21st Century Leadership: Are we there yet?

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It seems like we’ve been waiting for “21st century leadership” for a long, long time. Peter Drucker saw it as part of a major transformation to a knowledge economy. He thought that transformation began with the GI Bill after World War II. In 1992, he wrote that “If history is any guide, this transformation will not be completed until 2010 or 2020.” OK, it’s 2020.

In 2007, Gary Hamel and Bill Breen asked us to cast our mind ahead a decade and imagine what management and leadership would be like. Other writers have chimed in with predictions and observations. The question is, are we there yet?

Some Things Don’t Change

The most important things about leadership haven’t changed for centuries. They won’t change in this one. Great leaders accomplish a mission through a team. Great leaders care for team members and help them grow and develop. That won’t change in the 21st century. But the context and the challenges will be different.

In the last quarter century, we’ve glimpsed the impact of three great shifts. They are happening below the surface. But they transform the challenges that 21st century leaders must meet.

The Shift from All the Same and All Together to Difference and Distance

Once upon a time, you could count on the people who worked where you did to look like you, talk like you, and have the same values that you learned growing up. No more.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 transformed US demographics. Now, you are likely to work with people who grew up in cultures different from Western European cultures. For many, English is a second language. You’re more likely to work for a company with headquarters in another country. You’re more likely do business across borders.

Once upon a time, almost all work was full-time work. Oh, sure, some people took part-time jobs to supplement their income, but “real” work was full-time work. No more. Today, our workforce is a mix of full-time, part-time, and gig workers. If you’re a leader, that changes your challenges.

But wait, as they say in the infomercials, there’s more. Once upon a time, everybody on a team worked in the same place. Those days are gone. Today, you’re likely to work on a team with several people who work away from the rest of the team some or all the time. That changes the challenges, too.

The Shift from Leader as Expert to Leader as Enabler

Once upon a time, we promoted the expert machine operator to be the foreman. That made sense when the leader’s primary job was to make sure that the work was done correctly. But that’s not how it is today.

Today, more and more workers are knowledge workers. Knowledge workers analyze things, make decisions, and act on their decisions. Most often, they know more about the work they do than their team leader knows. If you’re that team leader, that means you must change the way you work.

If you lead a team of knowledge workers, your job is to help them do great work, not tell them how to do it. Pay attention to the social support component of an effective team. The team environment should provide support for members and psychological safety. Just like in the old days, your job is still to help the team and the team members succeed. Now, though, you won’t know how to do their work. Your challenge is to help them do it better anyway.

The Shift from Well-Oiled Machine to Complex Adaptive Systems

Early in my business career, I helped construct mathematical models that were at the core of our long-range plan. “Long-range” in that context meant, “10 years.” Hardly anyone would think about planning over that time horizon today.

Consider how it would be if you were charged with constructing a long-range plan in 2000. There would be technology advances you couldn’t possibly foresee.  The introduction of the iPhone was in the future. So were Facebook and Twitter and their impact on business and society. You couldn’t predict historical events, like 9/11 and the Great Recession.

Planning 5 or 10 years out works if the environment and competition remain essentially the same. That’s not true anymore, though. Today, things change rapidly.

The result is that you must be different as a leader. Instead of constructing a great plan and then implementing it with only slight tweaks, you must be agile.  You must be able to spot important changes and adapt to meet the challenges they present.

Are We There Yet?

“21st century leadership” has been coming for a while. We’re not there yet, though. We can see the shape of how things are developing, but most of us still need to dig in, learn, and think about how we should lead differently.

If you’re going to get this, you must be a leader who is a reader. Here are some suggestions about where to start.

The science fiction writer William Gibson says that, “The future is already here. It’s just unevenly-distributed.” Find examples of the future that’s already here.  Then adapt the practices that seem best for you. Here are three books that give you a place to start.

Under New Management by David Burkus

It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

The Future of Management by Gary Hamel and Bill Breen

Read books about specific challenges you face. Here are a couple of suggestions.

Challenged by leading a virtual team? Pick up Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel’s book, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.

If you want the low-down on how to manage a team of people with mixed heritage and values, your best bet is Melissa Lamson’s book, The New Global Manager.

Those books describe how to understand specific issues or solve specific problems. You also should learn how to get from an industrial-style leadership to a 21st century-style leadership.

I recommend General Stanley McChrystal’s book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. It’s about how McChrystal and the Special Operations Task Force in Iraq shifted the way they worked. In addition to his experience, McChrystal filled the book with expert observations and opinions by others.

Bottom Line

We know what 21st Century leadership looks like, but we’re not there yet. Think about the challenges of the three great shifts. Read broadly. Identify examples the future that are already here.

What do you think?

How do you imagine leadership changing?

What books would you recommend?

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What People Are Saying

Chance Barron   |   07 Jan 2020   |   Reply

Interesting article. Thought about your workplace when I read it.

Randy Rowe   |   07 Jan 2020   |   Reply

This is interesting