st century.

“One of the things that research continues to uncover is that our personalities are quite malleable,” says Purvanova. “What that means is that we can learn to acquire traits we may not have initially possessed, and conversely, we can put aside some of the traits that are not our best. We can get rid of bad habits, essentially, because we evolve. We learn all the time.”

At Drake, the emphasis on liberal arts is central to leadership development. In addition to the ability to build relationships and communicate a vision, leaders today must navigate ambiguous situations and make ethical decisions when answers aren’t clear-cut. They must be flexible enough to thrive in a time of great uncertainty. Numerous courses in the Drake Curriculum are focused on helping students grow these capabilities.

“The whole notion of a liberal arts education is that it prompts us to think critically and analytically, to be able to solve problems, to be able to express ourselves and write coherently — those are crucial elements of leadership,” says Westbrook.

While the knowledge and skills gained through coursework are important, learning to apply these lessons is equally so. Students practice leadership skills during internships, through volunteer activities and by participating in campus organizations. Drake’s Donald V. Adams Leadership Institute helps students connect the theory they’ve learned in classes to their experiences outside of the classroom. In the past few years, Drake has expanded its leadership offerings for students. The Athletics Strategic Plan calls for enhanced leadership-based experiences for student-athletes, and a new leadership concentration emphasizes experiential learning combined with self-reflection to help students better understand their talents.

Self-reflection is also a focus in the graduate and undergraduate courses Purvanova teaches on leadership in the College of Business and Public Administration. In both courses, she stresses self-awareness through a series of personality surveys that allow her students to understand how they and others see themselves. Both Purvanova and Westbrook agree that self-awareness is a necessary first step in learning to lead with emotional intelligence — a determinant in a leader’s ability to relate to others.

“You cannot get better at this notion of leading with emotional intelligence until you can get better at understanding yourself,” says Westbrook. “If we can begin to develop around those aspects — Who am I? What value do I bring? What assumptions do I have? — we can begin to understand others’ stories, values and what they bring to the table. That’s really what self-awareness is. It’s the whole notion of who I am within the context of Drake or my major or the world.”

Future challenges

Once individuals are aware of how their own values and beliefs shape their worldview, they can gain a greater appreciation for the backgrounds of coworkers and clients they will encounter in today’s diverse workplace. Globalization brings with it new difficulties when dealing with unfamiliar cultures and operating on other continents, and this challenge will only continue to grow as more U.S. companies expand internationally and technology continues to improve.

While much is known about what Americans expect in their leaders, Purvanova says it is not always clear what the expectations are from people in other parts of the world.

“It is extremely important as companies expand overseas for leaders to ask, ‘Do I need to adjust or learn a new set of behaviors if I am going on a business trip to China?’” she says.

Burmeister agrees with Purvanova, saying in his experience at Principal International, he discovered that views of leadership vary slightly between countries, requiring some adaptability.

“As you first get into the international game, I think there is a learning curve for working with other cultures, so you need to understand the cultural differences and understand that what is right and appropriate in the U.S. isn’t always right and appropriate in other countries. Understanding how they view the relationship between managers and employees is important,” he says.

However, Burmeister also believes if individuals approach leadership with an open and inquisitive mind, those differences are easily overcome. He adds that the benefits of operating outside the United States outweigh any challenges presented by distance or culture.

“The U.S. operation has benefited greatly from product development and from ideas outside the U.S.,” he says. “It’s a two-way street of information flow,
at least for Principal.”

As American organizations continue to expand into countries around the world, the field of leadership is likely to keep evolving, says Purvanova. Because of the increased need for understanding of leadership in cultures throughout the world, she expects much more research to be conducted in this area moving forward.

Studies by the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) Research Program, which is based at New Mexico State University and connects researchers in more than 60 cultures, are already making strides in this area. The organization’s research has shown that, despite different cultural expectations for how leaders should act and motivate their followers, there are some traits that are universally valued. At the top of the list are honesty and integrity, demonstrating that trust is essential, whether leadership is occurring virtually, in person or from within a field or organization.

“Researchers are actually finding a tremendous amount of consistency across the world, and I think this makes sense because no matter what culture you live in, you probably don’t like people to lie to you,” Purvanova says. “While some of the behaviors may differ between countries, leaders still need a common set of characteristics to be successful.”

Elizabeth Ford Kozor, AS, JO’07 | Illustrations by Drew Albinson, Class of 2013

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