The 21st Century Leadership

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The tough get going when the going gets difficult. This adage has never been more true in all of human history than it is in the world of our generation. The problems that humanity is confronting in the twenty-first century are unheard-of. The world is faced with overwhelming problems that affect every part of civilization. challenges related to the economics, social structure, technology, and climate, to name a few. There needs to be a new generation of leaders who are adequately skilled to deliver the great leadership that the world so desperately needs in order to get through these difficult times. This paper therefore aims to analyze the key issues in relation to leadership in the 21st century. The focus shall be mainly on both political and corporate leadership. Some of the issues to be addressed are, the challenges facing the 21st century leader, factors of change for the 21st century leadership and the core competences for leadership. Eventually the paper shall address the theory of leadership, leadership in management and issues regarding gender and leadership.

Highlighting the challenges facing the 21st century leaders will put in perspective the operating environment in which they find themselves.

Information Technology Challenge

To begin with is the challenge of technology. Humanity has progressed from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution and now in the 21st century is in the era of the information revolution. This revolution is driven by the amazing computing power with computers being networked over global telecom highways. This interconnectivity has led to the use of information technology in virtually every sector of human activity. Whether it is communication, banking, trading, learning and teaching, entertainment, socializing, government or management, every sector has been impacted by information technology (Kumar, 2008).

Factors of change and competences required of leaders.

The world economy is mainly dominated and run by corporations. Information technology’s impact on individual corporations’ performance cumulatively therefore eventually reflects the impact on the global economy. A report by Delloite, a global financial consulting firm, states that, with the digital era here to stay, the organizations that fail to embrace the opportunity risk joining the old-economy organizations that have fallen by the wayside (Delloite, 2014). In view of this, it is therefore of great concern to corporate leaders that they evaluate themselves and their organizations in a manner to ensure not only survival but also prosperity in the digital era. In order to achieve this, an understanding of the factors causing the change is key, upon which the leadership of such entities has to seek to acquire and inculcate the necessary skills to drive their agenda.

One factor causing the change has been the ease of information flow. Delloite notes that the organizations that are thriving in the digital economy have adopted loose hierarchies in which responsibility sits closer to where decisions have effect (Delloite, 2014). To adapt to this change, corporate leadership has to be more fluid with leaders requiring competences such as flexibility and dynamism. This way they would be able to fit into the culture that goes with digitization. This form of leadership whereby it is leadership for specific tasks and projects sharply contrasts with the traditional form of hierarchal arrangements of management. The 21st century leader requires a much broader and comprehensive set of skills as opposed to the traditional corporate leader.

Many government leaders in the world support their own interests, those of the corporations and political groups that supported them financially and politically for their elections (Buttonwood, 2016). In addition to that, many of their policies focused mainly on short-term objectives for quick results and neglected to address difficult problems that may even be more harmful for the society in the long-term (Buttonwood, 2016).

Many of those poor policies made in the past have resulted in problems that are manifesting in this 21st century. However, many who made those policies are no longer in leadership but rather the 21st century leaders have to contend with and solve the problems resulting from the choices of their predecessors. Still, those of the current generation that have stuck to the inappropriate contemporary leadership practices, have faced resistance due to the ease of mobilization of people which is so easy and fast in the current computer-literate generation. This has been facilitated by information technology revolution, with a large number of people having gadgets such as smart phones in their hands hence the social media being a key platform. Outwardly, the results have been phenomenal. The protesters in Spain were outraged by the high rate of unemployment. The “Occupy Wall Street” movements in the United States were even louder in expressing their anger and dismayed with the policies of the current leaders. The Arab spring characterized by people resisting and opposing the policies of dictatorial leaders led to the most obvious manifestation, cutting across Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan (Asim & Kamil, 2013).

