21st Century Leadership Challenges

The leadership world is divided in to mutually suspicious tribes – theoreticians versus practitioners, PR hogging gurus versus part time academics, supporters of the old command and control versus inspirational team builders, and finally leaders and managers themselves.

The business of running a business has always fallen prey to business school fads and consultant fraudsters, who suffer from a severe case of status anxiety. The very idea promoted by these so called experts that leadership is about anything other than people is preposterous, and has proven to be one of the great fallacies in the business world since Peter Drucker was accused of being a fantasist. The concept of re-engineering processes introduced by “experts”, in my opinion, focuses too much attention on efficiency as a goal – driven by lean, six sigma, or TQM processes- and not enough on efficiency as a means, driven by people.

In “The concept of the corporation”, published in 1946, you are struck by how similar today’s methods are to those of yesteryear. This is partly because, as technology and production methods evolve over time, what remains the same is the people, leading us to conclude that Leadership and Management is not a progressive science as some might want us to believe.

The 21st century has already spawned a sizable volcano of daunting new challenges. Deregulation, digitization, ecosystems, strategy life cycles, and competition present but a few, being tackled by leaders and managers alike. What remains unsettled is how to deal with employee issues as they change over time. Specifically worrisome are : a) broadening the scope of employee freedom, by managing less, without sacrificing focus, discipline, and order, b) creating an organization where the spirit of shared values and community dominate, not programs and policies, and c) providing for a mission that justifies extraordinary contribution.

The profile of the new century employee has certainly evolved over the years, more so in the last ten than in the fifty years prior. Traditional organizations and Human Resources Management programs taught us to look for diligence, intellect, and obedience as characters of the best employees. Today, and certainly in the future, obedience, diligence, and expertise can be bought for next to nothing; for we are living in an era where knowledge has become commoditized. The point is this: If you are to survive and successfully deal with these challenges, you need employees who are more than acquiescent, attentive, and astute – they must also be passionate, ardent, and enthusiastic. This clear shift in employee traits presents a conundrum for future leaders and managers. They are paid to oversee, control, and administer. Yet, as we move forward, the most valuable human capabilities are precisely those that are the least manageable. Current efficiency management tools cannot make employees more creative, committed, or zealous.   

Leaders of traditional organizations are very good at aggregating effort and coordinating activities based on shared competencies or objectives. They are not however good at mobilizing effort or inspiring employees to go the next step. They must face the challenge of turning bureaucracies in to communities where the work is less contractual, and more as a means of making a difference, or exercising a special talent. Employees must feel less as a factor of production, and more as a partner in a cause. They must get away from the web of rules and policies and into common values and partnerships.

Based on how effective organizations are in dealing with the above two points, employees will choose, to either give or withhold initiative, creativity, and passion. They are gifts that are passed on to organizations not by exhortation or rah-rah pep talks, but by managers and leaders asking themselves what kind of purpose would merit the best of everyone in the organization. To produce sustainable market gains, the next great innovation, or lasting financial benefits, organizations need a moral imperative that can’t be manufactured by smooth talking CEOs or hired consultants. Moral imperative must be the result of a vision, shared values, and it must be an end, not a means.

I cannot help but think of a quote I had come across a couple of years ago while working with a CEO, self proclaimed visionary who failed at leading miserably at every aspect of leading. It is from the Analects of Confucius ” The Master said, govern the people by regulations, keep order among them by chastisements, and they will flee from you, and lose all self respect. Govern them with moral force, keep order among them by ritual, and they will keep their self-respect and come to you of their own accord”

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  • Top Myers  On December 26, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Your suggested management style feels very comfortable and and organization structure I could embrace. What do you think is the best way to add the intelliectual tools such as TQM, six sigmaa etc. within your proposed structure so that they both can exist in harmony?

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