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A Deep Dive Into Thinking About 21st Century Leadership

I'm currently working with a colleague to create a Professional Learning Community and experience we're calling "Leadership Lab" that we plan to launch in January. As part of the planning, we're thinking very deeply about the skills and attitudes of Leadership that we feel are important. 

This work is opening up a lot of questions for me about the nature of leadership, my own beliefs about what it means to lead and the kind of leader that I want to be. As part of my ongoing plan to do more working out loud, I thought it would be helpful to share some of this thought process here. 

Leader as Hero, Leader as Host

Four years ago I wrote a post about moving from being the hero to being the host, based on the work of Meg Wheatley. Essentially she talks about how America worships heroes--how we are always looking for a hero (i.e. a "leader") who is going to have all the answers and lead us out of our problems.

This breeds passivity and dependency, of course--we turn our problems over to the leader and wait for him/her to figure it out. It also sets up a hierarchy of leaders and followers that leaves large numbers of people on the outside when they should be right in the thick of things. My personal belief is that everyone is a leader and that everyone's job is to help that inner leader emerge. 

Most of the people I work with in other leadership programs have fully assumed the responsibility to be the hero. Many of them love it. These are the people who have a psychological need to be the rescuers (something I suffer from myself).  Sometimes they resent it. Usually they are exhausted by it. But everything they've been told about being a leader has communicated to them that they are the one who is responsible for finding and executing solutions. They operate under the principle that "the buck stops here" and their entire worth as a person is dependent on their ability to be the hero.

This is admirable on some level, but also completely unworkable. We live in a complex, ever-changing world where problems have become so complicated and interwoven that it's impossible for any one person--or even a small group of people--to know the right answers or to be able to "save the day." And frankly, it's too much pressure for most of us. 

Wheatley suggests that the solution is in moving from thinking of leaders as heroes into thinking of leadership as hosting the space for people to come together to discover solutions through meaningful conversations and structured exploration and action. 

There are many things that appeal to me about this notion of leadership, but probably what I think is most important is that this is a non-hierarchical idea of what it means to lead, one that is far more effective for today's networked ways of living and working. When you are focused on hosting space, you are creating opportunities for new relationships, new ideas and new solutions to emerge. This is fundamental in today's society. 

For me, this idea of leader as host has become absolutely CORE to my beliefs about leadership. I start here and build out. 

Leadership as "Doing the Right Things"

Another idea that has been percolating for some time is from Peter Drucker's quote about management vs. leadership:


I have found that many of the conversations I have with people about "leadership" are really questions of management. People are under a lot of organizational pressure to conform to their employer's demands, especially when they are in managerial/supervisory positions. They are obsessed with doing things right--of crossing all the "t's" and dotting all the "i's" and understanding "best practices" in both areas. 

But in all of this work to do things right, they spend very little time thinking about whether or not they are doing the right things. This capacity to step back, to ask better questions, to question assumptions and to make sure that you are working with good information--these are the essence of leadership in my mind, but we consistently lose sight of that. 

As we are developing the Lab concept, finding ways to have people step back from their lives and work to ask this critical question ("Am I doing the right things?") is also core to how I'm thinking about leadership. 

The Skills and Attitudes of 21st Century Leadership

Since we're developing a Professional Learning Community, one of the questions we have to ask is "what are the skills and attitudes of Leadership we want people to be developing?" 

There are several articles and schools of thought that are influencing my thinking here. 

One is Umair Haque's How and Why To Be a Leader (Not a Wannabe).  He makes the case for a new generation of leadership this way:

We’re in the midst of a Great Dereliction — a historic failure of leadership, precisely when we need it most. Hence it’s difficult, looking around, to even remember what leadership is. We’re surrounded by people who are expert at winning — elections, deals, titles, bonuses, bailouts, profit. And often, we’re told: they’re the ones we should look up to — because it’s the spoils and loot that really matter.

But you know and I know: mere winners are not true leaders — not just because gaming broken systems is nothing but an empty charade of living; but because life is not a game. It isn’t about what you have, and how much — but what you do, and why — if you’re to live a life that matters.

His notion that we are venerating the "winners"--people who have figured out how to game broken systems--rings very true to me. If we go back to Drucker's notion of leadership as "doing the right things," then currently we are honoring the managers in our society, not the leaders. 

We are not in need of people who know how to win in systems that are broken. We are in need of people who can create systems that work better for more people. 

