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21st century leadership is no walk in the park

Reviewing changes in organisational practices highlights how approaches to leadership are evolving

By Asad I Mian |
Design: Mohsin Alam
PUBLISHED June 05, 2021

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This famous saying attributed to Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism and author of the Tao Te Ching, encapsulates my current understanding of 21st century leadership. For me leadership is a process that is dynamic and ever unfolding; a journey versus a destination with unexpected (and expected) twists and turns, ups and downs, lefts and rights, advances, retreats, and going around in circles. This essay is an evidence-based approach to contemporary leadership that I synthesised through a recent course.

20th century vs 21st century

Some points that 21st century leaders need to be cognizant of that were neither widely acknowledged nor considered important enough, in the previous century are open-mindedness and open-heartedness. Being authentically generous in giving and receiving feedback have been prioritised by many leaders this century. Being deliberate in building inclusive and diverse teams, enhancing gender diversity through design versus default (as this century progresses, perhaps transcending gender itself may become a leadership aspiration?), nurturing like-minded individuals in your teams; helping them articulate and achieve their personal and professional goals because in their success is your success, eliciting viewpoints from people who are unlike-minded or contrarian but if those people are obnoxious, disrespectful, and narcissistic (within the garb of contrarianism), then ignore their viewpoints, being mission/vision/purpose-driven; working towards something that is much bigger than yourself that shall help you contribute to the ‘music of the universe’, discouraging incentivisation models that merely focus on short-term gratifications to the detriment of the individual’s growth and detract from organisational long-term vision/strategy, encouraging critical, creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial thinking in your teams, offering them safe spaces for ideation or for venting if/when needed; spaces that are non-judgmental and non-hierarchical – all these shifts have been noted and further defined this century.

Being data-driven - however, recall that data is not necessarily knowledge nor wisdom. In striving for data, do not forget to listen to people - empathise with them and their needs. Recall that technology/data can be your friend but it is simply a means to an end; it should not end up controlling you - the leader - nor your subordinates/teams. Accountability, transparency, and organisational ethical frameworks are key. Impartial internal and external audits can ensure higher work quality and staff satisfaction.

Open communication

Before taking on a new leadership role, consider asking several of the following questions with the caveat that you may not get all the answers: To achieve my goals, would I be allowed to function autonomously through adequate resources and calculated risk taking, What are the organisational core values (or guiding principles); but more than that, is the prevalent culture close to or far from those putative values, Does the organisation believe that I have the expertise or skillset for the new leadership role, what are its expectations of me, and how will my success be gauged, Who will be my team and who are the enablers and disablers within that team, What are the lines of organisational communication, internal as well as external, and how clear and transparent are they, and finally, what will be my governance structure, organogram or reporting line? The answers that you do get would not only help you make a decision but also to assess your new team and how to remain transparent with it.

Collaboration and inspiration

There are some excellent concepts of creative workplaces’ collaboration, two of which I describe here. David Kelley's approach through IDEO is reminiscent of human-centered design thinking emphasising your team’s crazy or wild ideas with unclear or unexpected outcomes (for complex 'messy' problems) - a strategy likely to work for mavericks (aka risk-takers). The Mass Animation approach on the other hand of crowdsourcing independent creativity within a framework is also quite intriguing; given the pre-determined scope vis-a-vis outcome, the ability of collaborative group work through cooperation creates its own leadership challenges and opportunities. Personally, as a leader, I would like to try out and contextualise IDEO’s approach for my own team of ideators, innovators, and entrepreneurs. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose can be strongly motivational for people in 21st century organisations. Respecting people and their ideas, not judging those ideas, and not always pushing for that single best idea amongst a lot of ideas, are additional points to consider. With respect to effective governance impacting organisational transformation, revising the board of governors towards a leaner and more flexible and agile group will ensure that it has more skin in the game.

