The era of authoritarian rule and bureaucratic stagnation has given way to a new era marked by agile and inclusive leadership. This shift signifies a future characterised by innovative, inclusive and forward-thinking leadership approaches.
The significant transformation we're witnessing did not occur suddenly. It’s been a gradual unfolding over an extended period. To fully appreciate this evolution, it is important to delve into the development of leadership theory, which serves as the bedrock for understanding the various eras in leadership.
Leadership theory mirrors changes in our understanding of what makes a great leader. Initially, two prominent approaches led the way: the Great Man theory and Trait theories. The Great Man theory proposed that leaders were born, not made and that certain individuals possessed innate qualities and characteristics that destined them for leadership roles.
Meanwhile, Trait theories sought to identify these inherent leadership traits, suggesting that leaders shared common personality traits, such as intelligence, charisma, and decisiveness.
However, as our understanding of leadership continued to mature, the mid-20th century brought a paradigm shift. The focus shifted from innate traits to observable behaviours and the situational context in which leadership occurred.
This marked the emergence of Behavioural and Contingency theories. Behavioural theories argue that leadership is not solely about one's inherent qualities but could be learned and developed through specific behaviours.
On the other hand, Contingency theories assert that effective leadership depends on the specific context or situation. They emphasised that no single leadership style was universally effective, as different situations required different approaches.
This led to the development of theories such as Fiedler's Contingency Model, which suggested that the effectiveness of a leader depended on the match between their leadership style and the situation.
Over time, other models and theories emerged, including transformational, transactional, and authentic leadership, each offering a unique perspective on what constitutes effective leadership.
Transformational leadership, for instance, emphasises a leader's ability to inspire and motivate their followers, while transactional leadership focuses on maintaining order and achieving specific outcomes through rewards and punishments. Authentic leadership, in contrast, stresses the importance of genuine, ethical, and self-aware leadership.
The new era
Leaders today must adapt and draw from a wide range of theories and concepts to effectively navigate the complexities of modern leadership, which often involve global perspectives, virtual teams, artificial intelligence and ethical considerations. However, fundamentally, the new era of leadership rests on two clear needs: wholeheartedly embracing change, and consistently inspiring and empowering the workforce.
In many organisations, long-established practices and cultural norms can become deeply ingrained, making it challenging to introduce significant changes. Leaders must embrace change and flexibility, no matter how entrenched the status quo may be.
One of the biggest changes that leaders face is the emergence of AI. According to Insider, a recent 2023 survey conducted by IBM, which involved 3,000 executives and focused on generative AI, revealed that 75% of those surveyed believed that this technology could provide their companies with a competitive advantage.
The emergence of generative AI necessitates many strategic and ethical decisions that are difficult to make when we only have predictions and differing opinions to go on. While some like Akash Nigam, the CEO and founder of Genies, an avatar-tools company, told Insider he purchased ChatGPT Plus accounts for all of his employees and encouraged them to use it, other companies, such as JPMorgan and Northrop Grumman, forbid their employees to use the tool because of data security concerns, amongst others.
Neither the potential competitive advantage nor the concerns about data security and possible bias can be ignored, leaving it to individual leaders to make the decisions best for their organisations.
AI is not going to go away, so it is a change that is best embraced by leaders who need to understand what AI offers and generate policies that work with it.
Empowering agile, inclusive teams… and holding them accountable
In today’s dynamic workforce, employees seek more than just a competitive salary. They aspire to fulfilling roles that offer flexibility and personal growth opportunities. They also long to be an integral part of meaningful work, where they not only feel a sense of belonging but can also be celebrated for their unique differences.
Microsoft is a great example of how organisations are transformed by inclusive leadership. In 2014, Satya Nadella assumed the role of CEO at Microsoft, succeeding the former CEO, Steve Ballmer. The previous leadership era was characterised by entrenched hierarchical structures and a rigid pecking order.
Recognising that effective communication is the lifeblood of any successful company, Satya set out to break down the barriers that had long separated different departments and teams at Microsoft. His vision was to create a culture where every employee felt empowered to share ideas, feedback and insights regardless of their role or background.
Apple’s significant efforts in empowering and instilling trust in their employees, enabling them to deliver their best work, is another powerful example. Whilst employing a rigorous form of accountability, Apple cultivated a work culture that prioritises excellence over cost-saving measures, and the results speak for itself.
Embracing this approach involves recognising that the success of any organisation is deeply intertwined with the individual contributions and collective efforts of its workforce. Rather than simply managing employees, leaders must nurture a culture that empowers and motivates them to contribute their best.
However, as in the example set by Apple, crucial to this is having the courage to hold them accountable for their decisions – because there can be no power without responsibility.
Breaking down barriers, fostering empathy and unity, and promoting a growth mindset is the current vital role of leadership in creating a thriving, innovative, and collaborative work environment. This takes a combination of various leadership traits and produces a whole new category of leadership theory that demands that leaders employ various styles and strengths that allow for transformation and growth.