Accordingly, for the 21st century leader to be up to the task, he ought to have or develop some key competences and skills. He needs to employ strategic leadership, defined as a process of developing shared vision, analyzing the internal and external environment, designing and implementing strategies for solving problems and satisfying follower’s needs. Most successful leaders used some or most of the elements of this process (Buttonwood, 2016). For the success of this strategy however, there leader needs to possess certain qualities as most leadership studies suggest that successful leadership outcomes mainly depend on the style and qualities of leaders. According to Locke, qualities of a leader include a broad and deep intellectual intelligence (Locke,1991). The 21st century leader therefore needs to be smart and educated; having substantial knowledge in the emerging technological issues such the use of social media, research and communication. He also needs to have a high level of emotional intelligence. Studies point out that the emotional intelligence of leaders’ ability to perceive, identify, understand and manage emotions such as anger, fear and love in self and followers are important for leadership success. Visionary and democratic leadership is another crucial skill as well since it augers well with the much freer and informed society of the 21st century. Armed with these set of skills the leadership would then be able to rise to the occasion and ably deal with the challenges of their generation (Asim & Kamil, 2013).

Economic Challenge

The changing and tough economic environment of the 21st century has presented a significant challenge to the political leadership. Buttonwood in saying that political power follows economic power argues that Political power and economic power are so intricately linked that the direction taken by any affects the other. One such challenge was the debt crisis of 2007 and 2008. Its destabilizing nature affected very many people, who looked upon and expected their political leaders to somehow find a solution. Another challenge is globalization. The high level of integration means that voters are affected by issues that are beyond their border, again presenting a challenge to the leaders whose jurisdiction and impact of their policies is limited to within their borders. As a result, the politicians may have to campaign at the national level, making promises that global factors may prevent them from keeping (Buttonwood, 2016).

The corporate leadership also grapples with economic challenges of this century. Research and development is one such challenge. Companies conduct and implement strategies to achieve their objectives, they may struggle to keep up with the fast-changing technologies. Eventually they end up incurring high costs implementing new systems sometimes even before the old ones realize their economic potential, all in a bid to remain up to date. Challenges such as the financial crisis also resulted in reduced investment by shareholders hence the markets remained illiquid.

Competencies required of leaders

According to (Rosssmith2014) some of the skills required of corporate and economic leaders in this era are: Communication; this entails listening, speaking and aligning messages to and from diverse audiences. Team building and collaboration is another skill demonstrated by the ability to align people with diverse experiences into high-performing units. Innovation and operating in ambiguity is also a key competence that enables one to identify opportunities that can improve efficiency. Diversity awareness is also crucial since if harnessed, diversity can create massive potential. Understanding the 21st century customer is also profoundly important and requires one to stay close to customers to be able to innovate on their behalf.

Climate Challenge

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental report Panel on Climate Change report of 2014, the atmosphere is getting hotter and the oceans are also getting hotter and more acidic. The report further says that the cause of this change is the high levels of carbon dioxide emissions and other gases such as methane (Fischetti, 2014). The impact is so much that the resulting global warming leads to catastrophes such as floods and fatal heat waves. This is a challenge to all the global leaders since this adverse climate change threatens the very existence of the human race. The report states that if no interventions are taken, the earth’s temperature would rise by four degrees by the year 2100 (Fischetti, 2014). Further still, the corporate leaders have a big challenge in their hands since their corporations are responsible for the emission of the gases. Companies such as the oil and manufacturing emit carbon dioxide that eventually ends up in the atmosphere.

Competencies required of Leaders

According to the Association of Climate Change Officers, key leaders in the fight against climate change need skills such as: Foundational knowledge and skills. These include science literacy, environmental literacy, and knowledge of the policy landscape and management acumen. Another set of skills needed is organizational knowledge and experience. Such skills include strategic planning, decision-making, compliance, enterprise risk management, asset management, the management of value and supply chains and corporate social responsibility. A third set of skills is strategic execution competences. These are largely skills-based and include supporting organizational change, helping to mitigate risk and engaging stakeholders (Association of Climate Change Officers, n.d.).

