Twenty-First Century Leadership for Twenty-First Century Problems

By: Joanna E. Starek

Twentieth century leadership was characterized by the heroic, brilliant individual leaders who led countries and people out of wars and into prosperity. Twenty-first century leaders are those who can quickly pull together other great minds to solve complex problems. One of the reasons the federal government of the United States is struggling to respond to COVID-19 is because it is set up to implement policy, not to solve complex problems. An ideal response at the federal level would have been to pull together a global pandemic team of experts (scientists, healthcare experts, CEOs, mental health experts, and governors) and generate coordinated guidelines. Instead, we pulled back into factions and silos and failed to see the interconnected solutions required to respond effectively.

CEOs and business leaders in global companies are more prepared as they are used to pulling together teams to address complex problems, but even their boundaries are being stretched in ways they had not imagined. For example, we are seeing pharmaceutical companies share science in order to combat COVID-19. They are less worried about who gets the credit and more interested in fighting a common enemy—a virus. Similarly, we are seeing medical device companies open source their intellectual property so others can manufacture ventilators. We are also seeing CEOs reach out across industries seeking input on how to navigate without knowing what is coming next. What we are witnessing is the emergence of twenty-first century leadership that is characterized by collective problem-solving, empathy, and the ability to mobilize quickly to neutralize threats to human populations on a global scale.

Twenty-first century problems will transcend national, state, or political identity as well as industry competition. We should all be observing what has changed and ask ourselves what is required of us as people, as leaders, and as citizens in order to thrive moving forward. The patterns are clear; we are globally connected and are extremely vulnerable. We can create great instability and/or wipe out huge swaths of the human population when we ignore the implications. Conversely, there is a bright side. We are globally connected and we have the tools to bring all of human ingenuity and brilliance to bear to thrive in new and unique ways. The challenge is to eradicate old mindsets and embrace new solutions. To start, let’s identify and support the coalition builders who are not afraid of complex problems but enjoy them. They know how to identify the root cause of problems, pull together experts, communicate a plan to broader populations, and mobilize a quick response. Maybe we just start there. 

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