How Leadership Has Changed in the 21st Century – Ryan Ayers

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It’s easy to think that concepts like leadership never really change much from generation to generation, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Leadership styles reflect cultural norms, and a lot has changed in the last 16 years. In the 21st century, leadership has changed as technology has taken over many aspects of our lives—and it will continue to evolve as time goes on. To be effective in the modern workplace, leaders need to understand how to adapt to new leadership styles. Here’s how leadership has changed during the 21st century.

Moving Away from Autocracy

During the 20th century, autocratic leadership was often the norm in most organizations. In an autocratic system, management makes all the decisions, and takes very little input from employees on the floor. Decisions are made based on the manager’s views and experience, and they have complete control of the group. Today, workplaces tend to be more collaborative instead of authoritarian, making this style of leadership start to fall out of favor.

More Flexibility

While the core qualities that make for great leaders stay the same, there is more flexibility in the accepted leadership styles of today’s organizations. Young companies are more open, accepting, and results-focused than ever, allowing leaders to use their creativity in order to succeed. There are several emerging styles of leadership that can work in different situations, including:

  • Democratic/participative: Input from team members is valued and used in decision-making
  • Transformational/inspirational: Leadership inspires team members to find internal motivation to reach specific goals
  • Transactional: Leadership provides rewards for certain accomplishments

Though these are very different leadership styles, they are often combined to account for different team’s unique qualities. Leaders are starting to become more aware of how differences in employees’ personalities and learning styles affect how they respond to leadership. Good leaders are emotionally intelligent and can pick up on cues from others to inform their approach to working with individuals.

Technology‘s New Role in Leadership

There’s absolutely no doubt that the rapid rise of the Internet has affected the way leaders manage their teams. Many employees work from home, and managing remote employees requires even more adaptability and constant communication. Technology affects everything from the way employees communicate with one another to the evaluation tools available to leaders. Technology can make leadership easier in some ways, but managers must use it well or it can make leadership disjointed and ineffective. Some managers use technology to avoid frank contact with employees—not a good use of these tools in a leadership role.


Leaders in every industry are learning that it pays to be open and transparent with employees about how the company, the team, and the individual is doing. Today’s leaders are generally more empowered to be transparent—inspiring a more engaged and productive workforce. Leaders get out there among the team and give them the information they need to succeed.

Inspiration Over Direction

As part of the move away from autocratic leadership, more leaders are finding success in leading through inspiration over rigid direction. Of course, leaders do still provide direction, but there is much more trust involved in modern leadership, allowing employees to become inspired to find internal motivation and enjoy unprecedented autonomy. Leaders still need to help their team when necessary, and keep employees accountable, but many leaders are finding that allowing employees the room to figure out problems on their own can yield better results than micromanagement.

It’s Always Evolving

Our economy has changed, thanks to the rise of technology and the desire for a more sustainable “circular” economy that helps preserve the planet and woo environmentally-conscious consumers. Only one thing is certain: leadership will continue to evolve over time, as business practices and cultural values change. Leaders need to be prepared for rapid change, and stay adaptable in order to succeed in modern leadership. Today, managers have many responsibilities, and juggling them successfully can be a challenge that leaders need to be prepared for. Expecting the unexpected is a good stance to take as we move farther into the 21st century.

Some Things Don’t Change

Certain leadership qualities never go out of style. The ability to connect with and inspire others makes for great leaders across generations. People with exceptional emotional intelligence can thrive in this new world of adaptive leadership, and aren’t restricted to just one type of leadership. Though the qualities of a good leader don’t change, the way we view leadership does—and that’s a good thing.