21st Century Leadership: the jury is out

April 29, 2014

The jury is out on the emerging leadership maps of the 21st century. In this first report, we hear the summing up by the judge dealing with the evidence of the rise of rational belief systems from the time of Plato to the 18th century enlightenment and beyondThe Judge

Members of the jury. You have the responsibility to evaluate the credibility of the case for and against the leadership theories of the 21st century. To do so, you have to assess the accounts of witnesses brought forward by the prosecution and the defense. The theories placed before you are: Level 5 leadership, Distributed leadership, trust-based leadership, creative leadership, positive leadership, authentic leadership, sustainability leadership, discursive leadership, visionary leadership, charismatic leadership, and transformational leadership,

The theories brought before you are those that have become more powerful since the start of the millennium. Before I summarize the evidence, I believe it will be helpful if I outline the historical background to these theories, and particularly the influence of the dominant rational model, accused of being the ring leader of the entire group.

You will recall hearing from several witnesses that the influential leadership theories of the 20th century were broadly considered to be based on a dominant belief system in the effectiveness of rational actions informed by rational reasoning. That is to say, leadership was the execution of rational behaviours by rational actors.

The advocates of rationality have pointed to the great advances made through application of such rational behaviours for over two millennia. Two thousand years, members of the jury. Rationality, it has been claimed, was worked out as a means of establishing truths about the material world, and the worlds of science and mathematics. Many centuries later a new philosophic approach to rationality was worked out which claimed it to be the key that unlocked human consciousness from a state of ignorance or unenlightened beliefs. You heard the philosopher Immanuel Kant state that [I quote] “immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” In other words, enlightenment is the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one’s own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act.

The French academician René Descartes gave evidence of his rationalist system of philosophy and of the objectivity which reveals reality. The Enlightenment is sometimes called “the Age of Reason”. Its leading philosophers followed Descartes’s attempts to deal with the issue of objectivity and the reality of what we perceive and believe to be true.

The enlightenment ushered in an age of rationality and modernity as science and the scientific methods of analysis helped in the advances in industrial practices. An age of modernity in thinking and creating had replaced earlier less enlightened ages.

By the 20th century, the scientific approach of rationality, if I may use a popular expression, appeared to be the only show in town. As I have explained it, I have not yet made an important point. The rational model has indeed been dominant for over two centuries. Dominant but not, if I am to be precise, utterly without rivals. There were other shows in town, and it is witnesses of these that were introduced by the prosecution, who argue that they remain muted as evidence of the excessive power being wielded by the dominant rational model in leadership theorizing.

I will now move to the ten theories and the evidence of the influence of the dominant rational model.

[To be continued with the judge’s summing up of the ten theories]

Level 5 leadership,
Distributed leadership,
trust-based leadership,
creative leadership,
positive leadership,
authentic leadership,
sustainability leadership,
discursive leadership,
visionary leadership,
charismatic leadership,
transformational leadership.

Expert witness statements

Matheson, Carl, “Historicist Theories of Rationality“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Bristow, William, “Enlightenment“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),


Sustainability leadership: The case of O2’s “Think Big”

November 3, 2012

When O2 launched its sustainability initiative in 2010, it attempted to connect up its 12000 employees to a range of stakeholders as the Think Big scheme

According to The Guardian the initiative, known as “think big”,was championed by O2’s CEO Ronan Dunne, Irish rugby fanatic, and advocate of fair auctioning of the G4 spectrum rights. Think big is the creative label for the notion that:

… by “starting small”, everyone can become motivated to have bigger ideas about people and the planet. Think big aims to create greener products and services, to make buildings more sustainable, lower the company’s environmental impact and help build the confidence of a million young people through a £5m social action programme investing in youth projects.

All employees are encouraged to make pledges to get involved, supported by a strong internal campaign (online, in stores, offices and call centres) and a dedicated website. From suggesting business and energy saving ideas to volunteering or reducing their travel impact, employees are encouraged to join a community of sustainable thinkers and the company says it tries to offer something for everyone, whatever their role.
Think big values are also built into personal development reviews and O2 rewards involvement through an award-winning peer-voted recognition scheme, known as Fanclub. People can get involved in activities such as one-to-one mentoring of young people, fronted by the National Youth Agency and other partners.

They can join the company’s own network, described as teams of activists, who are able to dedicate paid-time to exploring social enterprise ideas within and outside the business. Or staff can make a difference in their everyday work by, for example, finding ways to work together more efficiently, reducing travel and energy use or recycling

Sustainability strategy

O2 has set itself a strategic goal to be recognised for its sustainability policy. The think big initiative feeds from and enhances its product development innovations.

Creative leadership and the progress principle

The broad reach of the scheme, together with integrated nature fits well with the notions of creative leadership and the progress principle advocated by Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer. Professor Amabile of Harvard Business School is a leading scholar in the field of creativity and intrinsic motivation. The progress principle champions the principle of small multiple wins as a means to a more creative and empowered corporate culture.

There is no Plan B

The high profile of the sustainability initiative is reminiscent of the Marks & Spencer approach to sustainability known as Plan A. This was also pioneered from the top, by its then CEO, the charismatic Sir Stuart Rose. It was described as plan A “because there is no alternative plan B”.

Independent monitoring

The O2 scheme is being independently monitored by sustainability experts, Forum for the Future.

Sustainability is catching on

Sustainability is no longer an optional extra for global organizations, according to sustainability consultants Seymourpowell. As well as in O2, sustainability projects have been identified in firms such as Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Akzo Nobel, eBay, BASF, PepsiCo, Tata Beverage Group, Sony Ericsson, SCA, Boots and the Technology Strategy Board

According to Dr Chris Sherwin, head of sustainability at Seymourpowell

“In my 15 years in the field, sustainable business has changed beyond recognition – moving from a risk to an opportunity; and from compliance to a leadership issue. The old way of doing things – of reporting and monitoring, through supply chains, communication and PR simply won’t work anymore. Increasingly, sustainability will be about creativity, entrepreneurship and growth, placing it squarely in the hands of innovators and designers.”

Sustainability polarises opinion

Sustainability remains a topic that polarises opinion. Those who advocate it risk being designated visionaries or charlatans (or both). It is a risk that political leaders as well as corporate leaders are increasingly having to address.