Leadership in the 21st Century

Subject: Leadership Styles
Pages: 8
Words: 2228
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: PhD


In the 21st century, many organizations are characterized by multicultural, multiracial, multi-gender, and multi-mobility environments that necessitate new approaches to leadership and leading. This multiplicity of personalities and experiences transforms organizational landscapes and calls for new definitions of leadership. In order to effectively traverse complex terrains of modern working environments, 21st-century executives can no longer rely on classical leadership capabilities. This is especially true for intergenerational settings in which leadership dynamics should shape generational consciousness, thereby helping to create age-advantaged and sustainable work environments (Al-Asfour & Lettau 2014). Changing theoretical perspectives on leadership processes in the new millennium have attracted the interest of endowed researchers who wanted to integrate new socio-relational dynamics in academia and practice.

The aim of this paper is to conduct a critical review of 21st-century leadership. The paper will outline new millennium leadership competencies and illustrate how they have been shaped by multiple mediating and moderating factors associated with modern organizational practices. It will be argued that the 21st century is characterized by the bifurcation of leadership competencies, which has resulted from a confluence of technological, societal, and environmental influences.

Concept Overview

The concept of leadership has been critically analyzed by many scholars over the last several decades. Ayub, Manaf, and Hamzah (2014, p. 503) define a leader as “a person with a position of authority who has appointed or assumed power to lead an organization regardless of ability.” It follows that individuals who are expected to harness superior-subordinate dynamics in an organization in order to support its functioning and development are not always capable of directing people in the desired direction. A large body of academic literature on the topic describes leadership as “a behavior, a style, a skill, a process, a responsibility, an experience, a function of management, a position of authority, and influencing relationship, a characteristic, and an ability” (cited in Algahtani, 2014, p. 75). However, neither of these definitions can properly encapsulate the multiplicity of leadership experiences.

Algahtani (2014, p. 75) stresses that leadership should be distinguished from management and defines the former as “the process of influencing a group of individuals to obtain a common goal and to develop a vision.” This definition helps to understand that the main focus of leadership is the inspiration that guides followers towards a vision created by executives. The arrival of the new millennium dramatically changed a set of leadership competencies that are necessary to inspire a modern workforce.

Key Competencies

The portrayal of an Attractive Personal Image

In the new millennium, executives have to pay close attention to the material significations of their identities. A study of the material facet of management conducted by Ford et al. (2017, p. 5) emphasizes the importance of active participation of executives and defines leadership as a “material practice.” From this vantage point, a leader willing to tackle contemporary corporate challenges has to tread the boundary between materialistic and discursive elements of performativity. The emphasis on appearance contained within the study is justified by emotional connotations of aesthetics, which can be used by managers to better control their immediate environment (Ford et al. 2017). The scholars maintain that individuals holding administrative positions who are conscious about their appearance are also capable of assessing others by “extrapolating from appearance to the character” (Ford et al. 2017, p. 9). It follows that 21st-century executives should be able to portray an attractive personal image when they are subjected to the gaze of their colleagues and employees.

Emotional Intelligence

Competency research in the field of leadership indicates that ever-increasing workforce diversity necessitates the development of emotional intelligence competencies (Dabke 2016). Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and accurately appraise one’s own and others’ emotions (Dabke 2016; McCleskey 2014). The connection between emotional competencies and leadership has been investigated by a large number of talented researchers who produced ample evidence pointing to the fact that leadership is an emotional-labor intensive process. It means that in order to effectively lead people towards a certain objective, individuals holding administrative positions should be capable of recognizing behaviorally observable expressions of employees’ inner feelings and thoughts.

The importance of emotional intelligence competencies for leaders varies greatly based on the contextual content of a field, practice, or organization; therefore, outstanding leaders in 21st-century organizations should be able to use this set of cognitive skills as a multivariate instrument. High predictive validity of emotional intelligence as an element of leadership success suggests that organizations interested in improving the diversity and richness of their workforce should be headed by leaders who are capable of understanding multiple personal experiences (Dabke 2016). There is no denying that in an attempt to address underlying issues of the modern business environment, one should rely on empathy, which is an essential component of emotional intelligence.

