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Leadership Needs in the 21st Century

  1. How do different approaches and styles of leadership impact what is needed now?

Frequent headlines in popular business magazines like Fortune and Business Week call our attention to a major movement going on in the world of business. Organizations are being reengineered and restructured, and network, virtual, and modular corporations are emerging. People talk about the transnational organization, the boundaryless company, the post-hierarchical organization. By the end of the decade, the organizations that we will be living in, working with, and competing against are likely to be vastly different from what we know today.

The transition will not be easy; uncertainty tends to breed resistance. We are driven by linear and rational thinking, which leads us to believe that “we can get there from here” by making some incremental changes in who we are and what we are currently doing. Existing paradigms frame our perceptions and guide our thinking. Throwing away paradigms that have served us well in the past does not come easily.

A look back tells most observers that the past decade has been characterized by rapid change, intense competition, an explosion of new technologies, chaos, turbulence, and high levels of uncertainty. A quick scan of today’s business landscape suggests that this trend is not going away anytime soon. According to Professor Jay A. Conger from Canada’s McGill University, “In times of great transition, leadership becomes critically important. Leaders, in essence, offer us a pathway of confidence and direction as we move through seeming chaos. The magnitude of today’s changes will demand not only more leadership, but newer forms of leadership.”

Conger, 1993.

According to Conger, two major forces are defining for us the genius of the next generation of leaders. The first force is the organization’s external environment. Global competitiveness is creating some unique leadership demands. The second force is the growing diversity in organizations’ internal environments. Diversity will significantly change the relationship between organizational members, work, and the organization in challenging, difficult, and also very positive ways.

What will the leaders of tomorrow be like? Professor Conger suggests that the effective leaders of the 21st century will have to be many things.


They will have to be strategic opportunists; only organizational visionaries will find strategic opportunities before competitors. They will have to be globally aware; with 80 percent of today’s organizations facing significant foreign competition, knowledge of foreign markets, global economics, and geopolitics is crucial. They will have to be capable of managing a highly decentralized organization; movement toward the high-involvement organization will accelerate as the environmental demands for organizational speed, flexibility, learning, and leanness increase. They will have be sensitive to diversity; during the first few years of the 21st century, fewer than 10 percent of those entering the workforce in North America will be white, Anglo-Saxon males, and the incoming women, minorities, and immigrants will bring with them a very different set of needs and concerns. They will have to be interpersonally competent; a highly diverse workforce will necessitate a leader who is extremely aware of and sensitive to multicultural expectations and needs. They will have to be builders of an organizational community; work and organizations will serve as a major source of need fulfillment, and in the process leaders will be called on to help build this community in such a way that organizational members develop a sense of ownership for the organization and its mission.

Finally, it is important to note that leadership theory construction and empirical inquiry are an ongoing endeavor. While the study of traits, behavior, and contingency models of leadership provide us with a great deal of insight into leadership, the mosaic is far from complete. During the past 15 years, several new theories of leadership have emerged; among them are leader-member exchange theory, implicit leadership theory, neocharismatic theory, value-based theory of leadership, and visionary leadership,

House & Aditya, 1997.

each of which over time will add to our bank of knowledge about leaders and the leadership process.

Leaders of the 21st-century organization have a monumental challenge awaiting them and a wealth of self-enriching and fulfilling opportunities. The challenge and rewards awaiting effective leaders are awesome!

  1. What is the role of leadership in the 21st century?
  1. How do different approaches and styles of leadership impact what is needed now?

Leadership in the high-involvement organization differs dramatically from that in the traditional and control-oriented organization. Leaders external to the team have as one of their primary roles empowering group members and the teams themselves to self-lead and self-manage. Leaders internal to the team are peers; they work alongside and simultaneously facilitate planning, organizing, directing, controlling, and the execution of the team’s work.

Although we know a great deal about the determinants of effective leadership, we have much to learn. Each theory presented in this chapter is put into practice by managers every day. None provides the complete answer to what makes leaders effective, but each has something important to offer.

Finally, our understanding of leadership has many shortcomings and limitations. The existing literature is largely based on observations from a Western industrialized context. The extent to which our theories of leadership are bound by our culture, limiting generalization to other cultures, is largely unknown. Cross-cultural leadership research will no doubt intensify as the global economy becomes an ever more dominant force in the world.

