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What is Executive Leadership, and Why is it so Important?

Dec 8, 2021
Vanderbilt Professor Mark Cannon explains what sets executive leaders apart

By Mackenzie Burckbuchler

As the workforce continues to evolve, strong executive leadership can propel businesses forward. In the face of uncertainty and volatility, businesses need effective leaders at the helm to retain employees and drive organizational growth. Executive leaders have the agility and skills necessary to respond to challenges and identify strategic opportunities. So, what sets executive leaders apart? We spoke with Mark Cannon, Professor of Management and the instructor for Executive Leadership, to find out more.

 What is executive leadership?

Mark Cannon

Executive leaders understand themselves and how to deploy their strengths across diverse contexts. They skillfully adapt to situations quickly and identify the best course of action based on their self-knowledge. “Executive leadership is managing ourselves to make the most of our capabilities in evolving circumstances,” said Cannon.

Executive leaders empower and inspire others in the organization. “Part of executive leadership is better enabling employees to lead themselves,” Cannon explains. “It is about leveraging what you can do as a leader by thinking beyond yourself. You maximize what others have to offer and deliver the best outcome.”

What is the difference between an executive leader and a traditional leader?

“Leadership,” is sometimes thought of as merely guiding a group and having responsibility for outcomes. When viewed this way, leadership can often be reactive. “Executive leadership” demands a way of thinking and behaving that is more proactive and methodical. “Executive leaders think differently and think for the future. They are able to reframe situations and implement innovative long-term solutions,” says Cannon.

Executive leaders know how to ask the right questions. When presented with a challenging situation, they take the time to fully understand the problem and reflect before formulating a solution. Ultimately, this approach enables more creative and effective action.

Cannon also notes that executive leaders operate with high situational awareness and see the big picture. While leaders usually focus on immediate results, executive leaders create short-term value while simultaneously enhancing the long-term strength of the organization.

What are the qualities of an effective executive leader?

Executive leadership is less about personality type and more about learning agility and a commitment to continual development. “Executive leaders evaluate situations, establish priorities, and execute wise plans,” said Cannon.

The skills that effective executive leaders consistently demonstrate are learnable, which is fortunate, because as the speed of business continues to accelerate, strong executive leadership becomes increasingly important for organizations that wish to stay ahead.

Cannon explains that leadership development has advanced through recent discoveries in neuroscience. Vanderbilt Executive Education incorporates those findings from neuroscience into short and custom programs. By providing participants with the best models and methodologies to deploy in challenging situations, the Executive Leadership program helps prepare executive leaders for uncertainty. To learn more about how Vanderbilt can help your organization foster strong executive leadership, click here.

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