Despite its comprehensive approach to emotional intelligence, a study conducted by Dabke (2016) fails to acknowledge criticism leveled at the concept. Cherniss, Locke, Antonakis and associates and Salovey among other scholars maintain that the role of emotional intelligence in leadership cannot be properly assessed because of the lack of proper measuring instruments (cited in McCleskey 2014). This point of criticism has to be acknowledged by those who investigate the relationship between the concept and leadership performance.


The 21st-century organizations are characterized by a strong emphasis on self-development. Modern workplace trends require leaders to regularly engage in a self-directed process of developing their organizational adaptability, knowledge, and skills. A study conducted by Reichard et al. (2017) suggests that due to the need to fit into the ever-evolving professional circumstances, leaders of the new millennium have to continuously push boundaries of their self-efficacy and self-regulation. It has to do with the fact that self-efficacious leaders feel more comfortable “assuming responsibility for their own development […] and challenge themselves in order to acquire new knowledge, skills, and abilities” (Reichard et al. 2017, p. 139). It is important to stress that the developmental efficacy of modern executives should not be domain-specific since the need to enact a leadership role is never restricted to a single domain.

The ideas expressed by Reichard et al. (2017) fall in line with notions espoused by other scholars. For example, Bird and Mendenhall (2015) maintain that adaptability is a key trait of individuals who represent modern organizations. Therefore, it can be argued that the capacity to inspire and lead is inextricably intertwined with the capacity to learn.


A wide spectrum of modern leadership experiences is inextricably connected with communication competence. Therefore, many 21st century organizations have used the concept of communicative leadership when referring to communicative behaviors exhibited by outstanding leaders (Catrin, Vernon & Solange, 2014). Communication skills in the context of leadership entail managers having the ability to establish cooperative relationships with their workforce with the help of effective interaction. From this point of view, it can be inferred that reluctant communicators are not successful leaders. This proposition is supported by a large body of academic literature that indicates that communication skills are a valuable predictor of leadership performance (Zulch 2014). However, one should be cognizant of the fact that the concept of communication competence presupposes several language expectations.

Leadership communication competence involves the following skills: listening, writing, reading, and speaking. It has to do with the fact that every corporate communication framework consists of internal and external communication circles that require reliable and responsive interaction. This interaction may come in different forms: proposals, reports, speeches, memos, documents, and interviews among others. It has to be borne in mind that ineffective communication emanates from arrogance, stubbornness, and disorganization (Zulch 2014). Therefore, 21st-century leaders have to steer clear from these disruptive personal qualities, in order to encourage their employees to follow them.

Cultural Intelligence

During the last several decades, the classical paradigm of leadership has changed in order to incorporate cultural intelligence as a critical executive competency. The ever-increasing level of the interconnectedness of business presents modern leaders with the challenge of understanding the characters of different nations and cultures. Cultural intelligence is a “set of skills and traits that allow one to more effectively interact with novel cultural settings” (Eken, Ozturgut & Craven 2014, p. 154). One should distinguish cultural intelligence from behavioral intelligence, which does not involve the diversity of settings (Eken, Ozturgut & Craven 2014). The importance of cultural intelligence for modern leaders is emphasized by the fact that today’s globalized business environment is radically different from that of the past. Therefore, without being able to comprehend and accommodate the heterogeneity of values, beliefs, and perceptions, it is not possible to effectively influence the 21st-century workforce.

