The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human

  • John Naisbitt

Technology is part of life. Broadly described, it is the use of scientific knowledge for improving the way to do things. It is inevitable that we all have some sort of relationship with technology. Due to the continuing marketing of the benefits of new technology we can hardly not be aware of new technologies. It makes life comfortable, connects us, empowers us, saves us time and entertains us. In the case of leadership development, internet technology serves us not only for more convenience and efficiency, but also in our deeper understanding of ‘what it means to be human’, as Naisbitt points out in the above quote – it can facilitate reflection, awareness and conversation, and as such, internalised learning.

Understanding leadership in the 21st century

Over the years our views of leadership evolved in response to the type of challenges we faced in our ever-changing world. For leadership to be leadership it has to be relevant and at the cutting edge of new thinking and trends – as much as it needs to be grounded in age-old wisdom about being human and in the tested principles needed for excellence. It follows that, if we still operate with an out-dated paradigm, even though we might be in powerful leadership positions, we will not be as effective as we could be and ultimately the organisations will suffer negative consequences.

It can be said that in many ways our thinking is still in the grip of the scientific revolution with its overwhelming emphasis on human reason and intellect, knowledge, cause and effect analysis, and top-down control by experts and bureaucrats. Accordingly, ‘leadership material’ is still regarded as those with the qualifications to proof their superior knowledge and intellectual ability, those with proven expert and functional experience, and those who deliver quick results through manipulation and control. The more typical masculine style of dominance is a perfect fit for the above criteria. As Richard Rohr noticed ‘For centuries, males have been encouraged and rewarded for living an “outer” life of performances, which are usually framed in terms of win or lose.’

However, the disillusionment with ideological-based grand designs by experts, expanding democracy, interconnectivity, the explosion of accessible information and diverse views and opinions on all matters, and the renewed appreciation for human emotions and holism, to mention a few, are all waves of change that require a relook at the kind of leader needed for our day. Indeed, from a gender perspective, it points to more feminine qualities such as empathy, vulnerability, subtlety, intimacy, and the inclination to be personal and relational.

Traditional learning methodology

Signs of the old paradigm are visible in the approaches and methodologies that are still used for so-called ‘leadership training’. The word ‘training’ is in itself a give-away. It implies the imparting of information and/or instructions by an expert to learners. As such, it is aimed at the accumulation of knowledge (focusing only on the mind), one-directional from the one who knows to those who don’t, typically in a classroom environment, and mostly in an atmosphere of compliance with the well-known ‘carrot and stick’ psychology at play.

What is needed in the new paradigm, is not merely more knowledge, but growing self- and other- awareness, the commitment to self-challenge, and growing wisdom in what context-sensitive leadership responses mean. If leadership development in the past mainly focused on outside-in processes (learning what is ‘out there’) then today, for a large part, it should be focusing on inside-out processes (learning and growing what is ‘within’), or character and latent potential development.

The development methodology that would be appropriate and effective for the development of leaders for today and tomorrow, needs to

  • facilitate self-reflection and growing self-knowledge
  • be holistic and as such engage mind, heart and spirit
  • facilitate conversation about the application of leadership principles as they are relevant in a particular context
  • make use of coaching and mentoring and
  • be long-term and process-based as opposed to short-term and events-based.

Facilitated online development

Modern-day online technology can be used effectively to meet the above criteria and serve our needs for convenience, time-efficiency, flexibility, accessibility, individual empowerment and cost-effectiveness. Participants in their development journey can be guided in their self-reflection where and whenever they feel comfortable and relaxed. They can have intelligent, constructive and continuous conversations as they share their views on the leadership topic presented in a structured programme. Coaching can effectively be integrated with the online self-managed development programme, ensuring support and ongoing engagement, and rich coaching conversations informed by the self-reflective work done by participants. Numerous relevant additional visual and text resources can be sifted and added to the programme as web links.

Research shows that all forms of online learning are on the rise and the benefits are becoming ever more convincing. It is certainly a wise choice to use technology to further leadership development.

Author : Dr Gerhard van Rensburg