What are the skills needed for 21st century leaders? I’d argue that they’re the same skills needed for 21st century students and learners. Why? Because the students and learners of today are not only the leaders of tomorrow, but also the leaders of today. Notions of leadership are changing. The component of leadership that involves wisdom gained through life experience will always rest with those who have more of that experience. But young people are pushing the boundaries of technology and social change. Here are the three skills leaders of today – and tomorrow – need.
Leadership today need to be creative problem solvers. The issues that are arising challenge all that we know about the world and how to make it right. Authoritarian or cookie-cutter approaches to problem solving simply won’t work in the 21st century. Even the ability to “think outside the box” won’t be enough. Instead, learners and leaders will need to be able to say, “‘Box? There is no box.”
If you’ve seen the movie, The Matrix, you may remember a scene with the small boy who bends a spoon with nothing more than his mind. When Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo, asks him how he bent the spoon, the boy replies, “There is no spoon”. A similar idea of thinking beyond what we currently know to be possible will be a common characteristic of 21st century leaders. A creative and open mind will drive that ability.
Young learners and senior leaders alike need to know how to play well with others. We accomplish more when we work together. There needs to be trust, appreciation and a willingness to join forces and collaborate. Phrases such as, “Trust me… just do it my way.” or “Because I’m the boss and I say so!” just won’t cut it in this century.
In this century, everyone has the ability and capacity to be both a follower and a leader. Those who try to exert authority over others without their consent will not only be questioned, they’re likely to be shunned. Learning to appreciate others’ strengths won’t be enough… Learning how to leverage each other’s strengths will be a key to working together, creating new work, solving problems and achieving new goals.
Geographical boundaries have been almost completely transcended in the first decade of this century. In a few more decades, people won’t think twice about working with someone at a distance on a collaborative project. Those who don’t partner and collaborate effectively will be left behind. In a century driven by technology, people skills are – and will continue to be – more important than ever.
Twenty-first century leaders will have the ability to look at those around them and help them build their capacity in order to help them grown personally. That growth will add to the organizational growth. In addition to leveraging one’s current strengths, there will be a drive to explore and learn by doing.
This century, more than any other period in history is passionate about – even addicted to – creating new knowledge using technology, to inventing new and visionary projects and making things happen on a large – even global – scale. To do so, a dedication to lifelong learning not only for ourselves, but also for our colleagues, partners and team members will become the norm. Learning in a traditional classroom has already been extended to the Web, to podcasts, to television… Learning, professional development and continuous self-creation will happen almost any place, any time.
Each of us is both a learner and a leader in the 21st century. I, for one, believe in our collective potential and look forward to what we can create together.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.