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Srinath Sridharan

Independent markets commentator. Media columnist. Board member. Corporate & Startup Advisor / Mentor. CEO coach. Strategic counsel for 25 years, with leading corporates across diverse sectors including automobile, e-commerce, advertising, consumer and financial services. Works with leaders in enabling transformation of organisations which have complexities of rapid-scale-up, talent-culture conflict, generational-change of promoters / key leadership, M&A cultural issues, issues of business scale & size. Understands & ideates on intersection of BFSI, digital, ‘contextual-finance’, consumer, mobility, GEMZ (Gig Economy, Millennials, gen Z), ESG. Well-versed with contours of governance, board-level strategic expectations, regulations & nuances across BFSI & associated stakeholder value-chain, challenges of organisational redesign and related business, culture & communication imperatives.

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The 21st Century Business Leadership

Leaders don’t succeed fully unless they nurture other leaders. They don’t complete their goals unless they build their own succession line-up. The insecure leader who fails to do so is not a leader at all ‒ even if they have successfully achieved organisational milestones until then

Photo Credit : Shutterstock


The 21st Century has been filled with large-scale disruptions, multiple Black Swan events (oxymoron!), changes never envisaged, and demographic shifts. Each of these disruptions including digital has impacted the way we live, the way we interact with one another and the way we transact.

The past two decades have seen innovations in media and entertainment, consumer electronics, finance, eGovernance, social media, personal computing and mobile telephony and much more. We have seen the rise of Platforms ‒ be they in commerce or in the social media space. Yet the same humanity was forced to enforce “lockdowns” by a tiny unseen virus ‒ the Covid- 19.

We have also seen global political ideology changes and associated socio-economic outcomes, newer geo-political equations, domestic nationalist compulsions putting global pacts to stress and the chasms between the haves and have-nots widening. We have also seen giants of business enterprises simply vanish as they could not innovate quickly.

Modern business leaders have the uphill task of guiding and even preparing their organisations for the future. They have to navigate a maze of complicated, and ever-evolving global economic scenarios. Leaders of today have to be deft change leaders to be able to steer their enterprises, to survive the current impact and to prepare the business models for the future. In the 21st Century, managing economic and political uncertainty has also become a critical business leadership role. As organisations look at expanding more quickly and startups look at scaling up faster, they need to account for economic and political uncertainty in any form of survival and growth strategy.


The complex question is: How can one be resilient and calm, when one is operating in these ever-changing environments? Leadership is a trait in an individual that enables him or her to influence the behaviour of others to achieve a goal. In this path, there are various external influences and external forces that today’s leaders face.

*Technological disruptions

The 21st Century has been shaped by technological disruption, so much so, that we have come to feel that disruption is the constant. Technological innovations have impacted all industries and sectors, irrespective of their scale and size or legacy. We have seen the emergence of entrepreneurship and startups, which are agile and have the ability to significantly disrupt traditional business models.

*Emerging Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning

With the emergence of AI and its evolution towards better efficiency, much of global work tasks could be automatable. That would change the nature of jobs of the future. We already are seeing the usage of AI and ML across many commercial applications. The data science industry is able to think of building a human DNA database to evolve the science of personal identification. Already 3D printers are being used to print building equipment or even whole buildings and artificial human organs. The growth of cloud computing is changing the way industries used data for decisioning.

*Shifting demographics

Globally demographic changes have been rapid and include some fundamental shifts in family structures (like increase of dual-income and single-parent families), ageing population (that need more health and welfare services) and increase in labour diversity. These shifts in demographics mean that the demand for a company’s products and services is subjected to continuous fluctuations, and adds volatility to their business outcomes. For leadership teams, this is a constant pressure in their ability to offer predictability for business growth and future business models.


In the word “Leader” do you picture someone confident, assertive and able to take decisions under pressure? Or do you imagine someone with an inspiring vision for the future? Or do you expect the leader to be able to do both, and offer more?

The skills required in this new era seem to be much different and beyond what once made leaders successful. Today’s world demands that leaders as individuals need to be able to lead people through crisis, challenges that are varied and multitude, and yet steer the enterprise towards higher financial and social impact.

Leaders in the 21st Century need to be able to continuously innovate and manage disruptions effectively. They have to navigate across generational gaps and mindset issues within their teams. Some of the personality traits that are still in demand are the following:


The ability to understand what others feel has a significant role in the personal and professional success of any individual, let alone a leader. While business processes and outcomes are important, leadership is also about understanding of human feelings. Leaders need to be able to put themselves in someone else's shoes to understand their point of view and perspective.

*Honesty and Integrity

A leader is expected to know themselves well and to walk the talk on the values they claim to uphold. They are expected to be fair and transparent in their dealings. Leaders are also expected to acknowledge any failures, bad judgmental calls or mistakes and to take accountability for them. Many a times, leaders, including those well regarded as experts in their field, fall short of this expectation.

*Collective leadership

A leader should be able to provide leadership for the cohort as opposed to just one person in charge of everything. They should be able to form many leaders under them and to nurture their skills. They should also have the ability to seek and receive inputs from multiple stakeholders, rather than just those few whom they implicitly trust. This would ensure that their stakeholders feel that they have been heard and that their views matter in the final decision making process.

*Communication skills

An impactful leader is a good communicator. That enables their message to be sent across the system well. They are able to use it impactfully for their team building initiatives. Good leaders regularly communicate with their stakeholders, without any scope of misperception and without any ambiguities. This is a core essential skill to deal with rapidly complex public markets and public stakeholders.


Good leaders are inclusive in nature. They are able to empower their teams when making decisions and plans for the future. A leader's goal is to cultivate a team that feels a sense of belonging and can work together successfully. They should provide their teams with support, resources and inputs to help them achieve their full potential, both individually and collectively.


Today’s leadership requires resilience across multiple facets of life. Ever evolving consumer trends, increasing pace of technology-induced disruptions, increasing fragmentation of markets, rapid shift of economic growth potential, and low cost of entry into markets need resilience to manage. The changing aspect of human behaviour and the evolution of human needs and wants is adding to the dynamic moods, sentiments and behaviour of the talent force.

*Ability to say ‘I don’t know’

A good leader does not have all the answers, and does not claim to do so either. The leader should have the humility and courage to admit that he or she does not know the answers.

*Building succession and other leaders

Leaders don’t succeed fully unless they nurture other leaders. They don’t complete their goals unless they build their own succession line-up. The insecure leader who fails to do so, is not a leader at all ‒ even if they have successfully achieved organisational milestones until then.

Leadership, as the human race has seen over the centuries, has remained the same and yet shifted the speed of reactions and context of decisions, differently. Leadership should draw lessons from the past, but be relevant to the current as well as for the future. Leaders should set the tone for people to be aware of future preparedness, even if it’s unpredictable. Values-based behaviour and personal conduct are expected to be above any criticism or doubt. For they should not change with historic perspective.

The author is Corporate Advisor & Independent markets commentator

Twitter: @ssmumbai

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