The case for 21st century leadership: Current European case study

Leadership Memo 2022-5

In March, I did a high level case study comparing 21st century leadership and 20th century leadership using the events that are happening in Europe. As the events continue to evolve, let’s see what we can learn from what we’ve seen in the last 2+ months.

Let’s recap what we’ve already compared:

On one side, we have 20th century leadership, command-and-control, micromanaging. On the other side, we have 21st century leadership, decentralized, empowering small dispersed teams to think for themselves.

Let’s look at the results of these two leadership approaches as the events unfold.

The top-down approach of 20th century leadership is ignorant of the situation on the frontline. It blindly pursues a plan. It is unwilling or unable to rethink a failing strategy until much later. The empowering approach of 21st century leadership enables the entire group to stay nimble. It also allows teams to better adapt and react with their own initiatives.

Let’s discuss the two main lessons (key factors) of this 21st century leadership:

1. Distributed decision making

Enabling distributed decision making is essential in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. People working in the frontline can often identify challenges and opportunities more clearly than anyone in the C-suite. Frontline people can also respond to them more rapidly.

So how do leaders enable distributed decision making? Provide a clear vision and intent, then get out of the way and let the workers figure out how to get there. A good example is how David MarquetTurn the Ship Around”.

2. Experimentation

Today’s leaders need to understand that few business strategies survive first contact with today’s rapidly changing, competitive VUCA environment. Even a strategy that is working today may not work tomorrow. So, what should leaders do? Probe, test, and learn instead of blindly following a plan. Create plans that include quick experimentations. Allow the experiment results to inform revision or course correction decisions. Decision making is not a linear process. It is a circular practice.

As the events in Europe continue to unfold, we see that this 21st century leadership is resilient. It is yielding great success – unimaginable success – against all odds. 21st century leadership is what would help companies thrive in the far less dire, but no less chaotic, environment we operate in today.


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