The 21st Century Challenge to leadership

by Philip Boxer
The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations recently published this paper on the challenge faced by leadership in the 21st Century in their pamphlet on learning (page 2).

The paper argues that this challenge is a double challenge: organisations are being presented increasingly with forms of demand that are asymmetric to their assumptions about demand. Even if customers don’t want more, they at least want what they are being offered in a way that relates particularly to them. This means that for leaders it is not sufficient to find new ways of addressing demand – it is also necessary to question the existing terms within which they themselves understand demand. Asymmetric demands require you to pay attention to what you don’t know.

The lesson to be learnt from the military about threats is that you can die if you ignore them. In creating a double challenge for leadership, the threat presented by asymmetric forms of demand is that they question the current basis of power and authority of the leadership itself. This is the 21st Century challenge to leadership – to find the basis of their authority in the value they create within their customers’ contexts-of-use.

The Tavistock Institute is an example of an organisation committed to taking up this double challenge in its work with its clients.

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