Diversity, inclusion and innovation

The ‘dandelion principle’ for managing talent inspires inclusion and diversity at the workplace, and although it may require a paradigm shift, it is quite worth it for the 21st-century. Given the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the fractures and faults of organisations and their inherent processes have become all the more obvious, hence utilising the dandelion metaphor to manage talent in these unprecedented times makes even more sense. We need places and spaces (real and virtual) that are inclusive, equitable, and respectful of people who are differently abled. Recognising so will help us manage people, keeping their authenticities in mind - and we will be less likely to force them to conform to traditionally set ritualistic attitudes and systems. Ultimately, I hope that we move closer to workplaces that celebrate diversity in everything and everyone, and that will become the sine qua non for impactful innovation, creativity and, entrepreneurship for 21st-century organisations globally with transgenerational workforces. With diversely talented people, innovation would become an easier call to action because of creative freedom through adequate spaces (actual and virtual), with appropriate access to capital, time, and expertise.

Organisational culture

‘Never waste a good crisis’ is a very insightful statement for a leader because that is his/her opportunity to lead by example, walk the talk and be a real team player. The leader can loop in the most trustworthy people to engage with the board members through one-to-one conversations to get them to agree to her crisis mode strategy. In tandem recalling further that no matter how bad things are, they will get worse would help her keep on her toes vis-a-vis ongoing risk mitigation and damage control. No matter how brilliant the strategy may be, the proof of the pudding lies in execution. In other words, weak execution eats great strategy for breakfast. How not to lead in a crisis was evident from the lessons learnt from the financial crisis of 2008, in which there were several failures of leadership. First and foremost it seemed like the Wall Street CEOs and other high-powered bankers/investors/executives/politicians were more driven by greed, self-interest, egos etc. They demonstrated characteristics that were reminiscent of the transactional and great man theories of leadership. There was no higher purpose; they lacked a vision; other than instant gratification, the huge amounts of bonuses that those folks collected, while millions of individuals across the globe suffered. Moving away from the transactional leadership theory, and towards ethical and transformational styles was the take home for me.

With regards to the ‘role of culture’ all companies are not alike but the dilemma of cultural change management is likely the same. A non-hierarchical approach that is less dependent on approval seeking versus quick prototyping, experimenting and fast failing or pivoting, will also be indicative of a paradigm shift in culture: in other words, the ‘just do it and ask for forgiveness later’ approach. Communication (both upward and downward) is key and with both simple and complex tools of IT/tech, this may be achieved relatively easily. For a leader who is an outsider, culture can be beneficial by allowing agile innovative practices. The inbred leader is unlikely to even consider the need for change or instituting that sense of urgency, since he or she may become more complacent because of biases. In the final analysis, culture can be both a challenge and an opportunity for transformation.

The public vs private life dilemma

Since there is a thin line dividing personal and private from professional and public, whatever happens in one domain will likely impact the other. A leader's private behaviour is very relevant to his or her leadership abilities and performance. One can argue that a leader’s private life is of no one's concern but his and I agree with that. But as we have observed in real life such a clear distinction between public life-private life does not really exist past a certain point, especially for high profile leaders. Our expectations of our leaders in their so-called private matters should be held to a very high moral and ethical ground; as high if not higher than that of their public or professional matters. Having said that, we also need to be cognizant of the famous proverb ‘to err is human to forgive divine’. While keeping that in mind, we could practice compassion by giving the leader a chance to rectify his or her mistake(s). Over time, as we grow as human beings, I think the realisation that our moral compass or moral obligation needs to be more inwards directed rather than outwardly manifested, will help us become better leaders of our own lives.

Given the chaotic 21st century, I believe leadership needs to be flexible and adaptive to the situation at hand. I find transformational leadership most meaningful from the creativity and innovation perspective; the kind of openness for trying new things, accepting failure as part of the innovation process, facilitating your team members' self-actualisation, and so on, can be a powerful approach while in the ‘business as usual’ mode. Going past leadership theory, the role of experiential learning and having intimate knowledge of organisational culture in enhancing performance cannot be ignored. Next time you find yourself in a difficult leadership dilemma, consider concocting your personal leadership approach, albeit through an evidence base while monitoring outcomes. That may help you pivot to the leadership style that is most appropriate for the situation you find yourself in.


Asad I. Mian, MD, PhD, is an ER physician-researcher, and author of 'An Itinerant Observer' (2014) and ‘MEDJACK: the extraordinary journey of an ordinary hack’ (2021).