Skip to main content

Leadership for the 21st Century: Can we afford specialization?

I recently had the opportunity to attend a Global Youth Leadership Summit in Salzburg, Austria. The customs agent laughed when I said I was going to a “youth” summit so I had to explain that I was invited to attend as faculty. I was asked to bring a leadership lens to support 42 young people from all over the world who were coming together to engage in scenario planning for the year 2030. (The Salzburg Seminars are an amazing opportunity if you are not familiar with them, The scenario model process facilitated by Lawrence Wilkenson, Global Business Networks, looked at four quadrants of potential scenarios along 2 dimensions, the human divide and the future of the planet. I was humbled by the sense of urgency with which the group of 20- to 30-year-old leaders tackled the global issues of human divide and the environment, developing action plans that connected their own work in ministries, as journalists, as community organizers, and as academics to these issues.

The sense of urgency was contagious, and haunting. The scenario for 2030 could be quite grim if we do not begin to immediately address the issues of the environment and the divide, often along class and race lines, between the haves and have-nots. Here in the US, Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans revealed quite starkly the growing gap between the haves and have-nots and global warming is no longer a question mark in the minds of most Americans. I found myself wondering what it would look like to convene a leadership group here in the US charged with developing action plans to address these issues. I suspect that many would argue that their focus is health insurance, or early childhood education, criminal justice, or intellectual property (unless of course their specific focus is environment, etc.) The scope of change is so enormous we try to stake out some area where we believe we can make a difference. We develop specialized knowledge and skills in a specific field and certainly can’t be expected to have a depth of understanding about the environment, about foreign policy, about global economics, etc. I remembered reading an article that was co-authored by 5 women (two former LLC board members, Kathy Allen and Georgia Sorenson) called “Leadership for the 21st Century”. The authors offer a provocative idea that we are in an era where everyone who aspires to leadership should be a global citizen, an environmental steward, a systems thinker, one who works to address racial and class inequities and reduce the gaps between the have’s and have not’s, who commits themselves to democratic practices, pays attention to advances in technology and the sciences and has a strong commitment to deep inner work. At the time I was drawn to the idea that there might be some universal leadership competencies, and that we in the field of leadership development could actively learn from one another about how to effectively cultivate and nurture these leadership practices. As an advocate for the idea of 21st Century Leadership that embodied all of these things, I had no good response to folks who could not imagine adding more to an already ambitious leadership curriculum. I still don’t have an easy answer but I am willing to take my lead from the young people I spent time with in Salzburg. I have began to wonder about the costs of leaving issues to the specialist, are we abdicating our leadership responsibilities? I didn’t hear the young doctor from South Africa, the journalist from Afghanistan, or the community organizer from Chicago ask what they could possibly do about global warming or energy consumption. Instead, they asked what wouldn’t happen if they didn’t do anything about these issues.