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Revolutionize Leadership Styles for the 21st Century

Revolutionize Leadership Styles for the 21st Century

Cheri Swales,

March 11, 2008

The typical boss of the early 1900s liked to see fear in the faces of employees. By the mid-1900s, that same boss had probably lightened up a bit on workers, focusing instead on building a power base. Fast-forward to today’s corporate climate and the forced march into disgrace of some of America’s most celebrated executives, who leave behind ruined companies, disillusioned employees and shell-shocked investors. Hardly the stuff of progress. So what does it take to lead in these uncertain times?

“Organizations worldwide are confronting more turbulent markets, more demanding shareholders, more discerning customers and continuous technology changes. Many organizations are restructuring to meet these challenges,” according to the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management. “Their success in making these changes depends much on the quality of their leadership — not only at the top of the organization but also among all employees responsible for operating results.”

The Leader of the 21st Century

Developing the new leader’s skills will require more than a little training. It will require a revolution within most current leaders’ thinking. Not only do leaders today have to share their vision of the organization, they must inspire their employees to “see” that same vision. Vision is a clear mental picture of your organization when it has achieved its mission, and many times your mission evolves along the way. Leaders must live and breathe this vision and embody the change in order to bring the entire organization along with them.

Visionary people also must be highly creative. Having the skill to convince those around them to unleash their creativity will be invaluable to the leaders of tomorrow. At the same time, though, these creative visionaries must beware of losing track of crucial details that could indicate a need for a change in course.

Ken Miller, director of performance improvement for the State of Missouri, has already figured out this formula for success. He had a vision for improving operations at Missouri’s Department of Revenue. He shared that vision of simplicity and customer satisfaction, and every employee jumped on board with creative ideas. Suggestions jumped from 12 per year to more than 1,200.

“We mobilized empowered teams to radically improve our key processes/systems for the benefit of the customer,” says Miller.

“New leaders will have to be able to draw attention to the change without drawing too much attention to themselves,” reports Ronald Heifetz, director of the leadership education project at Harvard University and the author of Leadership Without Easy Answers. He says you must be able to stir the pot without making the water boil over.

Continuous learning is another skill needed to be a leader in the future. Heifetz says grandeur must go. It won’t work for leaders to believe that they have all the knowledge, information and data that they need. In a constantly changing world, the more knowledge you have and share, the better leader you will be.

Finally, being a leader in the new millennium will require a sense of when to retreat and renew. Leadership is difficult and stressful. It is critical for the new leader to reenergize as needed. Having a good partner/friend who can help equalize the stress and confusion is important.

Skills for Those Who Lead Without Authority

The revolution taking place at the top echelons of power needs to occur at lower levels as well. The entire organization’s ability to embrace change is paramount to its success. If you are working with an aspiring leader, here are the skills you can begin to cultivate in them now:


A sense of urgency.


An openness to learning.

What can I do for you?" attitude.

Heartiness to handle stress and confusion.

A teaming/partnering mentality.

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