Leadership 101: How Leadership Has Changed in the Last Generation

Find out how to lead effectively in today’s world.

Posted Mar 17, 2010

Scholars, and people generally, look at leadership in a very different way than they did a generation ago. Leadership was seen as something that was straightforward, done "by the book," and could be easily learned. Leadership today is a lot more complicated.

In today's class we focus on what are called "contingency" or "situational" theories of leadership. These were state-of-the-art theories in the 1960s and 1970s that maintained that leaders had to fit their particular style of leadership to the needs of the situation. For example, according to Fred Fiedler, task-oriented leaders performed best in situations that were extreme - very easy or very difficult situations. People-oriented leaders did best in the "in-between" situations. The decision-making model of leadership told managers how they should make decisions, either by making the decision alone, or allowing team/departmental input, by carefully analyzing characteristics of the particular decision and the situation.

These very "mechanical" situational theories dominated leadership development and training for decades. However, in the last 20 years, a new way of thinking about leadership has developed - an approach that views leadership as extremely complex and an approach that is much more focused on the followers.

Clearly, the most popular leadership theories today are transformational leadership and Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory. Both of these theories assert that effective leadership depends on the leader's ability to engage, energize, and develop followers. In addition, theories of shared leadership are emerging. In shared leadership, the decision making power and responsibility of leading the team is dispersed among many members.

So what are the main themes of the "new wave" approaches to leadership:

1. A Greater Focus on the Follower. The successful leader is able to engage and motivate followers. There is shared, or at least consultative, decision making and followers are empowered to take on responsibility and act independently. In transformational leadership, for example, the leader's goal is to develop followers' leadership capacity - eventually turning followers into leaders. Moreover, effective leaders recognize the individual strengths and needs of followers in order to allow each follower to maximize potential.

2. Decentralized Decision Making/Empowered Followers. Often speed of action is critical, so followers need to be empowered to act without direction from the leader. In today's knowledge-based world, a leader cannot hope to lead alone. In all likelihood, followers have more accumulated knowledge about the team or organization's purpose than does the leader, so it makes sense to share the responsibility.

3. Recognition of the Complexity of Leadership. The increasingly interconnected and international world of the 21st century, the ever evolving technology, and the constantly changing environment, means that this is not your father's or mother's world. Management (note that we now routinely call it "Leadership") was a straightforward endeavor, as suggested by the contingency theories - simply analyze the situation and move forward. Today's world is fantastically complex and requires all of a leader's capacity, and the shared capacity of the team, to stay competitive and effective. Leaders must constantly engage followers, analyze complex situations, delegate, monitor, and motivate. It's a difficult job, but staying competitive requires this new form of leadership.