Leadership in the 21st Century: How It Has Changed

When I was a younger man in the workforce, the leadership styles of the Baby Boomer generation were vastly different than they are today. Service leadership is no longer about giving up who you are as a person. These leaders were more likely to kick us out if we didn't do what they told us to do, and we worked hard and then were expected to work harder. If we weren't happy, it was the old mentality of “don't let the door knock on your ass on the way out”.Leadership has since become more collaborative and people-oriented.

Just a few decades ago, autocratic leadership was the norm. Remote work was an abstract idea and managers made important decisions with little or no input from their employees. The focus was on performing tasks in any situation. It was later recognized that the environment plays an important role in the leader-follower dynamic and this belief dominated the situational era. As the name suggests, the situational era focuses on leadership in particular situations, rather than on the traits or behaviors of leaders.

This implies that leaders must be able to assess the context in which they operate and then decide which style will best “fit” the situation. Because the best style depends on the situation, this approach is known as the contingency theory of leadership. Leadership development has since shifted its focus to increasing the capacity of leaders to deal with VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). Over the past twenty years, organizations have moved away from an autocratic leadership style to a more collaborative one, moving from task-oriented to people-oriented. This led to a shift in focus from the characteristics and behaviors of leaders to a more systemic perspective, focusing on leadership as a collective social process that results from the interactions of multiple factors. To this end, developing traits of flexibility to accept challenges, agility to face them easily, and empathy to help others overcome rapidly changing realities have become essential components of successful leadership.

Both transformational leadership and Leader—Member Exchange (LMX) theory state that effective leadership depends on the leader's ability to engage, energize and develop followers. As a result of these changes, new leadership theories have been formulated in an attempt to address the new reality of organizations and companies. This has resulted in newer and more relevant definitions of leader, follower and situation. Employee feedback is often seen as an integral part of decision-making processes, and employee engagement is an important principle of human resource management. As the pace of technological and business change can only be expected to increase in the future, so too will our understanding of effective leadership continue to evolve.

Edna Freemon
Edna Freemon

Freelance coffee lover. Friendly pop culture buff. Music maven. Professional twitter maven. Unapologetic zombie junkie. Lifelong food lover.

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