Saturday, April 17, 2010

What is 21st Century Leadership?

I started this blog in 2009 to explore with an understanding and practice of leadership for the 21st century with good intentions of posting regularly. Thirteen months later I am back with renewed commitment to foster a conversation of what kind of leadership is needed in our world today. While the invitation still stands, to share your ideas, questions, experiences, and stories here about leadership in the 21st century, I realize there is plenty for me to contribute to this exploration.

For one, I have been active thinking and writing about leadership and leadership development, particularly in what I have been calling 21st Century Leadership. Not meant to be another theory or kind of leadership but a term intended to represent an inquiry into the kind of leadership needed for today's world, and how to develop in people and the social organizations to which they belong. There are others who use the phrase "leadership for the 21st century" or "twenty first century leadership." One notable example is a leadership program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Here in our MA in Leadership program at Saint Mary's College we have been working with this phrase since our inception in 2001. Moved by the call from Joseph Rost in his 1991 book "Leadership for the Twenty-first Century" to develop leadership capacity in an expanded paradigm of leadership, our program was founded. For past eight years we have not only sought to educate people in such a leadership but also to inquire into how to understand and practice it.

Here is how I describe 21st Century Leadership:

Broadly speaking, leadership can be viewed as our individual and collective response to change the world for the better. And given today’s highly interdependent world, full of enormous complexity, accelerating change, and unforeseen and unprecedented events, an understanding and practice of leadership responsive to this world is needed.

21st Century Leadership is a perspective of leadership intended to respond to the unique challenges and opportunities of today’s world. Reflective of an expanded paradigm of leadership, it draws upon and integrates theories and practices from a wide range of disciplines and traditions to foster practical knowledge and transformative change in service of the world.

The expression of this contemporary perspective of leadership incorporates a full spectrum of values, and fosters a wide range of capacities, competencies, and skills, which are enacted in the various spheres of life in context-specific ways. These include but are not limited to: critical, creative and systems thinking, self-awareness, communication and dialogue, social and cultural intelligence, and facilitation of team and collaborative processes. To develop this perspective of leadership development both an inward and outward orientation is required involving the whole person engaged with the whole system, and involves the whole person and the whole system.

More than the behaviors, traits and styles of individuals, 21st Century Leadership views leadership as a property of any social network. Not solely the domain of those “in charge, ” leadership is something in which everyone participates. While complementing management and administrative functions, leadership is a distinct dimension of organizational life, and its development requires its own focus of attention.

In summary, 21st Century Leadership is a multidimensional and integrative view of leadership that is based in relationships. Through shared purposes and aspirations it brings forward new ways of being, knowing and doing, respecting the developmental nature of the human life. It is oriented toward being inclusive, collaborative, and of service, to individuals, the social good, and ecological sustainability.

Next post: what actually gets developed in leadership development?

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