The differences between 20th Century and 21st Century Leaders

Last Thursday evening, I delivered a speech that was a first-time for me. I had never started a talk at 11 pm!

The speech was delivered to Paris, France, for L’Orèal as part of its Luxury Lab – a conference for developing senior leaders.

One of the topics I covered was the difference between a 20th Century Leader and a 21st Century Leader.

I commenced the speech with a quote from Russel Ackoff, Professor Emeritus, Wharton Business School.

“Ages don’t stop and start. One fades in, while the other fades away.”

To understand the characteristics of a 20th Century Leader and how its underlying thinking persists into the 21st Century, it is essential to understand its evolution.

The Industrial Age commenced in Britain in 1760 when ‘machines’ were used to replace handheld tools. Early examples included looms and steam engines.

One-hundred-forty-eight years later, in 1908, Henry Ford hired Frederick Winslow Taylor to work with him to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Ford’s production line. Through their relationship, Taylor formed and released his Scientific Management Method theory.

The core principle of this theory is that humans are ‘part’ of the machine. From this thinking, concepts such as human resources, human capital, and human assets were created.

Resources, capital and assets can all be owned.

On 12 April 1861, the American Civil War commenced over the idea that humans could ‘own’ other humans, yet, the Scientific Management Method had that principle at its core and was adopted throughout the 20th Century.

It is little wonder that 20th Century Leadership is flawed when at its core is the belief that humans can “own” other humans.

I am hopeful the disruption caused by the pandemic catalyses an increased speed at which 21st Century Leadership is practised, and 20th Century Leadership is left where it belongs; in the last century!

Credit: PeopleImages – Getty Images

When you read the 12 comparisons below, identify the behaviours you are practising. If you notice any that resemble 20th Century Leadership, that is okay. You can learn, often with the help of a coach, how to become a fully-fledged 21st Century Leader.

Comparing 20th Century and 21st Century Leaders

1. A 20th Century Leader focuses on themself and their leadership is about how good it will make them look. A 21st Century Leader focuses on the people they are serving and asks, “How can the people I am leading succeed and grow?

2. A 20th Century Leader cares about people if those people are serving the leader’s needs. A 21st Century Leader cares about people, period.

3. A 20th Century Leader operates from a fixed mindset and is not prepared to show the vulnerability associated with “not knowing”. A 21st Century Leader operates from a growth mindset and is comfortable with the vulnerability that comes with the statement, “I do not know, yet.”

4. A 20th Century Leader only learns in a formal setting and only when they are “given” that opportunity to learn because they are too busy to spend time learning how to be a better leader. A 21st Century Leader is a proactive learner who recognises the severe implications their leadership can have on people’s lives, which is why they choose to be a “lifelong student of leadership”.

5. A 20th Century Leader believes they are more intelligent and “evolved” than the people they lead. A 21st Century Leader believes there is no limit to what people can achieve, irrespective of their role or position in the hierarchy.

6. A 20th Century Leader dominates meetings and conversations, speaks over people (but is unaware of this trait) and is great at “telling” their “resources” what to do. A 21st Century Leader is a conscious listener, actively inviting people to participate in conversations, and enabling them to be autonomous.

7. A 20th Century Leader uses questions to shut down (convergent thinking) conversations, e.g. “Does anyone disagree with me?”. A 21st Century Leader uses questions to open conversations (divergent thinking), e.g. “What might we be missing?”

8. A 20th Century Leader uses storytelling to highlight their brilliance and achievements. A 21st Century Leader uses storytelling to enable people to make sense of the vision, purpose and values of the organisation in a way that relates to the work that person is doing.

9. A 20th Century Leader will do extraordinary things to save “face”, especially when things go wrong (blame game), driving down psychological safety and vulnerability (and creating outcomes such as the Boeing 737 Max disaster). A 21st Century Leader consciously creates psychological safety while maintaining high standards (Amy Edmondson’s high-performance and learning zone).

10. A 20th Century Leader espouses long-term thinking but acts only for the short-term. A 21st Century Leader both espouses and performs with the long-term front of mind.

11. A 20th Century Leader believes innovation belongs in their domain as people “lower” in the hierarchy are not smart enough to innovate. A 21st Century Leader believes that innovation is everyone’s responsibility and actively cultivates it throughout all positions.

12. A 20th Century Leader is unaware of the Industrial Age mental models that influence their behaviour. A 21st Century Leader consciously maintains awareness of their mental models and deliberately chooses mental models that are consistent with leading human beings.

Which leader are you?


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By Gary Ryan

Gary Ryan helps talented professionals, their teams and organisations, move Beyond Being Good®