Classical Leadership Competencies

Outstanding leaders of the 21st century share many characteristics with their colleagues from the previous century. Classical leadership capabilities and characteristics included energy, resiliency, willingness to take risks, relational skills, flexibility, optimism, and technical and business skills among others (Landis, Hill & Harvey 2014). However, modern working environments require leaders to possess additional competencies and characteristics that were not common for classical leaders. These capabilities and character traits are open-mindednesses, communication, the ability to portray an attractive personal image, emotional intelligence, self-development, cultural interest and sensitivity, and integrity (Mau 2015). The majority of scholarship on the topic shares the sentiment that unlike leaders of the previous century, their modern counterparts have to be able to innovate and engender trust (Mau 2015). Therefore, those who are willing to provide intelligent stewardship in the 21st-century organizational environment should be qualitatively different from individuals that held administrative positions several decades ago.

A large number of studies indicate that cultural adaptability is the essential competence for global leaders (Bird & Mendenhall 2015). The need to navigate global organizational terrains calls for leaders who are able to provide comprehensive and sensitive treatment of unique cultural aspects of their colleagues and employees. Accommodation of cultural differences requires a high level of sophistication, which was not exhibited by leaders of the past.

The emphasis on emotional intelligence is a characteristic of new leadership paradigms, which unlike classical leadership paradigms do not rely on unconditional followership with “little emotional, intellectual or behavioral involvement” of employees (Zhang et al. 2014, p. 5). Modern managers exhibit a predisposition for organic leadership, which is characterized by a high regard for employees’ feelings. In the 21st century, leadership is a democratic process that is not possible without multidimensional motivation (Zhang et al. 2014). Therefore, modern administrators tend to satisfy employees’ emotional needs, thereby achieving engagement of organizational members.

Despite numerous qualitative differences between classical and modern leaders, the two groups of administrators share many similarities allowing them to exert supervisory control over their subordinates. Intelligence, willingness to accept responsibility, task competence, capacity to motivate and assertiveness are key points of overlap between modern and classical executives (Landis, Hill & Harvey 2014). These leadership attributes are determinants of success in a corporate world that allow individuals in power to make effective administrative decisions.

Causes of Change

The transformation of leadership attributes is a gradual process that is mediated and moderated by a wide range of factors. The most powerful force behind the change of leadership characteristics and competencies that have emerged during the literature review is globalization (Wang et al. 2014). An ever-increasing level of global consciousness calls for leaders who are capable of appreciating the cultural multiplicity of their employees and understanding its implications for workforce performance and cohesion.

Another cause of the change is an ongoing social transformation that shapes gender, ethnic, racial, religious, and other elements of workforce composition. As a result of the social drive for a high level of inclusiveness, the concept of leadership has changed to accommodate new working environments. For example, modern leaders recognize the need to eschew traditional gender expectations in order to increase the effectiveness of their teams (Minelgaite-Snaebjornsson et al. 2015). Furthermore, they also try to avoid implicit biases when dealing with heterogeneous workforces.

Scientific change has introduced new modes of interaction, thereby pushing leaders of the 21st century to adjust their communication skills. The emergence of social media has allowed corporate executives to disseminate information with previously unknown efficiency and speed (Lourenco et al. 2014). The global capacity to generate data has also markedly changed, which propels modern leaders to continuously expand their capacity to process information and learn in order to stay abreast of dynamic technological trends. New environmental challenges have also driven leaders of the new millennium to change their administrative approaches (Lourenco et al. 2014). The sense of urgency associated with many environmental issues has facilitated the emergence of leaders who can embed sustainability into the operations of their companies. This capability requires new and radically different leadership measures that were beyond the pale of classical leaders.


The paper has critically reviewed the extant literature on the topic of 21st-century leadership. It has been argued that many characteristics of the previous century’s leaders have been changed by the transformation of institutional power arrangements, the dissolution of social barriers, and the emergence of new technologies. Leaders of the new millennium are characterized by a high level of empathy, emotional intelligence, cultural sensitivity, open-mindedness, honesty, and a drive for self-development among others. Just like their counterparts from the 20th century, modern leaders possess pivotal capabilities such as technical and business skills, energy, resiliency, and persistence. However, the realities of the new century require people holding administrative positions to adopt a global mindset, which presupposes the development of new skills and competencies.

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