Collaborative Leadership Blog

A Call for Sanity: 7 Key Distinctions Between 20th and 21st Century Leadership

We are living and trying to survive in the 21st Century Digital Age. And yet we are still using 20th Century Industrial Age leadership. This is insane. We can’t address the wide range of complex and systemic challenges facing our society and organizations today by using leadership values, structures, and processes that got us into this mess, and expect different results. It is time to make the evolutionary shift from the 20th Century Industrial Age leadership paradigm based on power, fear, and control, to the 21st Century Collaboration Paradigm, based on ownership, trust, and respect.

We are faced with major forces beyond our control: global pandemics, climate change, accelerating technology, an economic collapse, systemic racism, and the rise of the Millennial workforce. It is simply insane to think we can lead our way through this complexity using century-old leadership. It won’t work. Millennials, now 65% of the global workforce, simply won’t put up with it. 20th Century hierarchy is simply out of step with 21st Century realities.   Hierarchy is failing us because these leaders have created cultures that result in dysfunctional behavior, politics, internal competition, fear, and low morale. There is another way, the 4th Evolution of Leadership, the Collaboration Paradigm. Let’s take a look at 7 key distinctions in the foundational premises of these two radically different approaches to leadership:

  • Power vs. Principle: 20th Century leaders believe they have a right to control the workforce, incentivize or punish their performance, and terminate them on the spot if necessary. This comes from the early 1900s when workers were considered lazy, indolent, and demotivated. Hierarchical structures and command-and-control management used fear and compliance as the culture. Mid-20th Century researchers found people were responsible, hard- working, and could be trusted, wanted to work in groups, and liked being encouraged, supported, and appreciated. This led to the 2nd evolution of leadership based on valuing people. Cooperation became the culture. By the early 21st Century, principle-based leadership emerged as the 3rd evolution, that leadership was shaped by immutable principles, that constructive cultures that team-based, engaged and supported the workforce were more effective. Now, however, the realities of a challenged world require a 4th evolution of leadership, Collaboration, where principle-based leadership builds a culture of trust, psychological safety, ownership and respect, and where self-aware, emotionally intelligent leaders facilitate and empower the workforce to be their best selves so they can do their best work.
  • “I” vs. “We”: Second is the distinction between individualism and collectivism. There are leaders who believe that the primary unit for getting work done is the individual, and that individual effort is the only effort to be evaluated and rewarded. This 20th Century view is about “Me”, where performance management systems reward individual effort. But in the 21st Century, we get our work done in teams. Collaborative team members come together to build high trust relationships, unity, and a collective identity, a “We”. They need to be rewarded for team effort and contributions to the organization’s results.
  • Competitive vs. Collaborative: Third, what is the best way to motivate the workforce? In the 20th Century Power Paradigm, workers are motivated by internal competition where they are often pitted against each other. This often leads to dysfunctional behavior that damages relationships and hurts the company’s bottom line. Recognizing this, the 21st Century Collaboration Paradigm has found that naturally want to collaborate with each other to get the job done. They want a sense of community and to collaborate internally so they can compete externally.
  • Boss vs. Coach: Fourth, in the 20th Century Power Paradigm, leaders are “bosses” or “supervisors” who control the work, performance reviews, bonuses, and futures of the workforce. Workers must be compliant, and are dependent on them for their professional development. In the 21st Century, collaborative leaders serve and support the workforce, empower and facilitate them, and coach them to greater performance. Managers are emotionally intelligent, self-aware, and effective at giving them feedback. Workers are seen as being competent, innovative, and hardworking. They are independent and their professional development is a partnership with management.
  • Closed vs. Transparent: Fifth, there is a 20th Century belief that management has a right to be opaque and non-transparent when it comes to the operations of the business. In a capitalist system, the owner of capital controls the company, its information flow, and the workforce does not have the “right to know”. In this approach to leadership, if the organization goes into bankruptcy and the workforce is laid off, the workers are simply out of luck. In the 21st Century organization, there is the expectation of transparency, that the workforce has a right to know, that there is a two way flow of information. If the organization gets into trouble, everyone will come together to collectively solve the problem. If workers are let go, they are taken care of and supported in their transition.
  • Control vs. Ownership: Sixth is the distinction about who “owns” the work and the workplace. The 20th Century leader believes they have a right to control the workforce and to use their authority to achieve results. The hard reality, however, is that it is an illusion they control Each worker makes their own decisions about how they will work and whether they respect leadership. In the 21st Century, work gets done through people, so collaborative leaders who are self-aware, respect and engage the workforce, facilitate and empower them, based on their credibility, empathy, and support of their workforce. In the 21st Century leadership is not about control. it’s about giving the workforce ownership of the work and workplace.
  • Productivity vs. Productive Energy: Seventh is the distinction between productivity and productive energy. The 20th Century leader focuses almost exclusively on output, results, and the bottom line. It’s about driving results, sometimes at great cost to the workforce and even ethical behavior, where the rationale of the “ends justifying the means” is used. The 21st Century leader understands that the only difference between company A and company B is the productive energy of the workforce—defined as what workers are willing to give of themselves to the enterprise. It reflects their pride in the organization, self-esteem, if they feel respected, own their work, and are appreciated for what they do.

If we are to meet the complex challenges we now face, and survive a warming planet after 2030, we urgently need to transform our leadership paradigms—to move from the insanity of the Power Paradigm which is out of step with the times, and embrace the 4th evolution of leadership—the Collaboration Paradigm. We need self-aware, emotionally intelligent leaders who lead by principle, build leadership cultures of trust, psychological safety, ownership and respect, and empower the workforce to be their best selves so they can do their best work. Further, we urgently need a global leadership commitment and protocol for implementing collaborative solutions to climate change, global pandemics, and the threat of nuclear war. The time to act is now!

1Edward M. Marshall, Ph.D., author of Leadership’s 4th Evolution: Collaboration for the 21st Century is a pioneer and thought leader in the field of collaborative leadership and cultural transformation. He has authored two best-selling business books, Transforming the Way We Work: The Power of the Collaborative Workplace, and Building Trust at the Speed of Change. Dr. Marshall teaches leadership at Duke University, is an executive coach, and manages a consulting firm. He holds three service marks and has received a Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader award.