The Evolution of Leadership - Implications for the 21st Century

Nov 22, 2023

The Evolution of Leadership – Implications for the 21st Century

Power is the least talked about and most important part of leadership. We should start talking about it more. The big issue is not whether you have power as a leader – YOU HAVE POWER. The big issue is what you DO with that power. The last 75 years have seen a huge shift in how leaders use power. This shift directly impacts the leadership models we need today, the type of organizations we create, and the results we achieve.

The Evolution of Leadership Part 1 – Centralized Power

At the end of World War II (1945), global power was in the hands of the United States and a few industrialized nations. The rest of the world was recovering from the war or continuing to live in their pre-industrialized existence. Globalization was a foreign concept and change occurred at a predictable slow speed. Everything felt stable and predictable, at least in the US.

                                                                The leader was “The Boss.”

In this era, power was centralized in the hands of the leader - at work, home, school, and in the community. Organizational models everywhere were “top down.” At work the leader was “the boss” and so was the father, teacher, minister, and elected official in the other parts of every community. The leader was the “authority,” and no one seriously questioned the leader.

                                                   Organizations were top-down – hierarchical.

The organizational chart visually displayed the “top-down” hierarchy of every organization. Communication followed the flow of the org chart. If you needed something from another part of the organization, you didn’t just walk over and say, “Hey, we need a few more of these.” You instead talked to your leader - who talked to his leader – who talked to a peer in the other part of the organization - who talked with the next leader down – and finally the request would get to the person who could fulfill your request. Then, to get what you needed, everything had to go back in reverse. It sounds exhausting to us, but that’s how it was then. 

                                          The leadership model was built around managing people.

People didn’t work in teams. Everyone reported to their leader, and everyone had a task to do. Often “the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing,” but you didn’t ask. You just did your job. The assembly line symbolized manufacturing and organizations in general. There were few team meetings, and the ones that did happen were always “one-way conversations from the leader to his team.” (“His” is used intentionally because it was a male dominated environment at work.) The words “team, internal customer, continuous improvement, virtual, pods, remote, hybrid” and other common words in the workplace today were foreign concepts then.  

This era produced “doers.” Hands and feet were more important than heads and hearts. This era was all about “competence and compliance.” Don’t think, just do. In this era people valued security. That’s also what organizations valued. The phrase, “the company man,” was created in this era. 30-year careers with one company were the norm. If you moved around too much you were suspect – not responsible. That’s the way it was until the mid 1960’s.

The Evolution of Leadership - Part 2 - Shared Power

In the mid 1960’s two shifts occurred that made centralized power less and less effective. The first was the social revolution best represented by feminism and the civil rights movement. The social revolution had two main messages.

                                             We want a voice, and we want a seat at the table.

Women and people of color no longer wanted to be passengers on the journey. They wanted to be part of the team driving the train. They wanted their voices heard. They wanted to be part of the decision-making process. They wanted to be considered equals. These movements affected every element of society: work, home, school, and community.

The second shift was quality and production issues in the workplace. By the mid-1960’s the rest of the world had recovered from World War II and other economies were roaring. In the US, quality and production issues were found everywhere. Solving these problems required people crossing departmental lines. The hierarchical, top-down organizational culture dominating American culture at the time was not fast enough to resolve these issues. Solving these problems required the creation of cross-departmental teams.

                     Teams became the dominant model of this era and continues to be relevant.

The concept of teams began to spread across every type of organization. The hierarchical work cultures of the previous era gave way to the team concept. The organizational expectations of workers also began to change. Instead of expecting people to just “do their job,” organizations now needed their whole being – head, hands, and heart. They needed people to collaborate, think, problem solve, and innovate. For that to happen, people needed some power in their hands. We entered the era of shared power.

                                      Leadership models focused on managing and motivating.

As you would expect, leadership models also began to change. In the search to improve quality and solve problems, the authoritarian “boss” leadership model quickly became a dinosaur. Everyone’s voice was needed. Organizations began frantically looking for a better solution. In 1970, Richard Greenleaf wrote an article entitled, “Servant Leadership.” It quickly became the dominant leadership model of the shared power era. Almost every leadership model developed from the late 1960’s to today were a variation of the principles of Servant Leadership.  While leadership was still about managing in this era, motivating was now added to the responsibility of the leader. The leader now was supposed to both manage and motivate their team.

What people wanted in this era of shared power began to change also. In the previous era people valued security. In this era people valued involvement and engagement. They wanted a voice and expected it. This era also saw the introduction of training and development as an expected part of every organization. 

