Wednesday, November 8, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Leadership in the 21st century

Special to The Times

FOR most of human history, folks haven't spent much time analyzing leadership. Kings didn't exactly reward subjects for constructive criticism. Autocratic governments and organizations left little ambiguity about what it meant to be in charge. As we usher in the first president of the new millennium and observe a changing of the guard in corporate America, new attention is being paid to the demands of 21st-century leadership--with good reason.

As recently as 100 years ago, citizens thought in terms of "leaders," not "leadership." In fact, "leadership" did not appear in the dictionary until the late 1800s. But the 20th-century industrial world witnessed a massive decentralization of organizational authority, and the need for good leading cascaded down and around from the top. It could be argued that or- ganizations moved in the direction of democracies, leaving the top gun with more "limited power" than in the good old days.

Amazingly, "limited power" is exactly what the authors of the U.S. Constitution had in mind for the president of their new country. So we find ourselves at a point in history when the qualities our nation needs in its non-political leaders are the same qualities we need in our president. In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton, Madison and Jay offer the revolutionary suggestion that it is better for a leader to exercise strong and noble influence over a nation than for a nation to give its leader absolute power.

The 20th century has seen "leadership" move inexorably from "the leader" toward the people being led. This shift does not mean that persons in top positions now hold less responsibility than their autocratic ancestors. Rather, it suggests that today's leaders must think in terms of skillfully empowering people. Perhaps it could be said that 21st-century organizations will be "by the people, for the people and of the people."

So, what do we need from the 21st-century leaders of these new, more federated, institutions? What do we need from the president of the United States? We need the same qualities that our nation's founders presumed for their glorious experiment in 1787. And three, in particular, beg for attention.

** Inspiration--When Aeschines spoke, the people remarked, "how well he speaks." But when Demosthenes spoke, the people cried out, "let us march against Phillip!" This is one of my favorite quotes from five years of doctoral study in organizational communication. To inspire is to propel people to action. It is to deliver a compelling vision of what could be. Inspiring relies less on authoring the vision than on being able to deliver it straight to the soul.

When Spokane leader Happy Watkins launches into Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, we understand what it means to listen with our blood. Today's leaders compete with complacency and a bombardment of fingertip diversions for the attention of their people. Honor and duty can easily atrophy beneath the fast-paced tedium of daily life. But when leaders breathe energy into these dormant virtues, people will rally around their vision. They will "march against Phillip."

** Virtue--Virtue in our leaders is more important now than ever. When organizations' leaders and members worked in more circumscribed roles, ethical detours were easier to spot. Now that our line of sight isn't so straight, trust must replace surveillance. Citizens in our democracy and members of organizations are looking for leaders who set exemplary standards for themselves, who see the wisdom in doing well by doing good, and who appeal to--and bring out--the best in us.

Leaders don't have a choice in whether their actions set the ethical tone of their cultures. As a young alum wrote me last month, "you follow what you see." And I believe the 21st-century citizen will demand to see leaders whose competence and virtue can be trusted.

** Adaptability--Advertising mogul William Marsteller once exalted consistency by saying, "if you're a son of a bitch, be one all the time." Marsteller's advice has expired. Today's federated organizations have become too paradoxical for Johnny-one-note leaders. For example, Fortune 500 companies seem to brag about being big and sturdy as well as being small and personal. To pull off that particular paradox, their leaders must know when to stand tall and when to be one of the gang.

Wherever people have been empowered, a sense of shared ownership replaces tight chains of command. The most fundamental challenge facing our country's next president, and all leaders in this new century, is knowing when to lead the people and knowing when to follow them. Our leaders must have the skill, confidence and humility to do both.

The 21st century has emerged with new organizational structures and new requirements of its leaders--both in gov-ernment and non-government organizations. It's ironic that at a time of deep cynicism in American politics, the roots of our government provide a formula for hope. Perhaps it's just the right time for some good 18th-century leadership.

Bill Robinson is president of Whitworth College in Spokane and chair of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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