Leadership for the 21st Century 


In this article, I suggest that at the beginning of the twenty-first century all organizational leaders face the significant challenge of an operating environment of constant change. Older authoritarian and top down leadership styles will not be effective in this environment, and should be replaced with a relational and collaborative understanding of leadership. I explore the Christian understanding of the triune God and of humankind created in the divine image as providing some valuable insights that can strengthen and undergird a relational approach to leadership. I conclude that effective organizational leaders in the twenty-first century will seek to be coaches and carers as much as they are commanders. 

Sarah Jane Lancaster was from 1909 until 1934 the Pastor of Good News Hall in Melbourne, the first Pentecostal church in Australia. She could rightly be called the founder of Australian Pentecostalism. Sarah Jane was an innovative minister, willing to pioneer new ideas and creative methods of ministry. She published “Good News”, a magazine which spread the Pentecostal testimony throughout Australia, New Zealand and beyond. In its time it was cutting edge media technology. During the Depression years she spearheaded extensive welfare work among the poor and needy. Her innovation resulted in a flourishing church in North Melbourne.1 

Perhaps sadly, Sarah Jane Lancaster was eventually bypassed by the Pentecostal movement in Australia. In Melbourne the focal point of the movement shifted to Pastor C.L. Greenwood and Richmond Temple. From this church, the Australian Pentecostal movement spread and developed. While Sarah Jane’s approach was innovative in its time, it wouldn’t work today. If she could come back and visit a contemporary Australian Pentecostal church she probably wouldn’t recognize it as a direct descendant of the church she founded and led. She had a certain vision of what a church should be, and she either wasn’t able or wasn’t prepared to re-engineer her church to respond to a changing context. Eventually Good News Hall closed down. 

The author Isaac Asimov is credited with stating that “The only constant is change!”2 It is an axiom that all leaders understand intuitively. What worked yesterday won’t necessarily work today, and what works today won’t necessarily work tomorrow. Leaders face the constant challenge of adapting themselves and their organizations to an ever changing context. It was the issue that Sarah Jane Lancaster faced as leader of an Australian church in the early twentieth century. It is an issue that is even more accentuated in the early twenty-first century. Change is constant and relentless and occurs at an unprecedented rate. Technology advances insistently, and introduces into our lives social, political, and economic revolutions. 

Warren Bennis writes that “The key driver in the twenty-first century is likely to be the speed and turbulence of technological change – a virtual tsunami of change. It makes the future tense.”3 Old hierarchical bureaucracies are being replaced with sleeker, faster structures powered by a rich diversity of people, ideas, and technical competencies. In the 21st century more than any other time, relationships will be pivotal to organizational success and failure.4 Bennis predicts that “...most organizations will be filled with knowledge workers. They’ll have substantial expertise in their own areas, often beyond that of their so-called leaders, and they’ll expect to be free to make decisions in their own areas of competence... In such a setting, decisions are shaped far less by leadership authority than by collaboration, shared values and mutual respect... Therefore, the challenge to leaders will be to act as compassionate coaches, dedicated to reducing stress by ensuring that the whole team has everything it needs.”5 

Bennis highlights the question that contemporary organizational leaders must face and answer: What form of leadership is best suited to twenty-first century organizations that exist in the context of unprecedented social and technological change? 

He uses the words ‘relationship’, ‘collaboration’, ‘shared values’, and ‘mutual respect’ to describe desired leadership behaviors, and refers to leaders as ‘compassionate coaches.’ In doing so, Bennis is in accord with a great deal of current leadership theory which suggests that collaborative and participative models of leadership are the most effective in the emerging social and business context. 

This understanding of leadership is contrasted with an older more authoritarian model which made a sharp distinction between leader and follower and which is now viewed as inefficient. Madge Karecki states, “The model of the ruthless, capitalist CEO, the lone ranger at the top of the heap is a model that is being called into question by more than a few thinking people.”6 Stephen Xavier observes that “the old autocratic, top down management approach doesn’t have a place on the playing field” of contemporary business.7 

The reason that this older approach to leadership is no longer helpful is the context of constant change. One manifestation of this is the dramatic increase in knowledge available in every sphere of human endeavor. No one person has any chance of remaining up to date with all of the data available to and potentially impacting an organization. Therefore, specialization is required. Organizations increasingly consist of individuals with highly specialized knowledge and skills. They expected to be respected and valued for their expertise. The leader has to maintain healthy working relationships with these experts and also has to coach them to achieve maximum effectiveness. 

