Leading in the 21st century

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McKinsey Quarterly

Dominic Barton, Andrew Grant, Michelle Horn

Six global leaders confront the personal and professional challenges of a new era of uncertainty.

It is often said that the principles of great leadership are timeless, or based on immutable truths. But when we meet with the men and women who run the world’s largest organizations, what we hear with increasing frequency is how different everything feels from just a decade ago. Leaders tell us they are operating in a bewildering new environment in which little is certain, the tempo is quicker, and the dynamics are more complex. They worry that it is impossible for chief executives to stay on top of all the things they need to know to do their job. Some admit they feel overwhelmed.
To understand the leadership challenge of our volatile, globalized, hyperconnected age more clearly, we recently initiated a series of structured interviews with the leaders of some of the world’s largest and most vibrant organizations. Excerpts from six of those conversations appear below. The leaders—Josef Ackermann, formerly of Deutsche Bank; Carlos Ghosn of Nissan and Renault; Moya Greene of Royal Mail Group; Ellen Kullman of DuPont; President Shimon Peres of Israel; and Daniel Vasella of Novartis represent a diverse array of viewpoints. All are grappling with today’s environment in different ways. But the common themes that emerged from these conversations—what it means to lead in an age of upheaval, to master personal challenges, to be in the limelight continually, to make decisions under extreme uncertainty—offer a useful starting point for understanding today’s leadership landscape. (...)