Collaborative Leadership Blog

We Need 21st Century Leadership Education

What got you here won’t get you there.–Marshall Goldsmith–

It seems trite to say, but sometimes we need to be reminded that this is the 21st Century—not the 20th. We are no longer living in the Industrial Age—it is the Digital Age. We are living in a time of existential threats to the survival of the planet: global warming and sea level rise, the extinction of millions of animal species, famine, pandemics like Ebola, and nuclear proliferation, and yet global leadership seems incapable of addressing them. Businesses are living in a world where markets are roiled daily by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. They must be agile and adapt, or die. We live in the Millennial age, who will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. They expect a more open, engaging, and collaborative workplace, or they will leave.

We need a 21st Century leadership framework that can meet these challenges, one that is principled, open, engaging, adaptive, and collaborative, where teams do the work and the structure is flat and networked. So, why does graduate business education still teach 20th Century leadership where control is the mantra, hierarchy is the structure, and processes are opaque? What got us to this point, the focus on control and authority, will not get us there, or help us even now. Our educational system is out of step with the realities that leaders and the people of the world now face. But why?

Business schools focus on the science of management rather than the realities leaders actually face in business. In 2005, Warren Bennis and James O’Toole in “How Business Schools Lost Their Way,” Harvard Business Review (May 2005) found business schools:

  • Were too focused on “scientific” research
  • Hire professors with limited real-world experience
  • Graduate students who are ill-equipped to wrangle with complex, unquantifiable issues
  • Fail to educate students with how to deal with questions of judgment, ethics, and messy people issues

In a 2018 Forbes article, “Why Today’s Business Schools Teach Yesterday’s Expertise”, Steve Denning points to entrenched interests and inertia that prevent the shift in what is being taught about leadership. He reinforces the Bennis argument:

  • Professors usually have no management experience in 20th Century management, let alone in firms implementing a new paradigm
  • Careers in business school depend more on research than teaching
  • The accreditation process for business schools is glacial; it can take years to make minor changes in curricula
  • Business schools are often a cash-cow for universities

Even Executive Education programs do not adequately prepare them for 21st Century business challenges. Moldoveanu and Narayandas in an April, 2019 Harvard Business Review article, noted:

Companies are seeking the communicative, interpretive, affective, and perceptual skills needed to lead coherent, proactive collaboration. But most executive educationprograms—designed as extensions of or substitutes for MBA programs—focus on discipline-based skill sets, such as strategy development and financial analysis….

It is time for business leaders to insist that graduate business leadership education be transformed, and move from the 20th Century focus on power and control to a 21st Century focus on principle and collaborative leadership. We must look forward, not backward, so thatwe can get “there”.


*Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University; ICF certified executive coach, Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, and author of the forthcoming book: The New Age of Collaboration: Leadership for the 21st Century, 2020. You can contact him at