Bennis suggests that twenty-first century leaders must develop a new understanding of their role. They will have to abandon notions of the organizational leader as aloof and possessing all information and power. They will have to understand themselves as coaches, inspiring and empowering individuals and facilitating teamwork. Leadership will be the setting of vision and organizational direction, the management of change, and the inspiring of optimism, enthusiasm and commitment throughout the organization.8 

Kathleen Allen proposes that a shared collaborative form of leadership will be the most successful approach for the new century.9 In the social context of increasing change, diversity, and complexity, older approaches to leadership as being unilateral and providing decision and direction from above will not be able to cope. They will be replaced with collaborative and reciprocal leadership styles that emphasize adaptability and fluidity. The basis premise of collaborative leadership is that no one person has the solutions to the multifaceted problems that organizations must address. The principles upon which this new approach to organizational leadership is based are: (i) promoting a collective leadership process; (ii) structuring a learning environment; (iii) supporting relationships and interconnectedness; (iv) fostering shared power; (v) practicing stewardship and service; (vi) valuing diversity and inclusiveness; and (vii) committing to self-development. 

Xavier states that in an ever changing environment today’s leaders need to demonstrate flexibility, adaptability, and inclusiveness towards the team they work with if they are to survive.10 He suggests four competencies for effective organizational leaders: (i) self-awareness – recognizing your own emotions and the impact they have on those who work with you; (ii) self-management – managing your emotions and behavior; (iii) social awareness – recognizing the emotions and feelings of others when interacting with them; and, (iv) relationship management – working constructively with others to achieve organizational goals. Xavier’s four competencies highlight the need for leaders to have emotional health and intelligence to undergird their leadership and organizational relationships. 

The overall trend in organizational leadership theory emerging in these and other publications is towards the need for twenty-first century leaders to be strongly relational in their approach. Older understandings of the leader as being the strong autonomous individual achieving great things through personal genius and effort are being superseded. They are being replaced with an understanding of the leader as coach and team member who focuses on releasing the potential of the other members of the team. 

Christian theology offers rich resources upon which leadership theory can draw as it seeks to understand the leader as a relational being. Scripture makes a connection between God’s nature and leadership. The apostle Paul calls his followers to imitate him as he imitates Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life is a demonstration of God’s nature lived in human context. Jesus prays that we his disciples will be one even as he and the Father are one. Connecting these statements leads to the conclusion that leadership can and should reflect the nature of God. 

The biblical data provides us with a remarkable insight into God’s nature, that God is three and one, three in one. The attempts of the early Christian church to explain this data led to the conclusion “that there can be in God a sharing of being which does not subvert his unity.”11 This in turn led to an understanding that the being of God “is the persons in relation to one another.”12 God is what he is in virtue of what the Father, Son, and Spirit give to and receive from each other. It is in the mutual relations of giving and receiving that each of the divine persons both manifests his own personhood and affirms that of the other persons. 

One way of stating this is to describe God as a community of being. The very life and existence of God is a demonstration of relational community. Christianity understands humankind as being created in the image of this triune God. Therefore, to be human is to be relational. We need to live in community and to be loved and valued. Jesus’ prayer that “all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:21) allows us to apply this understanding of the divine life to leadership. It indicates that the way that an organization can reflect the being of God is in its community or sociality. As with the Trinity, this should be “a community in which people are defined through their relations with one another and in their significance for one another, not in opposition to one another, in terms of power and possession.”13 

Jürgen Moltmann suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity be developed as a theological doctrine of freedom which points “towards a community of men and women without supremacy and without subjection.”14 Community is the appropriate way of organizing human society and organizations. This is so firstly because it reflects the nature of the God in whose image humans are created. It is so secondly because it recognizes the fundamental equality of persons and allows for the development and expression of human potential. Power relationships exist within every organization and community.15 The dynamics of power can be used to create interdependence and mature relationships or to foster relationships of dependence and control. Contemporary leaders should use their power to release the potential of all the members of their organizational community. 

Miroslav Volf applies these ideas to human relationships.16 In personal encounters, that which the other person is flows consciously or unconsciously into that which I am. The reverse is also true. In this mutual giving and receiving, we give to others not only something, but also a piece of ourselves, something of that which we have made of ourselves in communion with others; and from others we take not only something, but also a piece of them. Each person gives of himself or herself to others, and each person in a unique way takes up others into himself or herself. 