Security Challenge

The security challenges of the 21st century are much more different from other times in history. Since the 9/11 attack, the world has seen an alarming rise in what is called “trans-national threats”-those that emanate less from confrontations between states, but from terrorism, organized crime smuggling of drugs and arms and cybercrime. In addition to that, it is worth noting that the nature of violent conflict has shifted in recent decades, from the domain of states to internal struggles embroiling noncombatants in prolonged instability.

Competencies required of leaders

Key skills required of leaders in dealing with the security threats of the 21st century are; composer and diplomacy especially in dealing with the very real threat of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Ability to adopt is another skill necessary as it ensures continued improvement in capacity to handle and eliminate security threats. This is also crucial for corporate leaders who have to contend with the threat of cyber-attacks and corporate espionage (Smith, 2015).

Change in Leadership Theory

There is absolutely no doubt that there is a continuous change in leadership theory over time. According to Ross, some scientists argue that contemporary leadership practices were changed and they are coming to an end as leadership shifts from individual leaders to followers. Arzies and Barker observed that, it seems that the process of contemporary leadership practices becomes ineffective and starts a new paradigm shift which requires radical changes of political, economic and social policies of an organization and a nation. (Adzie & Barker,1992)

Gender and Leadership

Traditionally, most of the leaders of the world have been men. However in the 21st century, the role of women as leaders has been significantly scaled up.

Research actually suggests that women may even make better leaders of this century due to their unique biological and behavioral characteristics. Women’s brains have a superior ability to use both intuitive and logical thinking in problem solving according to a research by the University of Pennsylvania. When dealing with very complex, uncertain situations, with a large number of variables such as rapidly changing global financial situations and conflicting information from many sources, each with different values and variables and perspectives, this ability to draw more easily on such a combination of the brain’s resources can be invaluable (Chisholm, 2015). In addition to that, women are generally more inclusive than men. As senior leaders, they lean towards involving more people in decision making. Traditionally this was perceived as a weakness or indecision. Now however, it is realized that taking into account a diversity of perspectives is a way of mitigating bias and improving the quality of decisions (Chisholm, 2015). This is very crucial in the 21st century where leadership is result-oriented.


In a nut shell, the 21st century leader finds himself in a unique situation. He faces challenges vastly different from those faced by his predecessors. While some of the challenges may still have been present in the past, they have become much more threatening in this century and had a bigger impact. The challenges include technological, economical, climatic and security. However despite the challenges, this century also presents the leaders with special advantages to deal with the issues at hand- resources that contemporary leadership in the past did not have access to. The very factors that have led to the change resulting in the challenges faced are also the very tools to be used in dealing with the challenges for example information technology and the resulting ease of communication. Therefore the responsibility falls upon the leader to utilize the resources at his disposal to equip himself with the capabilities to handle the challenges of his time. The competences he possesses will ultimately determine the results of his leadership and whether he succeeds or fails.


Asim, S. & Kamil, E., 2013. Courageous Leadership of the 21st Century. s.l.:s.n.

Association of Climate Change Officers, n.d.. Core competencies for climate change officers and professionals, s.l.: ACCO.

Buttonwood, 2016. Political power follows economic power. The Economist, 3 2.

Chisholm, K., 2015. Women's Leadership in the 21st Century, s.l.: Changeboard.

Delloite, 2014. Building your digital DNA. [Online] [Accessed 2 September 2017].

Fischetti, M., 2014. 29 Bullet Points Tell About Climate Challenge. Scientific America.

Forbes, 2010. Multi-National Corporations Strive to Compete, s.l.: Forbes Magazine.

Kumar, S. P., 2008. 21st Century Information Technology Revolution. Ubiquity.

Smith, R. P. K., 2015. Developing 21st Century Global Leaders , s.l.: Society for Human Resource Management.

March 02, 2023

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