Twenty-first century leadership operates in a globalizing, knowledge-based, interdependent world. In the 20th century we had increasingly complicated problems; in the 21st century we have increasingly complex systems that amplify those complicated problems. Today, success is dependent upon one’s connectedness. Leader’s must have both the ability to develop and maintain relationships across borders and the ability to see connections throughout whole systems. Leadership requires a systems perspective.
A Systems Perspective
With a systems perspective, leaders perceive the concerted effort of the many people who work together at different places and at different levels in the system, or organization. Instead of providing direction (“command”) and control, leaders exert influence through meaning making — bringing disparate parts of the system into meaningful contact with each other and providing a compelling, purposeful narrative. The “Lone Leader at the Top” approach no longer works. The system is so complex that any one person at any level can have tremendous influence through the feedback loops and other recursive aspects of complexity.
From this perspective, two of the important leadership capacities for the 21st century are global acuity and complexipacity.
Global acuity is a learning mindset in which leaders expand their understanding of others and the ways they can influence individuals and organizations that are unlike themselves. While leaders may be more connected than ever, that does not mean they are better versed in the diversity of the world. People around the world work in very different ways. While the world may appear flatter, it is actually still quite bumpy!
Complexipacity is the ability to understand and address today’s complex systems. It requires the ability to see how the individual connects to the organization; how the organization connects with other organizations; how the organization is geographically located in a region within a country; and so on. Boundaries are permeable; connections are interconnected. The local context is part of a larger context; every system impacts a larger system.
Leadership for a globalizing world facilitates the following:
- Selecting and cultivating talent that embraces diverse cultures and viewpoints.
- Engaging members in meaningful work.
- Facilitating a strong bond to the organization’s purpose and to each other’s work.
- Keeping the common core purpose at the forefront.
- A willingness to embrace ideas and people who are different from each other and may even contradict one another’s viewpoints. It is at the nexus of these differences—at these intersections—that creativity often emerges.
- Developing the leadership capacity of all—creating a leaderful organization.
Our future flourishing depends on our ability to address and solve today’s complex, complicated problems A popular aphorism attributed to Einstein states, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Nor can these problems be solved with the same leadership perspective we had at the time we created them.
Written by Cynthia Cherrey, President and CEO of ILA (the International Leadership Association)
Cynthia Cherrey is President and CEO of the International Leadership Association (ILA), a global community committed to increasing quality research, teaching, and practices of leadership contributing to the common good around the world. Dr. Cherrey speaks to non-profit and for-profit organizations around the world and writes in the areas of leadership, organizational development, and higher education. A sought-after advisor, Cynthia is a Fellow at the World Business Academy, a Royal Society of the Arts Fellow, and a recipient of a J.W. Fulbright Scholarship.
This article is adapted from keynote remarks presented at the World Congress in Vienna in 2018.
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