When we apply trinitarian theology to organizational understanding, the picture that emerges is that an organization is likely to function at its optimum when there is a fundamental equality of persons expressed in mutual giving and receiving. This leads to the conclusion that hierarchical structures and authoritative leadership styles which generate dependency, helplessness and servitude do not reflect God’s nature nor do they enhance human or organizational potential. The more an organization is characterized by symmetrical and decentralized distribution of power and freely affirmed interaction, the more will it corresponds to the nature of God and the more likely it is to unleash the human potential of its participants. 

An organization reflecting the trinitarian community can have both leadership and rich diversity without a heavily autocratic hierarchy. It can be a community with a structure and a chain of command but without superiors and subordinates. As Moltmann says, the community of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit finds its earthly reflection, “not in the autocracy of a single ruler but in the democratic community of free people.”17 Any organization can be conceived of as “a community in which people are defined through their relations with one another and in their significance for one another, not in opposition to one another, in terms of power and possession.”18 At the very least, the application of trinitarian principles would affirm the value of every member of the organization, and reduce any sense of alienation between management and employees. 

Leaders who will successfully guide their organizations through the constantly changing environment of twenty-first century society will recognize the need to unleash the human potential within their organization. They will adopt a leadership style that makes this possible. The Christian understanding of the triune God who dwells in eternal relationality and of humankind created in his image provides the basis for a relational and collaborative approach to leadership. The effective organizational leaders of the twenty-first century will seek to be coaches and carers as much as they are commanders. 

1. Information on Sarah Jane Lancaster was obtained from primary sources by the author and is contained in his unpublished papers on Australian Pentecostalism. 

2. The full quote from Asimov is “The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.” http://www.thephoenixprinciple.com/quotes/2004/11/isaac_asimov_th.html (retrieved 13 June 2008). 

3. Warren Bennis, “Toward the New Millennium”, Leading Organizations: Perspectives for a New Era, (ed. Gil Hickman; Thousand Oaks: Sage 1998), 5. 

4. Susan Gibbons, “Spiritual Formation: The Basis for All Leading”, Inner Resources for Leaders (Volume 1, Issue 1), 5.  

5. Bennis, 6. 

6. Madge Karecki, “Clare of Assisi: Foot-Washing Leadership”, Inner Resources for Leaders (Volume 1, Issue 1), 1. 

7. Stephen Xavier, “Are you at the top of your game? Checklist for effective leaders”, The Journal of Business Strategy (2005; 26, 3), 35. 

8. Bennis, 7. 

9. Kathleen E. Allen, “Leadership in the 21st Century”, Leading Organizations: Perspectives for a New Era, (ed. Gil Hickman; Thousand Oaks: Sage 1998), 572-580.  

10. Xavier, 35-42. 

11. Colin Gunton, “The Trinity in Modern Theology”, Companion Encyclopedia of Theology (ed. P. Byrne & L. Houlden; London: Routledge), 938. 

12. Colin Gunton, The Promise Of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991), 74.  

13. Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 198. 

14. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God: The Doctrine of God (London: SCM, 1981), 192. 

15. Karecki, 6. 

16. Volf, 211.  

17. Moltmann, 198. 

18. Volf, 198.  


Allen, Kathleen, E. “Leadership in the 21st Century”, Leading Organizations: Perspectives for a New Era. Ed. Gil Hickman; Thousand Oaks: Sage 1998. 

Bennis, Warren. “Toward the New Millennium”, Leading Organizations: Perspectives for a New Era. Ed. Gil Hickman; Thousand Oaks: Sage 1998. 

Gibbons, Susan. “Spiritual Formation: The Basis for All Leading”, Inner Resources for Leaders (Volume 1, Issue 1). 

Gunton, Colin E., The Promise Of Trinitarian Theology. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991. 

_____, “The Trinity in Modern Theology”, Companion Encyclopedia of Theology. Ed. P. Byrne & L. Houlden; London: Routledge, 1995. 

Karecki, Madge. “Clare of Assisi: Foot-Washing Leadership”, Inner Resources for Leaders (volume1, issue 1). 

Moltmann, Jürgen, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God: The Doctrine of God. London: SCM, 1981. 

Volf, Miroslav, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. 

Xavier, Stephen. “Are you at the top of your game? Checklist for effective leaders”, The Journal of Business Strategy (2005; 26, 3). 

Bel Litchfield