What does it take to be a successful leader in the 21st century?

In a future dominated by rapid change, globalization, economic uncertainty and seismic technological shifts, leaders worldwide are being forced into uncharted territory that redefines what it takes to be successful in the 21st century.

What is 21st Century Leadership?

To answer that question, we have looked at studies carried out by a variety of organisations worldwide.  These multi-phased, multi-level studies focus on how leadership is changing to keep pace with today’s business challenges and identifies trends for the next 10-15 years.

What are the challenges facing 21st century businesses?

When asked the question “what are the top five challenges facing your business?”, respondents from multi-nationals, SME’s, government and not-for-profit organisations in Asia, Europe and the USA identified the following




Cost pressure Cost pressure Cost pressure
Competitors Growing the business Growing the business
Improving customer satisfaction Driving sales growth Driving sales growth
Growing the business Product/service innovation Improving customer satisfaction
Technology challenges Employee productivity Employee productivity


While cost pressure is the top challenge in all three geographical regions, there is clear diversity in the other areas, which itself presents interesting challenges, especially for global businesses.

What does this mean for business leaders?

Based on a study by Achieve Global of 971 leaders in the USA, Mexico, India, China, Singapore, Germany and the UK, focusing on business challenges and commensurate leadership practices resulted in the development of a Zone Model for 21st century leadership.

The study identified 42 practices – some behavioural and some cognitive – required to meet the challenges of 21st century leadership. These 42 practices were incorporated into six categories or “zones”, each containing seven unique practices:

  1. Reflection – helps leader to make the most of honest feedback, recognise the limits of their knowledge, avoid repeating mistakes, see mistakes as a chance to learn, grown and help others to do the same.
  2. Society – recent unethical practices with worldwide consequences highlight the need for leaders to serve and encourage others to serve the greater good.  Socially aware leaders know that some short-term goals sabotage long term health of the organisation, society and the planet.
  3. Diversity – the ability to derive value from human differences is a core skill for 21st century leaders.  A global workforce requires awareness of cultural nuances.  A dispersed workforce requires structured yet flexible leadership and a diverse workforce requires tailored collaboration and coaching.
  4. Ingenuity – this is closely allied to the ability to manage change both on the business and human level and is implied in every innovation.  Ingenuity is also vial for helping groups to develop a motivating vision of future success.
  5. People – leadership includes getting work done through others by engaging people in a team effort, inspiring trust and loyalty, softening the impact of hard decisions and encouraging shared commitment to business goals.
  6. Business – beyond the hard skills of analyzing data and managing costs, leaders must respond quickly to threats and opportunities – a skill that requires close attention to key trends and events.   It is also the ability to shape the customer’s experiences and to cultivate that customer’s life time value.

What are the implications for your leadership?

These finding inevitably lead to the conclusion that in this contemporary business environment, individual leadership development needs to be the starting point for organisational development.

According to Cranfield Business School “Organisational development is now more important than ever to organisational performance and, indeed, to survival.  However, most interventions start at the ‘organisational level’, based on the belief that the process will filter to individuals.  The reality is somewhat different…”

In complex and changing environment “flexible and appropriate skills is enabled by more fundamental, generic competencies, or meta-abilities.”  There are four meta-abilities of particular relevance to 21st century leaders:

  • Cognitive skills: cognitive complexity and flexibility; visionary ability, gaining clarity and perceptual acuity
  • Self-knowledge: self-understanding and awareness which allows leaders to deal flexibly with diverse and complex situations
  • Emotional resilience: exerting self-control and discipline, managing emotions, mindfulness, having personal resilience and a balanced self-view
  • Personal drive: having a personal achievement orientation and ambition for responsibility, being able to motive self and others and taking personal risks

“The development process which is needed to improve meta-abilities is more demanding.  It necessitates sufficient challenge through which self-insights are gained and old habits ‘unlearned.’  It is a process of personal transition which can include painful and confusing phases before clarity, confidence and new skills are achieved.”

Balancing all six leadership zones and developing meta-abilities can be daunting because it is nearly impossible to give equal attention to every zone or ability all the time.

However, increased awareness of the zones and required meta-abilities can help leaders to make conscious decisions about skills development, recruitment and composition of complementary leadership teams.


More than ever leadership in the 21st century leadership is a matrix of complex practices required to respond to a rapidly evolving, global business context.

When leaders are actively aware of these factors and apply practices that are in tune with their geographical location, scope of operations, revenue goals and lifecycle position, they are better equipped to build on their strengths, minimize their deficiencies and achieve success for themselves and their organisation.

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