Changes in transportation also changed the workplace. Travel was now easier and faster. Airline travel was affordable for almost everyone. The interstate highway systems opened, making movement from one region of the county to the next faster and easier. People now wanted opportunities. No long were people staying with one organization for 30 years. People wanted to be in charge of their careers instead of “the company” being in charge of their career. Mobility became a part of the culture.

As we approached the new millennium, things began to change again.

The Evolution of Leadership – Part 3 - Given Power

In the mid 1990’s the speed of change accelerated. Compared to the previous 25 years it was now moving at lightspeed. Five trends revolutionized the workplace and fueled an entrepreneurial explosion as we moved into the 21st century. 

  1. Disillusionment with corporate life. The first was a growing frustration with corporate life. In the late 1980’s & 1990’s job security became fragile as big corporations struggled to adapt to a changing world. The idea of the “company man” was dead. 
  2. Advances in technology. New evolutions in technology were announced constantly. Knowledge was no longer in the hands of just the leaders.
  3. The shrinking size of technology. Computers went from “room size” to desktops to laptops over a 25-year period. And then, shrunk to our phones.
  4.  The declining cost of technology. Early in the 21st century desktops and laptops became affordable for the average person. This meant that people with new ideas and lots of drive began starting their own business, often competing with their former employers.
  5.  Globalization. As technology and transportation continued to advance, the final trend, globalization, became a reality. Now there were new markets around the globe.  

                                  In a fast world, giving power to the team is the best option.

The speed of change meant that leaders couldn’t keep power in their hands if they wanted to thrive. The world was simply moving too fast. Centralized power or even shared power became a liability. We have seen than over and over in start-ups - leaders so possessed with power that they never built the team that could turn their idea into a huge reality. In a rapidly changing world, there is simply too much happening for leaders to keep power in their hands. The only solution is to put the power in the hands of your team. In the new millennium we entered the era of given power.

                               The organization model is the nimble, adaptable, and disciplined team.                                                                                    Part startup & part special forces.

The team model is still alive and well but needs a modification. This era requires a more advanced version. The most effective organizational model today is the nimble, adaptable, and disciplined organization that can start, adapt, and accelerate quickly to meet market demands. Start-ups are by design more nimble and adaptable. They can flex and adapt quickly to meet changing demands. But the model today needs something else – discipline and expertise. That’s where the idea of special forces comes in. Adaptability without discipline and expertise creates chaos. We see a lot of that today. When you combine nimble, adaptable, and disciplined, though, you create powerful growth. I discovered something interesting about our elite military units. Did you know that only a small % of their time is spent “doing” the things we read about them doing? Probably 10-15% of their time. What do you think they do with the other 85-90% of their time? They “develop” their mind and body to perform at peak levels when the need arises. They learn, train, assess their performance, adjust, work with personal trainers, nutritionists, and mental health professionals – all with one goal - “to stay at the top of their game and be ready when their services are needed.” The combination of nimble and adaptable start-up and disciplined and expert special forces is the model that will accelerate fastest today.  

                                                          What is the ultimate goal?

Thriving today means that, up and down the roster of every organization, we need the best decisions every day everywhere to drive growth. To achieve that goal, we need a different leadership model.

In the era of centralized power, the leadership model of managing people worked. In the era of shared power, the leadership model of managing and motivating people worked. Neither of these models work effectively today. Why? Three main reasons.

  1. Managing & motivating keep power in your hands. That’s the big problem. Everything slows down when you keep power in your hands.
  2. Managing & motivating can’t react fast enough in a rapidly changing world.
  3. Managing & motivating do not engage today’s workforce in a way that inspires them to fully engage at work. Few people today want to be “managed and motivated.” They want something else.

I constantly hear leaders complaining about the workforce today – “They are not as committed, don’t want to work as hard, feel entitled.” You can add what you hear (or think) to that list. I would propose that the workforce is not the problem today. The problem is that our leadership models don’t engage today’s workforce in a way that inspires them to engage, commit, and invest. That leads to the big question, "What does the leadership model in the era of Given Power need to be?"

                                                   Leadership models built on development

Leadership models today must be built on Development. The concept is not only logical, but it also makes good business sense. If the world is moving too fast for you to keep power in your hands, then you must put the power in the hands of your team. If you do that without developing them to use that power wisely, you are hoping for success not building for success. Giving tasks without development is leadership negligence. We’ll talk more about that in future posts.

People in the workforce today are smarter, faster, and more aware than when I entered the workforce many years ago. They also know that the speed of change is accelerating. They want to work with leaders and organizations that develop them and help them get better at their craft. Every minute you spend developing your team creates exponential returns in their performance and results.

In future posts we’ll explore the details about developing your team. In the meantime, if you find these ideas helpful, spread the word, and let’s start building a new generation of leaders that can thrive in this extraordinary and complex world.

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