So Why is Leadership Different in the 21st Century?

Interested in Becoming a Member?

An SIM Membership like no other, provides you with an abundance of tools, resources and opportunities to help you achieve your professional and personal success at every step of the way! Be part of our learning community of more than 34,000 corporate and individual members.

For more information about membership, please click here »

Member Login

If u are a subscriber, please use ur subscriber login.
If you are a SIM Member, please use your SIM Membership login.

Forgot your password?

Member Login

Forgot your password?
login  Cancel

Sign Up

If you wish to sign up for a SIM Membership, please click here


If you wish to subscribe to Today's Manager, please click here

If you wish to subscribe to Singapore Management Review, please click here

Website maintenance notice: Website will not be accessible from 27 June (11 pm) to 28 June (9 am) due to scheduled maintenance. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.

Home > Articles > So Why is Leadership Different in the 21st Century?

 So Why is Leadership Different in the 21st Century?

Jo Owen | Today's Manager
September 1, 2020

​One can see the difference in how leaders from the 20th Century differ from those in the 21st Century. For better or for worse, is yet to be determined. 

While we all stand in awe of endless technology revolutions, technology is not changing leadership. In reality, the technology revolution started 200 years ago, when the steam engine transformed productivity and the steam train connected people like never before. The technology revolution will continue to be with us for another 200 years at least. The technology revolution is a constant, not a change. And leaders lead people, not machines.

The real revolution for leaders is in the nature of relationships and power at work. To understand this, it is worth doing the fastest ever history of management.

Modern management started with the Industrial Revolution. Before then, leadership was about great men leading lesser men to death or glory in battle. The great men got the glory and the lesser men got the death, which was a good arrangement for the great men (and it was nearly always men).

In the 19th century Industrial Revolution, great men still led lesser men. The bosses had the brains and the workers had the hands. The job of the boss was to get the ideas out of their heads and into the hands of the workers. The key skill for a boss was to be relatively smart, compared to a pretty uneducated work force. Bosses did the thinking and workers did the working, which was still a good arrangement for the bosses. It was less good for workers who were exploited, and lived and worked in appalling conditions.

Marx expected the workers to revolt (and they did, in Russia). But mostly, the workers did something far worse: they got educated. This meant that they could do more, but they expected more. They could no longer be treated like unreliable and disposable machines. They had to be treated like….well, like human beings. They had to be motivated, supported, developed, trained, and performance managed. So in the 20th century, the performance bar for managers was suddenly raised. It was no longer enough to be a brain on sticks. In addition to high IQ, managers needed to develop good EQ or emotional quotient.

Now look around your 21st century workplace and you will find plenty of smart (IQ) and nice (EQ) managers who are used as doormats on the path to success by less smart and less nice managers. Clearly, something is missing in the 21st century success model.

What has changed in the 21st century is the nature of work and power. In the past, managers made things happen through people they controlled. Managers had coercive power. Now, managers have to make things happen through people who do they do not control or do not want to be controlled. That changes everything. In a flat organisation, you have to make things happen through colleagues who have different needs, agendas, and priorities; you will probably have to work with customers, suppliers, and external partners to make things happen; internally you may well manage professionals who routinely think that your job is pointless and that they could do it better than you.

This is a new world of ambiguity and complexity, of cooperation and competition. To succeed you can no longer command and control. You have to build networks of trust and influence to support your agenda; you have to know how to handle conflict and crises; you have to know when to step up and when to step back, when you should cooperate and when you should compete. We can call this collection of skills known as political quotient (PQ): this is the skill set you need if you are to make the organisation you work for, work for you.

So the 21st century leader needs IQ, EQ, and PQ: the bar is getting higher all the time. But a three-legged leader cannot exist. So there is a fourth leg to the 21st century leader: MQ or mindset quotient. The best leaders act differently because they think differently. Research shows that the best leaders have seven habits of mind which we can all learn: outrageously high expectations, courage, resilience, positive outlook, collaboration, accountability (for how they act and feel), and growth (learning all the time). They also have one mindset from the dark side: ruthlessness, because if you want to achieve your goals you need to have difficult conversations and make difficult decisions.

The good news about these skills is that leaders these four skill sets will not be replaced by AI. AI is very good at pattern recognition: with enough training a computer can recognise a cat. But computers are lousy at dealing with the highly ambiguous, volatile, and uncertain world of work where politics, competing agendas, irrational behaviour, and conflict are common place. AI will remove the drudgery of leadership and let leaders focus on the most challenging tasks of all.

Mr Jo Owen is the author of Global Teams and 14 other management books. He is a founder of the UK’s largest graduate recruiter, Teach First, and has started six other charities, a bank, and a business in Japan.




Copyright © 2020 Singapore Institute of Management

Article Found In

Today's Manager Issue 3, 2020

View Issue

Browse Articles

By Topic
By Industry
By Geography