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Redefining leadership for the 21st century

Rapid and significant changes, mainly driven by technology, characterize our society today. Our communities are increasingly diverse. We have become global citizens. The internet paved the way for instant communication across international borders.

What do these changes mean for leadership? Are our leadership models inclusive? Do they reflect the diversity of our leaders and the organizations and communities in which they lead?


In my view, No! We omit attention to diversity in our leadership research, training, practice, and policy. We continue to privilege leadership styles typical of those already there—most often white, Western, heterosexual men (Chin, 2010).


It is time for us to reexamine leadership for the 21st century—especially if we are to prepare our leaders to lead a diverse workforce and serve a diverse clientele.

What will we teach our future leaders?


Command and control styles of leadership were popular during the early part of the 20th century. During World War II, we celebrated military and political leaders for their authoritative, take-charge, assertive, and charismatic leadership styles.


As we evolved to a post-colonial age, in which former colonized nations began to seek autonomy from their “oppressors,” and to a post-industrial age that shifted our emphasis from assembly line production of goods to a digital age of producing information and services, other forms of leadership emerged.


Servant leadership emerged as marginalized and minority groups began to demand equity during the height of the Civil Rights, Women, and Peace Movements of the 1960s; leaders now eschewed power in favor of empowerment and service to their followers.


Transformational leadership emphasizing vision, change, and inspiration soon became popular as society grappled with the rapid change due to technological advances in the digital age. We wanted leaders to motivate and lead us forward.


Ethical and authentic leadership soon emerged at the beginning of the 21st century when we were challenged at the core on our values of integrity. This was evidenced in the 2001 Enron scandal over fraudulent auditing practices and financial reporting, leading to Enron’s bankruptcy and the dissolution of Arthur Andersen, one of the five largest accounting firms in the world. We now wanted leaders who were ethical in their practices and authentic about who they were to engender our trust.


Despite the evolution of these different forms of leadership, however, our leadership models have not kept pace with how to lead in an increasingly diverse and global society.

Chin and Trimble (2014) examine this in Diversity and Leadership about how culture and diversity matters in leadership. Our research is finding that social identities and lived experiences of diverse leaders shape how we lead.


So what will we teach our future leaders? We need to teach future leaders how diverse leadership is effective and relevant in an increasingly global and diverse world; the emphasis will not be on military power, acquisition of colonies, or the US bringing their leadership and control to global markets.


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Rather, leadership will be based on interpersonal relationships, negotiation of economic resources in a global market, multinational coalitions in which diversity and difference matters, and equity across partners where the US or Western perspective may not be the dominant one.


What do you want in a leader?


Who best can lead in today’s global and diverse world? Must our leaders look like us and share our beliefs and values? The importance of diversity in our lives, communities, and workplaces has simply not infused our understanding of leadership (Chin, 2013, Ospina & Foldy, 2009).


Our theories on leadership have neglected differences in access to leadership positions and in how culture and diversity influence the exercise of leadership. The GLOBE studies (House et al, 2004), one of the comprehensive cross-cultural studies of leadership, is simply not about diversity as it reinforces country profiles which presume singular prototypes within countries, and endorses a value-based/charismatic leadership as near universal. It reflects how we often train our leaders to conform to a prototypic leader that mirror those already in leadership positions (Den Hartog & Dickson, 2004).


Currently, our “rules” about what is good leadership or who are good leaders are often narrow and culturally specific, allowing little room for diversity within leadership ranks. Disparities in the representation of women and racial and ethnic minorities within the ranks of leadership in corporate, higher education, and political sectors attests to this.

Even when women and minorities enter these hallowed ranks of leadership, evidence shows that they often become just like the leaders who are there (Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 2006). As a result, our leadership models reinforce the values held by the prevailing dominant group.


In a global and diverse world, we need to broaden our notions of effective leadership styles to lead to greater intergroup and intercultural understanding. We need to challenge our existing notions of who is and can be a leader. We need to have our leaders practice more inclusive and diverse forms of leadership.

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