Essential Skills for the 21st Century

As the decades pass with technology continuing to accelerate change and demand innovation, increasingly sophisticated skill training is required at younger and younger developmental ages. This was not so evident in my youth. As a 20-year old psychology student in the 1970s, I distinctly remember witnessing my professor integrate and synthesize our 60-minute seminar discussion into a thought model, which he deftly drew on a flip chart. I also remember thinking I want to be able to do that. Unfortunately, the classic educational model for youth in the ’60s and ’70s was not designed to teach me, or anyone, how to think, which is probably why I was so bored in public school and university.

The education model of those days — 3Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic — emphasized content over skills. Sadly, this model remains standard in many school curricula today even though it was defined by the Committee of Ten over a century ago. Higher order thinking skills such as synthesis and integration were not only absent in public schools but also in colleges and universities. Truly, until I entered graduate school, I was primarily examined on what content I could remember, not on what I could do with that content.

Fortunately, in today’s world, content is ubiquitous and free as well as growing and changing constantly. Given the complexity in our day-to-day experiences, contemporary school children, as well as employed adults, need to know what to do with that content, which is why the global workforce is often referred to as knowledge workers. As such, we daily turn content into useable knowledge to solve problems, invent and reinvent new possibilities, and strategize and collaborate with others to create new products and services. Without question, educators need to see themselves in the business of producing citizens capable of innovative thinking. For this paradigm shift, I am happy. The 3Rs have finally graduated into the 4Cs — critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. And by the way, narrowing down what was likely a much bigger list into these four essential skills is, in itself, an act of synthesis and integration.

I was curious whether this same transition was evident in the business world as is implied in a recent Psychology Today article.

While the old model of business emphasized dominance and power, the new models are more about vision, focus, communication, cognitive flexibility, authenticity, and partnership.     Melanie Greenberg, Psychology Today

Although some evidence suggests a move by the business world in the direction of the 4Cs, my own experience indicates otherwise. In the table below, I compared the 4Cs being taught to children with those skills seen as essential for business leaders. For the most part, I found myself comparing apples with oranges. Little consolidation (synthesis and integration) in the business world exists with regard to what skills are core to leadership and success.

Essential Skills for the 21st Century
Children Leaders Leaders
Critical Thinking Do the Right Things Leave a Legacy (optimize what is good & strong)
Communication Self-confidence (resiliency) See Opportunity in Everything (adaptability)
Collaboration Embrace Change as Adventure Anticipate the Unexpected
Creativity Contribute Uniqueness Innovate from Passion & Greater Purpose
Stay Grounded in Simplicity, Patience & Compassion Stay Grounded in Your Core Values

As you will see below, not only is there little agreement in the business world on what constitutes essential leadership skills but even where there is agreement, the know-how is not there.

CEOs in a recent poll agreed that creativity is the most important skill a leader can have. What seems less clear is how to actually cultivate it. Every leader is hoping for that next great idea, yet many executives still treat creative thinking as antithetical to productivity and control. Indeed, 80% of American and British workers feel pressured into being productive rather than creative.     Ron Carucci, Harvard Business Review

What I do know to be true — if you are not cultivating creativity in your team or enterprise, you are also not structuring for a collaborative culture. Creativity necessitates collaboration. Idea creation directed toward benefiting your organization and the customers you serve requires collective input. Therefore, collaboration is a necessity and must be designed for rather than expect it to occur spontaneously or by word of mouth. As illustrated in the table above, neither creativity nor collaboration made business’s top five, which affirms for me, once again, why I could not work as an organizational employee where one’s creative flame is continuously snuffed out.

For more on creativity and collaborative organization design, click here.

 

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