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21st Century Leadership

As long as there have been human beings, there have been leaders. Indeed, leadership is a trait we share in common with other members of the animal kingdom.


It would not be an exaggeration to say that, until recently, the history of humanity has been the history of its leaders. Certainly what comes to mind when we think of history are names like Julius Caesar or Martin Luther King.

In the second half of the twentieth century, however, historians, following the lead of Ferdinand Braudel and the so-called Annales School, undertook new approaches. There became a trend toward writing the history of all people, not just the leaders, summed up in Braudel’s comment that to the historian the life of a peasant should be as significant as that of a king.

A similar trend can be discerned in management science. Historically, a common theme in the literature of management is the role of the business leader, who provides inspiration and direction, just like the great military, political, and sports leaders. If one looks at the management books on the bookstore shelves, one will perhaps see more books on leadership than any other topic.

But there has been a change. No doubt the new ideas parallel and grew out of thinking in other disciplines. And it is no coincidence that these developments succeeded World War II.

The Second World War was a war for democracy. The success of the democratic countries had many ramifications, such as the fight against racial discrimination and the abolition of colonialism.

In that war, there certainly had been great leaders. But, as Bill Maudlin’s famous cartoons of GI’s showed, there was also more realization that the actual winning of the war was as much an accomplishment of those at the front lines as of those in the seats of power.

So today, when one peruses the list of management tomes, one sees more and more books about teamwork and team management. Cross-functional teams have been one of the most important concepts of Late 20th Century Management. Empowerment is a given, and leadership has to be understood in that context.

In addition, a revolution in the concept of leadership has taken place, beginning with Robert Greenleaf’s 1976 Servant Leadership. This landmark work “inverted the pyramid” and made for a new paradigm: the leader at the top works for those in the lower ranks, not vice versa.

In 1993, Peter Block, who had already “invented” empowerment, published Stewardship. This book, one of the greatest ever written on management, in effect carried the concept of servant leadership further, advocating “accountability without control or compliance”. Its first chapter title is “Replacing Leadership with Stewardship,” and Block criticizes “cowboy” and “hero” images in business.

James Kouzes and Barry Poster’s The Leadership Challenge (1995) said, “Leadership is Everyone’s Business”.  And in 1999 came Horst Bergman, Kathleen Hurson and Darlene Russ-Eft’s Everyone a Leader.

By the last decade of the 20th century, team management and cross-functional teams were clearly best practice concepts. Researchers even suggested that the best teams might be those that used rotating leadership or no leaders at all.

As we enter the 21st century, the role of "alpha persons" is very much in question. No doubt traditional leadership (and traditionally minded books on how to lead) will continue. But the following seem the best predictions as to how the concept of leadership will develop:

  *  Leadership is for everyone.  No doubt some people are better flutists than others, but almost everyone can learn to play the flute. In the modern organization, everyone is a team member and every one is a project manager. So everyone needs to learn and to exhibit leadership.

  *   Leadership involves learning.  The leader is one who uncovers new knowledge and knows how to share it with others. More than ever before, knowledge is truly power. More than ever before, leadership will be shown by spreading learning.

   *  Leadership is team based.  Hierarchy will continue to exist. But the best organizations will be those that empower their members to be leaders. No one will want to work as an underling when they can work somewhere else and be treated as an equal.

   *  Leadership is not authoritarian.  In the 21st century, one’s authority comes from what one says, not who one is. Leaders will communicate with, not to, people. New methods of communication will result in new styles of leadership.

   *  Leadership includes followership.  Some people will have more leadership responsibility than others, but everyone will learn from everyone else. With teams as the norm, everyone will have the experience of being a contributor. The best leader will be the one who is best of developing, listening and empowering.

Some other books worth reading as guides to 21st Century Leadership are as follows:

·    Edward Deevy, Creating the Resilient Organization, 1995

·    Frances Hesselbein, Marshall Goldsmith and Richard Beckhard (eds.), The Leader of the Future, 1996

·    Larry Hirschhorn, Reworking Authority, 1997

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