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1 August 2014

This new era demands collective leadership, not heroic individuals

The old style of leadership is at odds with our complex and networked world. 

By Neal Lawson

Now the dust has settled on Ed Miliband’s perceived leadership strengths and weaknesses, maybe we can have a more profound discussion about political leadership in the 21st century. Substance, style, background, empathy and more have been thrown into the mix. But the times demand not just a change of emphasis in how we are led but a very different type of leader – not least because to be more successful as a society we need more women to lead.

Models of political leadership mirror the wider technological and cultural context in which leaders operate, so what we tend to get is the same types of leaders in business, sport, civil society and politicsIts no accident that the big 20th century leaders were heroic figures. From Churchill to Thatcher, from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs and Alex Ferguson and, in extremis, Hitler and Stalin. This is because it was a century of top-down hierarchy. Big business and big government dominated the scene – and someone had to sit at the top and pull the levers to make these huge clunky machines work. That’s how change happened – from the top-down and the centre out.

But the world is changing fast. Technology is flattening these vertical structures and instead of one-to-many communications – increasingly we communicate and connect directly peer-to-peer. Knowing your place and following orders makes less sense when every day your voice matters on Twitter or Facebook. And at the same time the reputation of the old gods is being forever tarnished because no one gets away with anything any more – as hacking, WikiLeaks and smartphone snaps reveal the unvarnished truth.

The old style of leadership sits at odds with the changing times of the 21st century as digital networks connect up everything everywhere. We can know what we want, talk to whom we want and start to making change happen for ourselves. All of us are smarter than any one of us. Collective intelligence and collective leadership are now within our grasp.

The implications for leadership in the 21st century are profound. As Richard Wilson and many others are now pointing out, instead of being the hero, the new leader is the person who helps build the platforms and creates the spaces for people – together – to do things for themselves. We need wisdom, guidance and resources a shepherd that stands at the back of the flock. As the poet Maya Angelou wrote “a leader sees greatness in other people. You can’t be much of a leader if all you see is yourself.”

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But there is another critical dimension to the leadership of the future and this is the role of women. So far the debate has been dominated by men and it’s been about been about male leaders. But in an overlooked Harvard Business Review article, two management professors make the case that in leadership teams it is not just the diversity of some women in the team that helps organisational success – but the more women there are the better the performance.

One of the researchers, Professor Anita Whoolley, says of effective groups that its not enough that the members are all really smart “but that they listen to each other. They share criticism constructively. They have open minds. They’re not autocratic.” These are the traits that will define the successful leader of the future and the more women in top positions the more likely this will be the case.

One of the great political conundrums of our times is that to lead in politics today requires a tool set that doesn’t allow for the changes society needs. Party political structures are top-down when change is increasingly being driven from the bottom up. We have 20th century leaders in a 21st century world. The levers no longer work, no matter how hard you pull on them. A complex and networked world is going to require a complex and networked form of governance to manage it.

So how can the culture and space for leaders who know their task is to enable others be created? The answer can only lie with us – not them. We have to grow up and take responsibility for our lives – we cant outsource it to others. It never works. We must demand and enable a new form of leadership. So, yes, a functioning modern democracy will take more meetings – but they don’t have to be meetings of boring politicians droning on about what they will do for us. Instead they can be fun and creative, practical and problem solving, innovative, collaborative and sharing. Democracy must become a circle of chairs for discussion, not rows of them where we only listen. The new leader metaphorically, and in reality, sorts out the chairs. After all, we are the people we have been waiting for. It’s all about us – not them.