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A New Dawn for Leadership: Embracing Change in the 21st Century

Did you know 75% of employees want their workplace to adopt a collective leadership model? This change will redefine success, radically increase agility, and spur innovation.

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
6 min read
A team making a collective decision as a team
Collective Leadership Is The New Norm

In the 21st Century, the leadership landscape is evolving at an unprecedented pace. And leaders who are not able to adapt are being left behind. The need for change is more pertinent now than ever before, as traditional leadership models prove insufficient in addressing the complexities of our modern world.

The Old Guard: Command-and-Control Leadership

Historically, leadership has been characterized by a command-and-control approach. Leaders would issue directives from the top, expecting them to be implemented without question. However, this leadership style has shown its limitations in the face of today's global challenges and complexities.

The command-and-control leadership model traces its roots back to the industrial revolution when work was mechanistic and process-oriented. This model was inspired by the military paradigm, where hierarchy, authority, and obedience were paramount. Leaders were viewed as superior beings with exclusive access to knowledge and decision-making authority. Workers were expected to follow instructions without questioning, as any divergence from the set path was disobedience or insubordination.

The command-and-control model thrived in an era where information was scarce and centralized and where predictability and efficiency were the primary goals. It was all about maintaining the status quo, minimizing risk, and maximizing control. This leadership style resulted in impressive industrial feats and economic growth during the 19th and 20th centuries. However, in the 21st century, with its accelerated pace of change, increased complexity, and demand for innovation, this model is proving increasingly inadequate and outdated.

A New Dawn: Embracing Change

As we enter a new era of leadership, embracing change has become a critical skill. Leaders who can anticipate and navigate change are better positioned to guide their organizations toward success. Take, for example, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. Since taking the helm, Nadella has transformed Microsoft's culture from one that was known for infighting and stagnation to one that values learning and innovation. His leadership has led to a resurgence in Microsoft's performance, demonstrating the power of embracing change.

This new breed of leaders understands that change is not episodic but a constant phenomenon. They maintain a future-focused mindset, constantly scanning the horizon for emerging trends, threats, and opportunities. They quickly adapt, realizing that clinging to obsolete practices can lead to stagnation and irrelevance.

Moreover, they understand that leading change is not about imposing it from the top but about engaging the organization in the process. They facilitate open communication, encourage feedback, and enable their teams to contribute to and own the change process. They recognize that their team's collective intelligence most often surpasses their own, and they leverage this to co-create solutions and drive organizational change.

It is what some are calling collective leadership.

Collective Leadership: The Way Forward

The shift towards collective leadership represents a significant departure from traditional leadership models. This approach emphasizes the importance of collaboration and shared decision-making. Research has shown that organizations that practice collective decision-making result in better business decisions up to 87% of the time and that the decisions made and executed by these teams delivered 60% better results.

Transitioning to a collective leadership model requires a significant paradigm shift. Here are some crucial steps to start the transformation.

Cultivating a culture of openness and respect:

A culture that values openness and respect is the cornerstone of collective leadership. This means creating an environment where all team members feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and ideas without fear of judgment or retaliation. Encourage open dialogue, active listening, and respectful disagreement. Leaders should also take the initiative to seek out and value everyone's perspectives.

Decentralizing decision-making:

Moving away from top-down decision-making is vital in a collective leadership model. Decentralizing decision-making processes requires involving more team members. This ensures decisions are informed by a broad range of perspectives and insights, resulting in better outcomes.

Fostering collaboration:

Promote collaboration at all levels of your organization. Foster a climate where individuals are encouraged to work together, share information, and support each other's efforts. This helps to break down silos and encourages a more collective approach to problem-solving and decision-making.

Encouraging continuous learning:

Build an environment that promotes continuous learning and skill development. Encourage leaders to foster their own growth mindset and inspire their teams to do the same. This instills a culture of innovation and adaptation leadership traits into the team.

"In the dawn of collective leadership, success is a symphony written not by a solitary maestro, but through the harmonious collaboration of disparate voices."

Innovation Amidst Global Shifts and Uncertainties

In a world marked by global shifts and uncertainties, the ability to innovate has become a key determinant of organizational success. The new collective leadership model, emphasizing flexibility and collaboration, fosters an environment where innovation can thrive. Take the case of Adobe, which, under Shantanu Narayen's leadership, has adopted a kickbox innovation system, empowering all employees to become innovators. This approach has helped Adobe stay ahead of the curve in the competitive tech industry.

Collective leadership significantly augments and propels innovative endeavors within organizations. First, it amplifies the diversity of thought. With multiple individuals contributing their unique perspectives, ideas proliferate, and innovation thrives. This variety often leads to unanticipated, creative solutions to complex problems that a single leader might overlook.

Second, collective leadership cultivates a sense of ownership and accountability amongst team members. When individuals feel their opinions are valued and they have a stake in the outcome, there is a natural surge in motivation to foster and implement innovative ideas.

Lastly, the collaborative nature of collective leadership encourages calculated risk-taking, an essential aspect of innovation. The shared responsibility diffuses the potential negative consequences of risk, making individuals more open to exploring and implementing novel ideas.

Setting New Standards for Leadership Success

This new era of leadership is also redefining what success means. Success in leadership is no longer solely about financial gains or hierarchical ascent. In this rapidly-evolving landscape, the criterion for success has broadened to include:

Leading Change Effectively

Effective leaders are those who can not only anticipate change but also successfully steer their teams through it. These leaders are adept at recognizing the winds of change early and preparing their organizations to meet these shifts head-on. They cultivate a culture where change is not feared but embraced, setting a precedent for continuous evolution and progress.

Impact From Innovation

Leaders in the modern era are gauged by their ability to drive innovation. They foster an environment encouraging creative thinking and problem-solving, resulting in disruptive and impactful solutions. The success of a leader is seen in their ability to convert these innovative ideas into reality, delivering tangible results that propel the organization forward.


The capacity to adapt one's leadership style to the needs of the situation and the team is a crucial success factor. Modern leaders understand that there is no 'one size fits all' approach to leadership. They exhibit versatility in their strategies, adjusting their approach based on the task at hand, the team's dynamics, and the broader context of the market.

Ensuring Healthy Returns

While financial performance remains an important measure, the sustainability of these returns truly defines success. Leaders who can consistently deliver healthy returns while simultaneously ensuring the well-being of their team and their customers are the ones who stand out in the modern era. They balance profit and people, setting a new standard for successful leadership.


In conclusion, the 21st century demands a new kind of leadership that embraces change, values collaboration, and fosters innovation. While this shift presents its own set of challenges, the potential rewards are immense. As we look to the future, one thing is clear: those who can successfully navigate this new dawn of leadership will be the ones who shape the course of the 21st century.

Additional Articles/Resources

Numerous resources are available for those seeking to delve deeper into understanding collective leadership. These materials offer practical strategies, expert insights, and research-based information.

What Is Collective Leadership?
Collective leadership replaces outmoded top-down leadership with a process that empowers the most knowledgeable experts to make decisions.
Collective leadership as a facilitator of innovation - WRAP: Warwick Research Archive Portal

Phil McKinney Twitter

Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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