Leadership in the 21st Century – How the Leadership Industry is Failing


Roubeeni Mohan


3 min read

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The field of leadership has been subject to only one dominant paradigm for well over a century. If you are not convinced of this, try an experiment – write down or think about your personal definition of ‘leadership’.

How do you define leadership?

We have conducted this experiment in numerous organisations for over 25 years. Interestingly, no one defines ‘leadership’. The definitions are always descriptions of leadership skills and abilities or statements about the qualities and characteristics of a leader. We can confidently predict that your personal definition of leadership was also a description of a leader. A paradigm that puts the leader at the centre of leadership is equivalent to putting the earth at the centre of the universe.

Today, most managers are under the influence of the industrial paradigm of leadership and consequently find themselves spending most of their time doing what they least understand. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that this industrial leader-centric conceptualisation or mental model of leadership is universal.

Sadly, the leader-centric perspective has restricted the scope of leadership research and limited the effectiveness of leader development.

It is important to note that the field of leadership has been severely criticised for well over half a century primarily because it consistently fails to clarify the nature of leadership and distinguish between leadership and the leader. Most recently, the commercial enterprise of leadership training has also come under intense scrutiny with numerous studies confirming the ineffectiveness of conventional leadership training programmes.

A billion-dollar industry

It is estimated that leadership is a USD50 billion annual global industry. In the US, leadership training expenditures are approximately USD15 billion annually and have increased an average of 12 per cent annually over the past few years. After a quarter century of escalating expenditures and increasing attendance in leadership courses, seminars, workshops and in-house programmes, there is little evidence that leadership training has had any appreciable effect.

This is partly due to the fact that most leadership training offers prescriptions based on platitudes instead of principles. Platitudes naturally resonate with people because they either confirm what they already know or serve to simplify theories and concepts for their consumption. Clearly, leadership is now a major commercial enterprise that appears to have little interest in understanding the true nature of the dynamic social phenomenon we call leadership or differentiating between management and leadership.

READ: The Fine Line Between Leadership And Power

Where do we go from here?

Traditional leadership is failing because of its obsession with the ‘leader’ and its focus on leader personality, style and competencies. Ever increasing numbers of executives, managers and supervisors are becoming critical of conventional leadership training courses. They are dissatisfied and disillusioned with ‘off-the-shelf’ and ‘out-of-the-box’ leadership programmes that simply teach the behavioural attributes of one or more of today’s countless leadership models.

There is an increasing awareness within the leadership industry that research has stagnated, and leadership training is failing to develop leaders for the 21st century. But in a ‘circle the wagons’ response, the academic establishment and commercial complex focus on reinventing the leader instead of reconceptualising leadership. Fortunately, the leadership construct is being redefined, reconceptualised and revolutionised although most people are not aware of it. As the leadership paradigm is changing, so too must leadership education and development.

Contemporary leadership

Contemporary (postindustrial) leadership development gets below the surface level of a leader’s personality, style and behaviour. It uniquely focuses on the leader’s deep underlying assumptions, beliefs and motives – the thoughts that determine and drive their behaviours. It also exposes and debunks long-held and popular management myths about people, human nature, change and organisational culture.

READ: Do You Know Who You Are?

Empirical research conclusively demonstrates that to change the way we lead, we must first change the way we think about leading and supplant management myths with profound knowledge based on theory. During this paradigm shift, ideas of leadership and leader development must change in tandem. When thinking about how to develop leaders, it matters what leadership is assumed to be. Models of leadership in which one person is identified as the leader and others are characterised as followers are no longer adequate and appropriate in this new economic era.

We must challenge the central orthodoxy in the field of conventional leadership development and help organisations transform their cultures one leader at a time. This can be accomplished by exposing participants to contemporary leadership concepts, helping them discover how to internalise principles at the motive level, and supporting them to challenge and change the assumptions that determine their beliefs and influence their behaviours.

In the new economic era of the 21st century, we must focus on overcoming the gravitational pull of the leader-centric paradigm, ad contributing to the development of a more sophisticated understanding of leadership as a collaborative social phenomenon.

Terry and Matt are co-founders and directors of the Institute for Postindustrial Leadership at the University of Indianapolis. The Institute of Postindustrial Leadership is committed to advancing the understanding and practice of these postindustrial leadership principles, developing leaders and collaborators, and building leadership cultures and communities while empowering them to address their wants and needs in a post-industrial century society. To connect with the authors, send an email to us at editor@leaderonomics.com.

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