What does 21st century leadership have to do with the Great Resignation?

21st century leadership

In the past year, I have been talking about 21st century leadership, what it is, what it is not, and what the traits are for good leaders. The newly developed (and still developing) event in Europe is an excellent case study of 21st century leadership (vs. 20th century).

Let’s do a quick recap with the case study that is happening in Europe in mind. We mentioned that, unlike the 20th century, 21st century managers should not be:

  1. Micromanaging
  2. Parenting little children
  3. Empire building
  4. Wanting to do things in their specific way

Instead, here’s what 21st century leaders do:

  1. Leaders help others to be and do what they think is not possible. 
  2. Leaders embrace complexity and creativity in knowledge work.
  3. Leaders empower people without telling them they’re empowered.

We also busted some myths about 21st century leadership:

  1. Leaders don’t need titles or power to lead.
  2. Leaders are not experts. They create a space where teams can come together and shine. 
  3. Leaders are not necessarily natural born leaders.

We discussed what the foundations of good 21st century leaders are as well:

  1. Integrity
  2. Character
  3. Hard work 
  4. Great communicators
  5. Transparency

Leadership is all about people. It’s time we understand the human side of business. Capabilities like empathy, active listening, self-awareness and awareness of what happens in the team are must-haves. Trust and psychological safety are prerequisites and they will come when we have the traits that we listed above. Unfortunately, the pandemic exposed the many organizations lacking these human centric leadership skills and cultures, contributing to the record levels of employees quitting throughout the US, aka the Great Resignation.

So, how do we find leaders like that? By developing them. However, existing programs are too focused on management and leading with formal authority. 21st century leaders need to learn how to lead without having formal authority. They also need to learn how to deal with new challenges creatively and effectively in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. On top of that, they need to adjust to new technologies easily. 21st century leadership development needs to put much more focus on building interpersonal skills, encouraging entrepreneurial opportunism, and continuous learning. It is vital that we revamp the leadership programs in business schools and the development programs inside organizations.

The path of leadership is an individual journey of exploration, constantly taking advantage of new opportunities to grow and learn in real-world challenges. This is far more experimental than in the past, and there are no pre-cut-out career paths. It requires patience and mentors who really care. After all, you cannot become a good leader unless you care about people. Nor can one develop leaders without caring for them. They are people too.

When we have leaders like that, great cultures – where success is valued and people are appreciated – will follow suit. The organizations with great cultures are the ones that come out ahead in the talent race, regardless of how the world changes. Today, we need good leaders more than ever!


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