Leadership for the 21st Century and Beyond

Leadership is just as important today as it was in the beginning of human history. As far back as history can be determined, there have been people such as Jesus, Moses, Noah, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy, who have been in situations that required the skills of a leader. An example of leadership in action that comes to mind is that of the civil rights marches of the 1950s and 60s. Many years after his death, many believe Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century. Mahatma Gandhi who eschewed nonviolence and cooperation as opposed to revolution and revolt inspired Martin Luther King. Gandhi is considered a leader’s leader because he changed India and influenced the civil rights movement through Dr. King.

History is also replete with women leaders such as Susan B. Anthony, Eva Peron, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Mother Teresa. There are many definitions and theories of what constitutes a leader and leadership. Bass (1990) defined leadership as “an interaction between two or more members of a group that often involves a structuring or restructuring of the situation and the perceptions and expectations of the members and leaders are agents of change whose acts affect other people more than other people’s acts affect them” (p. 19-20). In the past, leadership research examined the individual or environmental perspective, but there have been new theories developed detailing such aspects as behavior, cognition, followers, and groups.

Complexity Leadership

Today’s leaders must be prepared for a complex and challenging environment to live, work, and play in. Presently researchers such as Plowman and Duchon, 2008, Uhl-Bien, Marion, and McKelvey, 2008, and Lichtenstein et al., 2006 have suggested that organizations are Complex Adaptive Systems (CASs) and as such today’s leaders must be equipped very differently to handle many of the challenges they face. Entangled in those complexities are the life-changing decisions organizational leaders such as a Chief Information Officer (CIO), Chief Executive Officer (CEO), and Chief Operating Officer (COO) must make. Executive decisions affect individual and collective parts of an organization and create an atmosphere of innovation, change, and uncertainty at the same time. It is in the complexity of everyday decision making where Complexity leadership theory (CLT) may be able to help today’s executive leaders.

Complexity leadership involves approaching situations from the entirety of the whole organizational perspective and not just from an individual perspective. According to Lichtenstein et al., (2006) the complex leader recognizes that there are links throughout the organization created by small actions that may bring major changes (the butterfly effect) throughout the organizational network or enterprise. Often those changes move the organization forward in a way not imagined by organizational leaders. The complex leader also understands how to cultivate and direct organizational relationships to a desired end (outcome), which is critical to a successful organization. The most important idea behind effective executive decision making and complexity leadership is a change in thinking.

Adaptive Leadership

Complex leaders change how they apply leadership concepts to organizational situations.
Executive decision makers seek credible, current, and factual information. Defined as dynamic, emergent, interactive, interdependent, asymmetrical, and information rich, adaptive leadership allows people, technology, and ideas to emerge from the collective of multiple minds (Lichtenstein and Plowman, 2009). Adaptive leadership also consists of complex network dynamics and tensions that allow leaders the flexibility to make important decisions that ultimately affect organizational outcomes. The importance of the relationship between information, the executive leader, and a CAS is linked to the nature of adaptive leadership. According to Uhl-Bien, Marion, and McKelvey, (2008) adaptive leadership creates an atmosphere for creative ideas, innovation, change, and advancing technology to emerge dynamically from a CAS because of trust, respect, good relationships, and open communications internal and external to an organization.

Adaptive leadership has a social aspect that many leaders, especially executives, are not aware of because technology creates a socially level playing field unimagined before. For example, the Arab Spring that took place across the Middle East and the Occupy Wall Street movement were examples of adaptive leadership where an emergent and interactive dynamic comes out of a social event. According to Schneider and Somers (2006), organizational leaders have to consider the social aspect of the leadership perspective because social movements affect local, global, and contextual dynamics. Today, it is critically important that an executive decision maker understand social dynamics because not understanding the importance of social movements may affect an organization’s ability to adapt to change (organizational outcomes).

This in turn may affect the leaders’ ability to lead the organization through an especially challenging time. An interesting aspect of adaptive leadership is its ability to emerge from “the spaces between agents.” Uhl-Bien, Marion, & McKelvey, 2008, leadership comes from the interaction of multiple elements and not from a single individual. Executive leadership is a complex dynamic with many interactive elements working at the same time. Adaptive leadership and complexity leadership are related because of the necessity for agents, formal and informal groups, and other organizational elements to come together to create interactivity, interdependency, and to some degree conflict (stress and strain). The relationship that emerges from the gathering of different elements of an organization creates a complex adaptive system (CAS) that is nonlinear and unpredictable, but allows for the introduction of change, innovation, and creativity.


In today’s ever-changing world, leaders must be critical thinkers, innovative, and creative. No longer can management operate using the same mindset that Taylor et al. (1911) used to manage. Being an effective decision maker and adapting to the environment and culture of the organization is critical for long-term success.


Bass, B. M., and Stogdill, R. M. (1990). Bass and Stogdill’s handbook of leadership: Theory, research & managerial applications (3rd edition). New York: Free Press.

Lichtenstein, B. B., Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R. Seers, A., Orton, J. D., & Schreiber, C. J. (2006). Complexity leadership theory: An interactive perspective on leading in complex adaptive systems. Emergence, Complexity, and Organization, (8)4, 2-12.

Lichtenstein, B. B., & Plowman, D. A. (2009). The leadership of emergence: A complex systems leadership theory of emergence at successive organizational levels. The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 617-630.
Plowman, D. A., & Duchon, D. (2008). Dispelling the myths about leadership: From cybernetics to emergence. In M. Uhl-Bien & R. Marion (Eds.), In Complexity leadership, Part 1: Conceptual foundations, (p. 129-153). Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing.

Schneider, M. & Somers, M. (2006). Organizations as complex adaptive systems: Implications of complexity theory for leadership research. The Leadership Quarterly, 17, 351-365.
Taylor, F. W. (1911). Principles of scientific management. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., and McKelvey, B. (2008). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. In M. Uhl-Bien & R. Marion (Eds.), In Complexity leadership, Part 1: Conceptual foundations, (p. 185-224). Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing.

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