Transforming Leadership to Shape the Future

Strategic Leadership Institute

P.O. Box 14137, Sinoville
Pretoria, 0129
+27 (12) 567-6512
+27 82 925 4125

Leading the 4th Revolution: 6 Ways in Which Leadership Has Changed in the 21st Century

29/02/2012 12:02


We are currently living in the 4th Revolution – a strange and unpredictable period where the interaction between information and communication technologies has created a snowball-effect causing change to literally become the only constant. Sociologists distinguish three previous revolutions which completely changed the way humans live: the agrarian revolution, the printing revolution, and the industrialrevolution. However, the impact of the 4th and current revolution – also referred to as the information or technological revolution – will most probably outweigh that of all its predecessors as it is causing simultaneous changes in just about every sphere of human existence.


While the rate of change is still increasing exponentially as new technology and new innovations are constantly feeding each other, one of the areas in which we face new challenges and opportunities is the practice of leadership. In short this means that the volatile global playing field no longer lends itself to self-serving autocrats wielding all the power from the top of hierarchical and inflexible organizational towers. Today’s leaders need to be able to motivate, empower, collaborate and bring out the best in their followers while at the same time keeping an eye on the horizon to steer the proverbial ship towards their future of choice. Richard Daft, organizational behavior and management expert, identified six distinct changes in the purpose and function of 21st Century leadership which are completely changing our definition of what it takes to lead effectively:


In the past, leaders could generally remain successful by maintaining a steady course, relying on their own knowledge, skills, past experiences and established modus operandi. Organizational systems were mostly mechanistic (highly formalized andcentralized and characterized by clear rules and bureaucratic procedures), and the future was relatively predictable due to the fact that change occured mostly as slow linear process.

While this was acceptable in the stable conditions of the middle to late 20th century, mechanistic organizations started to struggle to adapt and keep up when the rate of change increased and became irregular. Today such organizations and stability-focused leadership run a very serious risk of being completely left behind due to their inability to adapt and stay abreast of the constant change. As change and crisis management becomes the norm, leaders now need to make a mindshift and see change as a potential sources of energy and self-renewal and not as a threat. The best leaders now know that the benefits once associated with stability are a myth; and that when things do not change, they die. This means that today’s leaders need to be effective in managing constructive change in themselves, their followers and their organizations.


The first large, centrally-owned companies which came into existence in Europe and America during the Industrial Revolution mostly depended on strict control, structured and detailed job descriptions, and powerful, often authoritarian leadership to stay on course. Leaders or managers wielded all the power while workers were expected to do what they were told, and not to think about it too much.

In today’s fast-changing global environment, most employees are no longer just keeping machines running eight or ten hours per day. Information, rather than tangible assets such as machinery and buildings, is progressively becoming the main financial bases for today’s economy. Human knowledge has thus become the crucial dynamic for production, which means that success depends to a large extend on the intellectual competence of employees.

We now know from research that strict control and rigidity suppresses employeecommitment, morale, innovation and motivation; which in turn produce weak outcomes for the organization. The new challenge for leaders is therefore to guide followers in a manner that would motivate them, increase their commitment to the organization and make their knowledge and skills readily available to the organization. An important aspect of this new leadership role is to increase employee involvement, which includes employee participation in decision-making processes. Leaders need to coordinate, motivate, develop, equip and empower rather than rule. By focusing on the follower’s personal development, which includes his or her general well-being, level of training and commitment to the organization, the leader builds the company by building people.


Closely related to the change towards empowering leadership, has been a change towards collaboration and partnership, as opposed to the old model of competition and conflict. In the past, many organizations not only encouraged competition between themselves and their external competitors, but they also encouraged internal competition and hostility.


Now, horizontal( as opposed to older vertical) organizational structures are breaking down boundaries between departments or units. Many organizations have grasped the value of proper knowledge management, which means that instead of keeping information for oneself, it is shared to everyone’s benefit. Compromise, cooperation and sharing is recognized as strategies to reach goals faster.

With this shift towards greater collaboration – also between different organizations – leaders are required to manage and coordinate the interaction between different units or departments, as well as the sharing of information. The leadership role has changed from being an aggressive general to a coordinator that seeks collaboration from which everyone can benefit. In this changed setting, being able to get along with and lead individuals and groups with sometimes radically different worldviews and values has become a key leadership requirement.


In the past, organizational systems and structures were designed to attain uniformity, division and specialization. People with similar training, skills, abilities, values andworldviews were commonly grouped together in separate departments such as accounting, sales and marketing, or communication. The belief was that such specialized homogenous groups could get along and communicate easier and could focus on common goals or purposes more effectively.

However, in a fast-changing environment, uniformity makes adapting to change very difficult. To stay effective, many organizations are now intentionally pursuing diversity. In this manner, a diverse pool of talents, personalities and abilities are grouped together to form a flexible unit which is able to adapt to rapid changes in a multinational environment. To do so effectively requires culturally intellegent leaders who understand and embrace the value of diversity and who are able to lead people with different abilities, skills, personalities and worldviews.


In the highly individualistic and ambitious capitalist Western society, success had traditionally been measured in personal achievement. This also applied to leadership as leaders were often rated according to their individual achievements and successes. However, a major shift in leader mindset has been occurring since the start of the 21stCentury and particularly so after the leadership failures which contributed to the 2008 economic recession. The focus is changing from a self-centered egoistic mindset to a values-based, “higher purpose” approach.

Leaders are now increasingly stressing the importance of accountability, integrity, and personal responsibility. The focus is shifting from serving the leader’s own interests to serving the interests of employees, customers, the organization, society and the environment. Where so-called “successful” leaders of the past were often arrogant and openly set on serving their own best interest by doing whatever it took, leadership now increasingly requires modeling values such as fairness, integrity, mutual respect, honesty, kindness, morality, credibility and accountability.

6. From HERO to HUMBLE

The sixth and final shift that has been occurring in the purpose and function of leadership has to do with the “great man”, larger-than-life Hero-leader of the past being replaced with a humble, hard-working and often “behind the scenes” leader. These new brand of leaders’ strategies is to develop their organizations by developing and empowering their followers. They often place the needs and interests of their followers above their own and are not threatened when their followers excell.

Two leadership models are increasingly coming into play as a result: transformational leadership and servant leadership. In transformationallLeadership, the leader transforms the personal values of followers by creating an environment where (trusting) relationships can be formed in order to forge and pursue a common goal or vision. In this manner, followers are motivated to put personal interests aside and focus on what is best for the group. This leadership style is very effective to achieve radical change over a relatively short period of time. Although transformational leaders are thus engaged in a relationship with their followers, their ultimate goal remain to pursue the vision in order to benefit or improve the organization.

Servant leaders also focus on followers. However, by strict definition their primary motivation is concern for the overall wellbeing of the followers, and not necessarily to use the leader-follower relationship to achieve better results for the organization. The servant hood of the leader could also be extended to customers, shareholders, and the general public.

  • Are you and your leadership team ready and able to meet the challenges of leadership in the 21st Century? The Strategic Leadership Institute offers leadership development and corporate leadership training and coaching at various levels. Contact us for more information or visit our website to see how we can assist in your journey as a leader in the 4th Revolution!