Becoming a Great Leader in the 21st Century

In class we briefly discussed the big question of whether leaders are born or made, with reasoning for both sides of the argument. Is this question important at all? Or is it, as some researchers feel, a redundant question to ask?


As we have seen in the discussion on the IVLE forum, the general opinion is that knowing whether leadership ability emerges out of nature or nurture will bear implications on how organisations select, recruit, or train their employees.

The belief that “some leaders are born, others can be made” has resulted in many companies turning to leadership development programmes, which typically involve a myriad of activities: corporate training programmes; off-site assessments; and coaching for example, to help develop great leaders for the company. It is usually within these programmes that individuals are exposed to theories of leadership and its measures e.g. The Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire to measure the 4 “I”s of Transformational Leadership.

Many have debated the effectiveness of such leadership development programmes, one of whom is Rosalinde Torres. She conducted a study across 4000 companies, and found that despite the Leadership Programmes in place, 58% of the companies cited significant talent gaps for critical leadership roles i.e. they failed to develop enough great leaders.


Torres then argues that this is because of the reliance of said programmes on outdated performance criteria and narrow 360 surveys, which no longer hold up, given that the 21st century is now global, digitally enabled, and transparent, with faster speeds of information flow and innovation.

So then comes the question.

What does this mean for us (students of OB, about to enter the workforce within the next few years and eager to develop our leadership capabilities)? Given our limited resources, how can we as individuals better prepare ourselves to take up leadership roles in 21st century organisations?

Here I have set out a few pointers that I believe can help us in our personal leadership development journey:

1)    Anticipate Change & Be Ready When It Comes

The 21st century is known to be synonymous with change. Great leaders need to be able to see the change that is coming before it arrives and be prepared and well-equipped to deal with it when it does.  This sounds more complicated then it actually is. What many of us fail to realise is that inspiration can lie in what surrounds us. Here are some tips on how we can go about understanding the art of anticipation.

  • Read widely
  • Converse with people of different backgrounds
  • Be insatiably curious on various topics
  • Identify trends that impact you & trends that impact others
  • Remain observant and vigilant of what is happening in the world

The last thing any leader wants is to be taken by surprise by a change he or she did not see coming – and change comes often in the 21st century.


2)    Grow a Diverse Personal Network

We all have a group of people we are comfortable with. We tend to turn to this group when we need help or advice, or just a different perspective on issues. What we all need to do now is to grow our network beyond our comfort zone. Engaging and developing relationships with individuals who come from different biological, physical, geographical, political, cultural, socioeconomic backgrounds from us will allow us to grow our cultural intelligence (CQ), a necessity given the diverse workforce in 21st century organisations. On top of that, conversing and interacting with individuals from different backgrounds can help us develop new solutions and approaches, some of which we would never have thought of ourselves, when dealing with problems in the future.

3)    Be Courageous & Dare to Be Different

A big part of being a leader is being courageous as it involves doing things that might be personally uncomfortable for you. Human nature is such that if a method works, we would stick by it. However, the nature of the 21st century means that what might have worked for you previously, may no longer work today. Are you courageous enough to abandon this practice you have adopted, and step out of your comfort zone? Develop your courage:

  • Be more patient
  • Don’t take feedback or criticism personally
  • Listen and delay judgement
  • Don’t just talk risk-taking, do it

These pointers I have set out above are meant to help us, resource-poor students, to start off our leadership development journey in the 21st century. Hope you have found it useful.



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