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13.10: Leadership Needs in the 21st Century

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    Learning Objectives
    1. How do different approaches and styles of leadership impact what is needed now?

    Frequent headlines in popular business magazines like Fortune and Business Week call our attention to a major movement going on in the world of business. Organizations are being reengineered and restructured, and network, virtual, and modular corporations are emerging. People talk about the transnational organization, the boundaryless company, the post-hierarchical organization. By the end of the decade, the organizations that we will be living in, working with, and competing against are likely to be vastly different from what we know today.

    The transition will not be easy; uncertainty tends to breed resistance. We are driven by linear and rational thinking, which leads us to believe that “we can get there from here” by making some incremental changes in who we are and what we are currently doing. Existing paradigms frame our perceptions and guide our thinking. Throwing away paradigms that have served us well in the past does not come easily.

    A look back tells most observers that the past decade has been characterized by rapid change, intense competition, an explosion of new technologies, chaos, turbulence, and high levels of uncertainty. A quick scan of today’s business landscape suggests that this trend is not going away anytime soon. According to Professor Jay A. Conger from Canada’s McGill University, “In times of great transition, leadership becomes critically important. Leaders, in essence, offer us a pathway of confidence and direction as we move through seeming chaos. The magnitude of today’s changes will demand not only more leadership, but newer forms of leadership.”109

    According to Conger, two major forces are defining for us the genius of the next generation of leaders. The first force is the organization’s external environment. Global competitiveness is creating some unique leadership demands. The second force is the growing diversity in organizations’ internal environments. Diversity will significantly change the relationship between organizational members, work, and the organization in challenging, difficult, and also very positive ways.

    What will the leaders of tomorrow be like? Professor Conger suggests that the effective leaders of the 21st century will have to be many things.110 They will have to be strategic opportunists; only organizational visionaries will find strategic opportunities before competitors. They will have to be globally aware; with 80 percent of today’s organizations facing significant foreign competition, knowledge of foreign markets, global economics, and geopolitics is crucial. They will have to be capable of managing a highly decentralized organization; movement toward the high-involvement organization will accelerate as the environmental demands for organizational speed, flexibility, learning, and leanness increase. They will have to be sensitive to diversity; during the first few years of the 21st century, fewer than 10 percent of those entering the workforce in North America will be white, Anglo-Saxon males, and the incoming women, minorities, and immigrants will bring with them a very different set of needs and concerns. They will have to be interpersonally competent; a highly diverse workforce will necessitate a leader who is extremely aware of and sensitive to multicultural expectations and needs. They will have to be builders of an organizational community; work and organizations will serve as a major source of need fulfillment, and in the process leaders will be called on to help build this community in such a way that organizational members develop a sense of ownership for the organization and its mission.

    Finally, it is important to note that leadership theory construction and empirical inquiry are an ongoing endeavor. While the study of traits, behavior, and contingency models of leadership provide us with a great deal of insight into leadership, the mosaic is far from complete. During the past 15 years, several new theories of leadership have emerged; among them are leader-member exchange theory, implicit leadership theory, neocharismatic theory, value-based theory of leadership, and visionary leadership,111 each of which over time will add to our bank of knowledge about leaders and the leadership process.

    Leaders of the 21st-century organization have a monumental challenge awaiting them and a wealth of selfenriching and fulfilling opportunities. The challenge and rewards awaiting effective leaders are awesome!

    Concept Check
    1. What is the role of leadership in the 21st century?


    109. Conger, 1993.

    110. Ibid.

    111. House & Aditya, 1997.

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