Free Agents: The Challenge of Leading Top Performers in a Global Economy

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., © 2008

It used to be easy being a leader. You gave orders and people followed them. If they didn’t do what you told them to do, you fired them and easily found a willing replacement, anxiously looking for work and willing to put his life in your care. Believe it or not, that type of leadership is known as “heroic leadership.” As in, “I’m your fearless leader” or “I am the decider.” In our modern global economy where most businesses rely on smart well-educated people, or “knowledge workers,” as the late Peter Drucker called them, to develop their products or deliver their services; heroic leadership simply doesn’t work well. Smart people don’t want and really don’t need to be told what to do or be micromanaged.

Today’s worker is really a “free agent,” akin to how top professional athletes are viewed. There is, for the most part, no reciprocal loyalty. Employers no longer worry about the long-term welfare of their employees and as a consequence, employees generally don’t trust and feel no obligation to or loyalty for their employers.

Furthermore, as the large cohort of baby boomers moves toward retirement, there will be a growing shortage of smart, talented and well-educated workers in the wings ready to replace them. The younger smart people coming up through the pipeline know this and understand that they have more leverage and many more employment options. Business owners and leaders must adjust how they lead to create a workplace that will be attractive to those free agents.

Even more challenging, as this crop of younger people (20 – 40 year olds) moves into leadership positions, the boomer generation is going to have to adapt to their leadership style and management philosophy. I recently spoke with a mid-thirties CEO/Founder of a very successful, fast growing, 500+ employee firm who complained about the inflexibility and “stuck in the past” thinking of some members of his executive team – those over 50. He asked me, “Can they adapt or am I beating a dead horse?”

There is no turning back. At least half of my executive coaching clients are mid-thirties, senior executives, mostly CEOs and business owners, and they all are complaining of the same thing and all are experimenting with innovative ways to run companies. They don’t have to adapt to the new global economy because that’s all they really know. They are at ease working with a mobile and global workforce – that is increasingly becoming more virtual. Furthermore, contrary to what some people think, this up and coming generation is just as hard working as any before but, they want more freedom and autonomy.

One of my mentors, Alan Weiss, has written about the “post heroic leader.” He put together a list, with which I concur, of the traits of this new, “Post-Heroic Leader.” No one embodies these traits completely but, they do provide a good overview of what to shoot for if you want to be effective leading the workers of tomorrow.

Eleven Ways to Identify the Post-Heroic Leader:

  1. The leader leads by example. Talk is cheap. The leader's behavior and actions match his or her vision and spoken words.
  2. The leader is accessible. This means physically-not barricaded behind corporate dining room doors-and emotionally-not intimidating or threatening when approached.
  3. The leader must listen carefully and never cut off others' contributions. Most people are content merely to have their stories heard; even if dramatic action doesn't necessarily follow.
  4. The leader never reacts rashly or abruptly. Logic rules emotion in terms of interpersonal responses. Anger should virtually never be apparent.
  5. The leader empowers. That means simply that people are allowed to make decisions which influence the outcome of their work. Approvals are kept to a minimum.
  6. The leader embodies diversity. There are direct reports, associates, and others in the leader's circle who mirror the larger employee and customer demographics. Conflicting opinions and dissent are welcomed.
  7. The leader creates a clear strategic thrust. People know why the organization is in business and what their roles are in that business. There is virtually no vacillation.
  8. The leader is innovative. Prudent risks are taken and setbacks are taken in stride. The antithesis of a risk-averse atmosphere prevails.
  9. The leader demonstrates the difference between right and wrong. Ethical considerations are clearly discussed and applied. The operation succeeds by doing what is right, not by doing whatever is necessary.
  10. The leader bestows credit. The post-heroic leader makes other people into heroes.
  11. Leadership is driven by values and measured by results.