Chapter Review Questions

  1. Define leadership and distinguish between leadership and management.
  2. Discuss the processes associated with people coming to positions of leadership.
  3. Discuss the different forms of power available to leaders and the effects associated with each.
  4. It has been observed that effective leaders have the “right stuff.” What traits are commonly associated with leader emergence and effective leaders?
  5. Both the Ohio State University and University of Michigan leadership studies identified central leader behaviors. What are these behaviors, and how are they different from one another?
  6. Blake and Mouton’s work with the Leadership Grid® identified several leadership types. What are they, and how does this leadership model look from the perspective of situation theories of leadership?
  7. Identify and describe the three situational variables presented in Fiedler’s contingency theory of leadership.
  8. What are the four leadership behaviors in the path-goal theory of leadership?
  9. Discuss the differences between the internal and external leadership roles surrounding self-managed work teams.
  10. What are substitutes for leadership? What are neutralizers? Give an example of each.
  11. What are the distinguishing features of the transformational and the charismatic leader?

Management Skills Application Exercises

  1. Identify a charismatic leader and a leader with little charisma. What are the traits and skills that allow them to succeed in their roles? How can you incorporate the traits that allow them to be successful in their roles into the skills you will need to have in a leadership position?
  2. You have just taken a leadership position where 40 percent of the workforce telecommutes. You want to encourage teamwork and want to ensure that telecommuting is not hurting teamwork. What is your plan to discover how things are working and how to communicate your desire to have effective teamwork?
  3. You are at a meeting, and during the meeting someone on the team addresses their manager and points out a crucial mistake that could doom the project. The person says that their manager should have caught it and because of that should resign. As a leader of the group, how would you deal with the subordinate, the manager, and communication with the entire team?

Managerial Decision Exercises

  1. You are the newly appointed commissioner of a major sports league that is currently in a very public game three of a best-of-seven-game playoff. After an emotional opening ceremony that recognizes a tragic event in the community that is widely praised, you settle in to enjoy the game. Early in the game, a player on one team is seen celebrating a scoring play by acting out a racially insensitive behavior after the play. How would you act in a leadership position? Read the ESPN article [] and comment on how this commissioner acted in this instance.
  2. One of the challenges for a new manager in a leadership position is managing stress. Reflect on a time in your life where you have taken a leadership role in a summer job, as a member of a team, or in a study group for this or another course. Develop a stress management plan that includes how you can recognize stress, how you will notice the stress, how you will manage changes to address stress, and how you will seek outside counsel and help, including a mentor to help you manage stress.
  3. Few people would want to hire a skilled manager with no leadership skills, and you would not want to hire an inspirational leader who can’t manage planning, delegating, or keeping things organized. Draw two “T accounts” with positive attributes on the left and negative attributes on the right for managerial skills and leadership skills that you would look for as a hiring manager for a crucial managerial and leadership position in your organization.
(Attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC-BY 4.0 license)

An illustration shows two T-accounts, titled “Managerial Skills” and “Leadership Skills,” respectively, featuring positive attributes (denoted by a plus sign) on the left and negative attributes (denoted by a minus sign) on the right.

Critical Thinking Case

The Leadership Challenge at United

Anyone who has traveled even a little has at least one airline horror story: being stranded at an airport, obnoxious passengers, missed connections, flight delays, or just bad in-flight food. Even the most seasoned travelers would be hard-pressed to match Dr. David Dao’s experience of being forcibly removed, kicking and screaming, from a United Airlines flight. Most airline horror stories don’t end in a concussion, missing teeth, and a broken nose.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz’s strangely detached response only made things worse. The incident was caught on video, and that video went viral almost immediately. Munoz issued a response that mischaracterized what plainly happened in the video and termed the violent assault as a passenger “re-accommodation” (Taylor 2017). Social media erupted with condemnation, which was echoed by late-night monologues. United was left with a damaged reputation, and its management was left wondering why their processes failed, what to do to mitigate the damage, and how to both restore their reputation and ensure that company values are followed in the future.

William Taylor (2017), in a commentary in Fortune, attributes United’s “re-accommodation” disaster as the product of company policy, airport security procedures, pilot protocols, and the “wisdom of crowds.” At each step, the gate agent, pilot, airport security, and the passengers themselves could have intervened but didn’t.

