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Developing 21st Century Leaders


Rachel Lewis and Emma Donaldson-Feilder from Affinity Health at Work examine the facets required of a successful leader in today's modern workplace. 

It is widely acknowledged that excellent leadership and management are critical for successful organisational performance.

Due to changes in the economy and the nature of 21st century organisations, the type of leadership required in 2015 is different to the type of the type of leadership experienced by many current business leaders in their early careers.

The impact of leaders

As mentioned in The Importance of Leadership to HR Success post, leaders have a significant impact on the dynamics, culture and values of the organisation they lead (Gibertson et al. 2009) as well as impacting on the individual performance, health and effectiveness of employees.

Leadership is listed as a major challenge in nine out of ten organisations, yet only 8% of UK organisations consider themselves to have an “excellent” leadership pipeline (Deloitte 2015 Human Capital Trends).   

Practitioners have much to gain from the considerable research literature in the area of leadership. To help with this, sponsored by the CIPD, we reviewed the major developments in academic theory and research about leadership and examined the implications for real-world leadership and leadership development.

From this review, we concluded that there are three main areas of emerging leadership theory and research:

1. Relational leadership - the relationship between the leader and their team
2. Values-based leadership - the characteristics of the leaders and their sense of self, self-awareness and ethics
3. Contextual leadership - the significance of the environment and system within which the leader works)

These three areas have important implications for those involved in leadership and in developing leaders in organisations, which we explore in more detail below.

Relational leadership

The crux of this theory of leadership is that leaders and managers need to cultivate strong relationships with and engage with their employees. The most well-known relational leadership theory is leader-member exchange theory (LMX).

This theory posits that leaders only cultivate high-quality relationships with a small proportion of employees (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995). The social context in which the leader-employee dyad exists needs also to be considered. When employees have high quality leader-member relationships numerous positive outcomes occur, such as job satisfaction and performance.

Another theory within this body of leadership research is shared leadership. This theory views leadership as something that is shared within the team (Hernandez et al 2011).

These two theories and others within this body of research demonstrate the increasing significance that the employee plays within leadership theory.

In today’s fast-moving and diverse economy, for organisations to be successful it is critical that employees are engaged and that relationships function well in the workplace.

Generational Differences

In the Deloitte Millennial Survey 2015, it was found that there is a “leadership gap” between the priorities of current senior leadership teams and what Millennials would prioritise if they were a leader. As mentioned in our Tech Savy. Confident. What's not to like? #Millennials post, Millennials view employee wellbeing and employee growth and development as more significant. They also emphasise the importance of their organisation contributing to the wider society.

It is important that leaders are flexible in their leadership style and that organisations develop current leaders and potential future leaders. One of the outputs of our research, that we hope practitioners use to design development programmes, is a framework of management behaviours that are necessary to create sustainable employee engagement in employees. 

Values–based leadership

During the past few years, in a number of sections of society there have been examples of leaders whose values and ethics have been exposed as wanting.

There is now a call for greater transparency, authenticity and integrity for leaders.

Values-based leadership theories focus on traits and behaviours of leaders that meet this need: honesty, integrity and ethical and moral principles that they strongly value.

The two key theoretical models within this are ethical leadership and authentic leadership.

An ethical leader highlights the importance of shared values, fair treatment of their team, and integrity; their decisions are fair and they establish clear ethical standards.

An authentic leader is aware of their strengths and weaknesses, makes fair decisions, is guided by their morals and is open. 

To develop integrity and transparency within their leadership, it is key that organisations help leaders to foster self-awareness and enable them to gain insight into themselves, their values, their strengths and weaknesses, and the impact that these will have on their employees.

One method of doing this is by using 360 degree feedback. It is also critical to cultivate an ethical climate within the organisation.

Contextual leadership

The third area of leadership research has a broader focus that includes the contextual factors in which the leadership occurs.

This area of leadership theory suggests that leadership is about more than solely the leader and the relationship between the leader and their employee. Organisations are often in a state of change; therefore leadership cannot be static either – it needs to change to adapt to the constant flux within organisations and the fast-paced economy. 

Contextual leadership research suggests that, due to the knowledge-based age that we are in, if organisations want to be successful they must demonstrate the ability to share knowledge efficiently throughout the organisation. For example, within distributed leadership, leadership tasks are assigned to a range of employees in a variety of roles and at a variety of levels.


The leadership literature is broad and always expanding alongside the fast-moving world of work.  The three broad areas of leadership research described above - relational, values-based and contextual - can be used by organisations to develop leaders and ultimately their organisation.



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