Effective 21st century organisations require everyone to be a leader

By John Knights @LeaderShapeJohn

The ongoing leadership crisis points at the gaps in our understanding about how to identify the kind of leaders we need (rather than what we get) and how to then assess and develop them. The basic problem with developing competent leaders at all levels in organisations is twofold. First, society is changing much faster than the human brain evolves. Secondly, the modern world’s standard methods of education are best suited to assimilating information and logically analysing facts rather than changing behaviours and bringing values to full consciousness.

The key issue is the human brain, which has remained virtually unchanged for 250,000 years and is programmed to a default leadership style of “know everything and tell people what to do”. This was effective for life in the stone-age where we lived in constant danger and life was a continuing crisis.

Except in a crisis, autocratic leadership from the top has actually never been the most effective because our brain does not operate efficiently when being told what to do. It is much more productive when given the opportunity to have insights and develop its own solutions. However, until less than 20 years ago top leaders could justifiably impose a directive style because they had all the knowledge (power) and it felt right because that is how our brains are designed.

However, in today’s increasingly egalitarian society where knowledge is available to all, an autocratic top down style of leadership just does not work. The new reality is that for an organisation to be both high performing and truly sustainable every individual needs to feel engaged with the goals and beliefs of the organisation and have some control over their own lives.

The solution is that in some respect everyone needs to be operating as a leader – many just leading themselves. The main roles of the senior leadership are to provide an ethical and inclusive climate and culture that brings people together around the vision of the organisation and to ensure that their people (including themselves) are continually developed.

I am often reminded of the brilliant quote from Tolstoy¹, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself."  who I am sure would have added “or herself” if he had written it in the 21st century.With the right support anyone can change granular behaviours one by one which in turn can help improve empathy, initiative, influence, emotional self-control, etc. etc. When applied to leadership, individual priorities can best be identified by a suitable 360° assessment tool (which must be behaviour rather than competency based) and then practised in small doses, regularly and in the workplace. As my co-editor of “Leadership Assessment for Talent Development”, Tony Wall states, “There are real alternatives to standard training courses which can deepen learning insights for long lasting behaviours – and that can make an immediate and direct impact in the workplace”.

There is still a basic problem that we tend to want to solve problems by changing processes and structures and methods whereas the really change we need to make is to ourselves. We need to rewire the neural pathways in our brains! That sounds drastic but actually we do just that when we learn to ride a bike or drive a car or improve our tennis serve or buy a new smart phone. We just need to do the same with our behaviours to improve our own leadership.

¹ Leo Tolstoy, Russian novelist and social reformer (1828–1910)

John Knights is Chairman of LeaderShape, a UK based leadership-development specialist, author of Leadership Assessment for Talent Development

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  • Brilliant Knights’s article!

    It shows how important it is the organizations to reflect about what kind of leaders they expect to have on medium and long term. Much is said these days about meritocracy, achieve goals and deliver results. In the midst of economic crises increase the pressures on executives, reaching levels often unbearable. But what is very clear is that results and objectives are achieved by the people and if they do not immerse themselves with body and soul in the vision and mission of the company, committing to walk in the same direction, the achievements are infinitely smaller than they could be. How to make the team play well and want to be champion? The answer lies in the Leadership. As Knights explains with utmost clarity : "The main roles of the senior leadership are To provide an ethical and inclusive climate and culture que brings people together around the vision of the organization and to Ensure That Their people ( including Themselves ) Continually are developed ."


  • Please what is the nature of change in the 21st century