Brian Fielkow, business leader, author, and keynote speaker, writing at, outlined some points that apply to Munoz’s response and the first reactions by United. Citing United’s core values, Fielkow points to Munoz’s failure to address the incident in light of the company’s values, take the blame, or even accurately describe what happened on the plane. Any one of these lapses in leadership would have caused confusion or stymied the recovery process. As a leader, Munoz was setting the tone for thousands of people. Seemingly abandoning United’s core values likely caused a rift in trust or just simple confusion company-wide. Miscasting the situation in a world of smartphones and social media reach only multiplied the effect. As a leader, Munoz was duty-bound to take responsibility for what literally the entire world saw—a breach of social ethics, let alone United’s core values. Failing to do this immediately created a problem larger than poorly planned company policy or just a perfect storm of contributing outside factors. Fielkow is keen to point out another crucial part of a company response— “You can’t walk it back” (2017 n.p.). Before responding, leadership should take time to gather the facts and thoroughly consider the possibilities of how the message will be received. Again, Munoz’s response failed at several key points, leading to the perception that Munoz’s second statement was “an attempt at damage control” (Fielkow 2017 n.p.).

Al Bolea, a leadership trainer, also attributes the incident to leadership failure. In a piece written for Applied Leadership, Bolea writes, “It’s about front line employees getting the wrong messages from the most senior levels of the company.” He contends that the mindset within United put procedures above context in the minds of the employees. What the gate agents should have considered was the company’s reputation, which should have prevented them from doing something most airline customers see as “profoundly immoral” (Bolea 2017 n.p.)

William C. Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company, also criticized the lack of leadership across United. As the presumptive leader of the flight, shouldn’t the pilot have done something? Why didn’t the gate agent think outside the box to solve the problem of getting the crew members from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky? Why didn’t—or couldn’t—the gate agent use what Taylor refers to as a “common sense and a little bit of creativity” and prevent a highly embarrassing (and ultimately expensive) fiasco? Taylor muses that he would like to think he would have done more than shoot video, but the passengers on the flight remained quiet and submissive, expressing no group outrage. Finally, Taylor questions the weak initial response from United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, writing, “If CEO Oscar Munoz’s goal was to make a disastrous situation even worse, well, he gets credit as a leader for succeeding at that” (2017 n.p.). And of the board, he questions their response, and says that response will be a “make or break test” of the company’s character (Taylor 2017).

So what will it take to lead United out of such a public mistake?

According to Brian Fielkow, the incident flew in the face of United’s core values, values which should never be sacrificed. United should have acknowledged this and addressed that failure. United should have held itself accountable for the incident rather than try to deflect blame. Fielkow contends that Munoz’s first response was to blame the passenger when Munoz should have accepted responsibility instead. Further, Fielkow writes that companies should anticipate what “can” go wrong, something the gate agents at United failed to do. Increasing passenger compensation to even three times the normal ticket price would have been cheaper than the PR nightmare (and stock price drop) that followed. After Munoz’s tepid response failed to quell general complaints about United’s handling of the passenger, he tried to issue a second “more appropriate” statement, but by then the damage had been done. Fielkow recommends waiting before issuing a response if need be. It’s better to prepared and issue a suitable response than to try to walk back a bad response. Above all, Fielkow recommends leaders “be human.” The first response Munoz gave had little empathy and made him, and United, appear insensitive and callous. A company’s first response should be to empathize with the customer, even if the customer is wrong. He writes, “When triaging a difficult problem, above all recognize the human factor” (Fielkow 2017 n.p.).

Writing in Forbes, Glenn Llopis emphasizes that how managers react to failure shapes their futures as leaders. Not only how leaders respond, but what is learned from a failure, will affect how future decisions are approached. Remember, you have to be doing something to fail, and if you never fail, then you aren’t stretching yourself. Venturing into the unknown and unfamiliar always risks failure (Llopis 2012).


Fielkow, Brian. 2017. “5 Leadership Failures that Contributed to the United Fiasco.” Entrepreneur.

Bolea, Al. 2017. “United Airlines: A System Failure?” Applied Leadership.

Taylor, William C. 2017. “Where was the Pilot on That United Airlines Flight?” Fortune.

Llopis, Glenn. 2012. “5 Things Failure Teaches You About Leadership.” Forbes.

Critical Thinking Questions:
  1. How have other airlines handled similar situations?
  2. How much was in United Airlines’s control, and how much was actually outside their control? What social or company factors caused a seemingly common practice to escalate to this level?
  3. How did the other airlines or the industry respond to the United Airlines incident?


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Principles of Management by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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