Social artistry

Another major influence on my thinking has been the work and reading I've done over the years with social artistry. In going through my notes and bookmarks, I re-found Etienne Wenger's 2009 article on Social Learning Capability. He devotes one of his essays in the article to the idea of social artists as leaders. Many of the points he makes are feeding my own notion of leadership, including:

  • Social artists are leaders who do not invite followership. Instead, they invite participation, drawing people into a learning space that encourages them to find their own internal sense of "leadership" and their best selves. 
  • Social artists don't seek control. They can tolerate chaos, uncertainty and dissension and they can help channel this necessary part of the creative process to generate the energy for new thinking and problem-solving. 
  • Social artists can create environments of high trust and aspirations. These are essential to engaging with complex problems and issues for the long haul.
  • Social artists help people see their best qualities and to do work they never thought was possible. 
  • Social artists are activists--they don't accept the status quo. They are unimpressed by "We've always done it this way" or "We can't change that."
  • Social artists have visions and aspirations, but they are deeply practical, aware of both internal and external obstacles to change and the need to work with those very real barriers. 
  • Social artists are extremely willful. They want to make things happen, but they do so in collaboration, looking for ways to host the right kinds of space to create change. 

All of these skills and qualities seem essential to new notions of leadership, especially in a complex, networked world. As Wenger points out, this is a type of leadership that is more subtle than our typical "hero" ideas, but one that to my mind is much more in tune with how the world is moving. 

Also influencing my thinking are Janna Q. Anderson's ideas of skills for success in a disruptive world. (Thanks to Tanmay Vora for this image) 

Skills for success in a disruptive world


Interwoven in all of this are my own ideas about the 4 Patterns of thriving and resilience--Clarifying, Connecting, Creating, and Coping and also the idea of Sparks and how we help people find and express their inner fire. (Leadership as kindling an inner fire, rather than as filling a vessel).


With all of this as backdrop, these are the skills and attitudes that are beginning to emerge for me as essential to modern leadership: 

  • Hosting space/convening-- “from hero to host”--creating space for  powerful conversations about the things that really matter. This includes using more creative facilitation techniques and the arts as a means of exploration/discussion/expression. It also includes the ability to create space that can tolerate uncertainty and dissension and that will ultimately draw from people their best selves. 
  • Observing and Listening with an open mind and an open heart. Engaging people mind, heart and soul.
  • Asking powerful questions--game-changing questions, questions that challenge our assumptions, questions that create possibility and energy.
  • Constant, self-directed learning
  • Connecting--people, ideas, groups, etc.--ability to get work done through collaborative networks
  • Future-mindedness”--horizon scanning, strategic foresight, looking for possibilities in the problems.
  • “Kindling and fanning an extravagant hope”-- “acts of radical imagination
  • Co-creating with the people we are trying to help (design thinking-empathy, ideating, prototyping, testing)
  • Transparency and “working out loud”--- purposeful discovery, public sharing/reflection on works in progress
  • Media literacies--telling stories, using images, using social media
  • Working in-person and virtually (we are citizens of both the physical world and the digital world and we need to develop competency in both)

These are a work in progress--we are designing the Learning Lab experience in part to test our ideas of these as essential leadership skills. But they are moving me in new directions about my own understanding of what it means to be a leader and how I personally hold space for leadership to emerge in the people around me. 

UPDATED: I'm also reminding myself that part of my need to re-define "leadership" comes from the problems I wrote about in this post a few years ago, We Have a Leadership Problem. And this realization in particular:

at the heart of any notion of leadership is a fundamental power imbalance where the leader wields power that followers do not. 

This is its fundamental flaw. "Leadership" marks some as "special" while others are not. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts, comments, ideas, etc. How do these ideas of leadership resonate with you? What am I missing? 


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Michele, great post! I continue to work with doctoral leadership students working to adapt leadership in a workplace/school/healthcare facility where every member/student/patient has access to the vast storehouse of human knowledge, and personal knowledge management is as important as corporate knowledge management. artists...throw in Jon Husband's concept of wirearchy. You are terms are needed!

Britt--so good to hear from you! Totally agree about the need for personal knowledge management. From a career perspective, I think that's even more important than corporate knowledge management, because your own ability to learn and manage information and knowledge is what you carry with you throughout your career. And yes, wirerarchy--thank you for the reminder about that. I need to take another look at that too.

Nicely done! I applaud the list of leadership traits you have synthesized from all those terrific thought leaders. One additional piece I would recommend you consider is to find a way to specifically talk about the leader's role in supporting learning and development. So many of the qualities you list are part of that, of course. But I see that encouraging and supporting development doesn't even make many leaders' radar, and that is problematic in a lot of ways. I would also recommend following Gianpiero Petriglieri - a thought leader from INSEAD. He writes a lot about humanizing leadership.

GREAT suggestion Catherine to include supporting learning and development as part of leadership. I state it for the individual, but not the responsibility that we have to support learning and development in others. And thanks for the recommendation to check out Gianpiero Petriglieri. Looking at his work it is definitely aligned with what I'm thinking here, so thank you!

HI Michele, great post here. The world is eager for more that connects leadership with hosting - in my view it's a humanitarian as well as an effective response. You might enjoy some of the things we have written at

Thanks, Mark--I'll be taking a look!

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