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Alison Galbraith

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21st Century leadership: How to meet modern business challenges


Allison Galbraith looks at the leadership skills and approaches best suited to the 21st Century and the best ways to develop them.

Our view on what makes a great leader and the best leadership approaches to adopt has changed over time, partly as research has come up with new findings, but also (particularly since the beginning of the 21st Century), to meet the demands of the ever-changing global market.

What makes a leader?

In the past, leadership was considered an art – a skill some were born with. The rest of us could only stand on the side lines and watch in wonder. As we moved in to the 20th century, we started to think that leaders were less about character and more about situations. So you could be an effective leader in one situation but not in another. Nowadays we see leadership more as a set of behaviours that, whilst some have a natural flair for, can be taught.

Leadership approaches

As far as leadership approaches go, many organisations adopted a directive approach where an employee presents a problem and their boss tells them what to do. More recently, there has been a move towards people making their own decisions, which is more empowering and keeps people engaged. Much research has been carried out which backs up this approach, including a 2012 Chartered Management survey called ‘Organisations of the Future: Designed to Win’.

This showed that a key driver of high performing companies is to have an empowered and engaged workforce. Consequently, there has been a move to adopt a coaching approach, where, rather than telling people what to do, we ask them what ideas they might have. Using their ideas gives that sense of empowerment and engagement. This modern approach to leadership has its roots in a couple of well-established theories.

The first is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (A Theory of Human Motivation – Abraham H Maslow. Published by Black Curtain Press) which suggests that people have an inherent need to feel respected and often look to their workplace to find that.

The second is McGregor’s Theory X and Y (The Human Side of Enterprise – Douglas McGregor. Published by McGraw Hill) which describe two models of workplace motivation. Theory X states that people prefer to be directed and have little appetite for creative problem solving. Theory Y states that the capacity for creative problem solving lies within the organisation itself and not just at the top. Also, that people can be creative at work if properly motivated. McGregor believed that Theory Y managers are more likely than Theory X managers to develop trust - crucial to that feeling of empowerment and engagement.

So we see that leadership is a set of behaviours that can be taught and that the most productive approach is to empower employees by motivating them. And the way to motivate them is to adopt a coaching approach which satisfies the need for respect and self-esteem.

What’s new for the 21st Century?

I believe there are some new factors to take into account which influence the best leadership approaches for the 21st Century:

  • An increasingly educated workforce less likely to accept a ‘tell’ approach drives the need to continue employee empowerment

  • Increasing process automation which means that human involvement is more often about problem solving rather than processing

  • Pace of change which continues to speed up along with the need to make quicker decisions

  • IT – access to more detailed and readily available data means we have more complex decisions to make more often

  • Global influences - new technology allows more companies to compete globally and from an economic, political and climate perspective: the world is a more volatile place. So, there are a higher proportion of organisations exposed to global volatility

Characteristics of leadership in the 21st Century

To meet these new marketplace demands, 21st Century leaders should consider equipping themselves with some additional skills. Abilities to:

  • Make fast decisions from complex and sophisticated data
  • Work with empowered teams
  • Change rapidly in response to market demands
  • Work in a more collaborative way

And here are my tips on what will help you develop those necessary characteristics:

  • Look after yourself. You need to be physically and mentally strong to deal with everything that’s coming at you. So sleep, exercise, eat healthily, and do what you need to keep your brain clear.

  • Be an expert communicator. You need to get your point across quickly and in a way that your employees buy into. You also need to be an expert listener, of your team and your customers.

  • Get feedback. Constantly. From your team and your customers. You need to know what is going on in the market place so that you can make any changes required.

  • Develop your intuition for quick and effective decision making.

  • Focus. In his recent book, ‘FOCUS - the hidden driver of excellence’, the psychologist Daniel Goleman maintains that modern leaders need three kinds of focus:-

    1. Inner focus for self-awareness allowing you to stay calm, maximise your intuition and not be side-tracked from your main goal. A good way to do this is to practice mindfulness – an attention strengthening exercise (Mindfulness for Beginners – Jon Kabat-Zinn. Published by Sounds True Inc).

    2. Focus on others for empathy - the basis for many business relationship skills – collaboration, persuasion, influence, teamwork. A good way to develop this is to use a coach.

    3. Systems awareness. An outer focus or the ability to understand larger forces – economic or new technologies, whatever is impacting your organisation. You can only think strategically if you have awareness of larger forces. You can develop this by working with a mentor, someone who has more experience than you.

Leading in the 21st Century is clearly not for the faint hearted but if you can develop some of these new skills, your performance as a leader and your enjoyment of the role will be greatly enhanced.

Allison Galbraith heads up Macintosh Wright, a specialist leadership coaching and mentoring organisation which focusses on bringing out the best in business leaders, their teams and the businesses they run using a unique facilitation process called Clean Language – for more information on how the use of Clean Language can help business leaders, go to or


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