A New Definition of Leadership: Earning the “AAA” Rating: Aware, Accessible, Active

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Written by Ambassador Stuart W. Holliday, Guest Contributor

I remember asking my good friend, Glen Smith, Member of Parliament for the Devonshire North West Constituency in Bermuda, how he won a Parliamentary seat which was held by then-Premier of Bermuda and Leader of the Bermuda Progressive Labour Party (PLP), Paula Cox. (The PLP held office in Bermuda for 14 years until One Bermuda Alliance won the national election in December 2012.) Glen’s response was almost too simple to be true—he spent weeks listening to constituents, understanding their needs, and embracing their vision for life in Bermuda. Glen knew what was on the minds of the electorate and this knowledge formed the basis of his leadership agenda. In the never-ending election cycle of modern U.S. politics, we often see politicians catering to voters—at least, the voters in their bloc. Yet Glen’s inclusive approach to representing all of his constituents is increasingly rare. And in many corners of the world, this level of responsiveness to the people is practically unheard of.

It is amazing how the rubric of good leadership only truly comes into question when a leader faces the possibility of gaining or losing their position. Why do some leaders wait until they lose power to question the true meaning of leadership? Perhaps more importantly, how can we—the people—make this conversation a continual and evaluative process? It is not unusual to see politicians, after they have lost an election, conducting community tours and town hall meetings, asking their constituents the mission-critical question that they should have asked before the election—“What do you want from your leader?” Many CEOs are guilty of the same mistake, and only seek advice from staff and customers after challenges from their board or a decline in stock prices.

After more than 50 years of managing exchanges and development programs for private and public sector leaders around the world, the Meridian International Center team discovered that many leaders have been operating on the errant premise that leadership means sitting alone at the head of the table. This basic inaccuracy has led to the demise of leaders around the world. The social unrest and political instability that we are seeing in Egypt, Syria, Greece, and Libya—just to name a few—has as much to do with citizens’ dissatisfaction in living conditions or economic opportunity as with feelings of exclusion from the process of leading their country through important challenges. The time has come to accept a new definition of leadership as a process: a constant process of civic engagement, cross-sector and cross-border collaboration, and realignment towards common goals. Leaders are now confronting the fact that their electorates, stakeholders, and target audiences are more informed, discerning, and connected than ever before. People want leaders who are eager to collaborate with public and private sector partners outside of their markets in order to develop innovative new strategies and mechanisms for growth that are not immediately available within their markets. They need leaders who have the acuity to select the right resources at the right time to solve problems, and listen when better ideas are presented. Above all, a more peaceful and secure world can only be created by leaders who reach across geographic, cultural and sector boundaries to create value for all stakeholders. Essentially, the world needs global leaders.

Global leaders must understand what is important to the people they serve, and they need to know this now—not when stock prices have already fallen or the revolution has already begun. In response to this new leadership imperative, Meridian partners with Gallup, each fall, to host the Global Leadership Summit (scheduled for October 18, 2013). At the Summit, top government, diplomatic, and private sector leaders examine the data revealed in Gallup’s World Poll—the only global study of its kind—which surveys more than 150 countries, territories, and areas annually to capture the perceptions of more than 98 percent of the world population on topics from security to job creation. The day’s discussion acts as a guidepost and a toolkit to the assembled leaders—as well as others worldwide—to not only understand, but be proactive and responsive to the global marketplace.

The will of the people is a powerful thing, and it is a force that all leaders must address in the interest of stability and prosperity. Leaders who are serious about success appreciate the value of empirical data to understand their people, of course, but the leaders who truly stand out use that data as only one part of a wider perspective. By taking the time to understand the views, opinions and aspirations of individuals through anecdotal interaction, a more balanced view of a constituency is gained. This theory drives all of Meridian’s work, and is a chief reason why our leadership development programs always blend data with experience. This is a concept Glen understood better than anyone I have met. Through Meridian, we’re looking to foster a few more leaders like him around the world.

Ambassador Stuart W. Holliday is President and CEO of Meridian International Center. He served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for Special Political Affairs from 2003 to 2005.

Photo by Joyce Boghosian. Global Leadership and Cross-Sector Collaboration at Meridian. From left to right: Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to the U.S., Cui Tiankai; Chairman of Meridian International Center, Governor James J. Blanchard; President of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Madame Li Xiaolin; President and CEO of Meridian International Center, Ambassador Stuart W. Holliday; and President of Coca-Cola International, Ahmet C. Bozer.