Leadership: A view for the 21st century

Leadership: A view for the 21st century

Who is the best leader you ever met or read about? Why is this person the best?

These are questions we almost always start with when discussing leadership. I expect you have thoughts and ideas, and almost everyone has a slightly different version of who is a great leader and why.

Leadership continues to be a very popular topic in many circles of business, government, religion, education and family life in general. It is popular because our world is global, fast moving and facing many challenges. With the challenges we face, one looks to leadership, which is defined in simple terms as the ability to influence others to complete commonly valued goals and tasks.

In fact, famous and popular writers in the leadership field also define leadership in very simple terms. Peter Drucker says, “A leader is someone who has followers” (Hessebein, Goldsmith, & Beckhard, 1996), and John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less” (Maxwell & Dornan, 2006).

Neither of these definitions talks specifically about quality; they only hint toward both quality and quantity. What we want is quality leadership – the point being that we want to help everyone in society to achieve the goals and standard of work and life each of us hopes we can reach.

What’s the point?

The concept of “why leadership” often begins when individuals say that perhaps we do not have leaders today like we had when Abraham Lincoln was president, or, more recently, John F. Kennedy as president. There’s also the fact that we see so many challenges in our world, and we realize that development of leadership must begin early in life and it must be an ongoing process of development. Thus, it cannot just be left up to nature, but must receive proper nurturing along the way if it is going to result in effective behaviors that truly influence others to follow and to achieve goals that are desperately desired.

Examples of quality leadership

To address this, two books that I often suggest students read are Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times (Phillips, 1992) and Management Lessons from the Mayo Clinic (Berry and Seltman, 2008).

The first book is good because it cites examples of leadership qualities exhibited by one of our most beloved presidents and someone who was a leader during very difficult times, namely the U.S. Civil War. If one asks, “Who is the greatest leader of our time?”, the most popular answer is Abraham Lincoln. Thus, we need to look at his qualities and determine if they will be as important today in our high-tech world as they were during the mid-1800s. Even during this desperate time of war, Lincoln led the process of “freedom for slaves,” which many feel was at the heart of the war, and which was clearly a value that needed to occur and was well past its time of need.

The second book is about one of the world’s most admired service organizations and gets at the heart of two very important topics – health care and servant leadership. It is good to learn how the values of Dr. William Worrall Mayo and his sons Drs. William and Charles Mayo led to the cultural and infrastructure of the Mayo Clinic philosophy that has held up for 150 years. Placing patients first may sound logical and simple, but making it happen is the driving force behind the success of the Mayo Clinic leadership. I encourage you to read the above two books as great examples of quality leadership.

The benefits of leadership skills

Developing quality leadership skills helps each of us in several ways: developing a visionary process, setting goals, making necessary and good decisions, managing personnel and evaluating performance, making sure we have good people in our organization, learning how to compensate employees, or on a more general note, being positive and reaffirming to others, being respectful, and trying to influence others toward respect of our past and toward a better future.

There are opposing views on whether leadership can be taught in a classroom, but everyone agrees that leaders can be developed. Prominent leadership authors, such as Drucker and Maxwell, as well as many others, believe a combination of theory and practice is the ideal way to develop leadership.

Key leadership elements

Skill development for leadership can range across many topics, however, several skills almost always appear in discussions about good leaders. These include tangible skills such as communication, networking, team building and mentoring. I would always add ability to develop a vision for an organization or a portion of an organization.

A vision is an over-arching goal that sets the direction for the organization for the next several years. The development of a vision should be a team process, with representatives from all areas of the organization making up the team. The visionary process is not only the development of the vision, but equally important is the implementation of the vision. Employees must “buy in” to the vision and must gain commitment to set and achieve goals so that the organization is successful. Thus, vision building includes quality communication through verbal, written, listening and body language skills, and team building and mentoring.

Giving individuals opportunities to build these skills comes first through interactively carrying out tasks, allowing employees or students time for career and organizational development, then delegating individuals to work in teams under close supervision to complete tasks, and finally empowering individuals to identify and carry-out tasks with little supervision from above. This begs the idea that a good leader is really trying to develop future leaders!

A team – and global – effort

In today’s world, tasks are often very complex, and rarely will one or two individuals have the necessary skills and answers to reach completion of the task. Thus, networking and working in teams are critical. We still have a few mom-and-pop organizations, but they are dwindling each year as the world becomes more global and tasks more complex. Thus, education and training must be front and center in any good organization. Leaders must take pride in championing education, whether it be in a degree program, a certificate program or the opportunity to develop skills via internships, or just from experience.

As Thomas Friedman has told us in his book, The World is Flat (2006), today’s leaders must become conversant in the business and family culture of more than one country or region. This also means that we must learn how to change rapidly and successfully, for the world is changing each day and we need to keep up as best we can. Leaders of today must be able to lead in this “new world.” To lead means we move beyond management, which is the phase of leadership that tries to complete tasks effectively and efficiently. Thus, a leader’s role must include planning for the future.

Fine-tuning your leadership talents

From a very practical perspective, developing leadership begins at a young age and continues on through teen years and into adulthood. The characteristics of good followers are very similar to good leaders. Thus, a starting point is for an individual to be a good follower. As one learns the language, skills and strategies that are expected, then one is ready to move to positions of leadership.

Being assigned tasks and given corresponding supervision or mentoring when a person is still young is the start of the developmental process. We often hear of newspaper carriers or young individuals who mow lawns or baby-sit and gradually learn the process of leadership. Thus, carrying out work situations responsibly and receiving qualitative feedback is a good foundation.

Another good environment is in youth activities such as sports, student government, volunteer positions at hospitals and community centers – provided one receives good supervision and mentoring – are ideal experiences.

As one accepts more leadership roles, one may become a manager who supervises, assists, evaluates and carries out major responsibilities. From this position, many leadership opportunities will present themselves.

However, just because one is good at followership or management does not guarantee one will become a successful leader. We must recognize the behaviors necessary to carry out the leadership tasks, and this often means higher-level decision making, team building, and developing goals and a vision for our followers.

Higher-level leadership development will be enhanced by earning advanced degrees and certifications. Attending and participating in leadership conferences, being a leader of other leaders, and closely observing the behaviors and strategies of competitors will help one on the journey to quality leadership of the highest level.

Looking ahead

Finally, leadership for the future involves people, because it is people who move organizations or groups to success and higher levels of performance and productivity. Therefore, following good strategy, involving teams, practicing quality interpersonal skills, making sure we have quality employees who remain satisfied with the work environment, etc., are critical for today’s leaders. And, one last comment, no one is ever a finished leader, nor is the work of the leader ever finished. Leadership is a continuously developing process and adapting to change is a necessity of every leader.


Berry, L. & Seltman, K.D. (2008). Management Lessons from the Mayo Clinic. NY: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.
Freidman, T. (2005). The World Is Flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. NY: Picador Reading Group Guides.
Hessebein, F., Goldsmith, M., & Beckhard, R. (1996). The Leader of the Future (The Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Maxwell, J., & Dornan, J. (2006). Becoming a Person of Influence: How to positively impact the lives of others. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing Company.
Phillips, D. T. (1992). Lincoln on Leadership: Executive strategies for tough times. NY: Warner Books.

Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017. 

Trent Gabert, Ph.D.

Trent Gabert, Ph.D.

Dr. Gabert served as the College of Liberal Studies associate dean from 2000-2010. He has been published on a variety of topics including leadership, community development, and ethics and holds a master's degree in Health Education as well as a doctorate in Motor Development from the University of Wisconsin.