21st Century Leadership

By: William Bergquist, Ph.D.

We live in a world that supports three different types of social structure. One of these social structures has been present for many centuries. A vast majority of the people now living reside in this type of social structure. This structure goes by many names: “traditional,” “primitive,” “developing,” “third world,” “agrarian” and “neo-feudal.” I have chosen to use the term premodern in identifying this social structure, in large part because the other terms tend to be value-laden or restricted to non-Western countries. Throughout this essay I will identify many positive features of premodern societies and certainly do not wish to consider it less “developed” than other social structures. Furthermore, many social structures that exist in the Western World are clearly premodern. They do not just exist in the “third world” nor are they found only in societies that are dependent on agriculture.

The second type of social structure is so prevalent in the world in which most of the readers of this essay live that it is taken for granted. This is the modern society that has existed in Western Europe since the beginning of the industrial era (early 19th Century), in North America since the early years of the 20th Century, and in urban settings in other parts of the world since World War II. We would suggest that there is now a third type of social structure that (for want of a better word) I shall identify as postmodern. This social structure now exists in many parts of the world and is rapidly assuming a prominent role at the start of the 21st Century.

Engaging Three Worlds

I propose that the profound nature of the transition that premodern societies have made in their shift to modern social structures is being matched by the profoundity of the transition that is required in the shift from modern to postmodern social structures. Furthermore, I propose that the transitions from premodern to modern and from modern to postmodern are essentially irreversible. We can never go back to a former world — though we can (and inevitably will) borrow from previous social structures as we seek to create new forms to meet emerging needs and serve new functions. While the past fifty years might best be described as an era of adjustment (the modern day organizational pendulum), we are now entering an era of fire. In this new era, old organizational forms, structures and processes will be consumed and new forms, structures and processes will emerge, like the mythic Phoenix, from the ashes of fiery consumption. This new era will not be composed entirely of new organizational elements. Rather it will offer a hybrid of . . .

  • very old, premodern elements of our society,
  • modern day elements of our society (as exemplified in many organizations that reached their zenith during the second half of the Twentieth Century), and
  • newly emerging elements that bear little similarity to either their premodern or modern day precursors.

I will briefly describe each of the three social structures to make some initial sense of these rather sweeping generalizations and will focus on the general economic and social characteristics of each type of society.

Premodern Societies

These societies are economically based in the extraction or cultivation of natural resources: agriculture, mining, forestry, fishing, ranching and related activities. It is also founded in craftsmanship—these crafts ranging from the production of tools to the creation of artistic works. While some premodern societies are very loosely structured and formed around nomadic patterns of living (the gathering rather than extraction or cultivation of nature resources), most premodern societies that exist today are founded in small villages or other closely-knit communities. The loosely structured forms of the premodern society are most likely to exist in regions of the world where there are harsh climates and sparse natural resources (e.g. Siberia, Alaska, North Africa, Central Australia).

The premodern society is also typically dependent on strong and enduring extended family systems. This extended family (usually consisting of grandparents, parents and children) serves not only as the primary economic unit of the community, but also as the primary source of most social services (health, education, child care, and so forth). While the community (and in particular the church or other philanthropic organizations) is available to support the family in an emergency (for example, loss of property or unanticipated death of family member), family members are expected to provide most of the social support. There are no medical plans, disability plans, retirement plans or social security systems in premodern societies — family members are expected to take care of their injured relatives and aging parents.

Bartering is the primary unit of economic exchange in the premodern society. Working within the context of a trusting and norm-enforcing community, men and women exchange commodities (such as tables or seeds) or services (such as home construction or plowing of a field) for other commodities or services. In such a community there is little need for money or legal institutions. One natural resource — gold — that comes from a premodern extractive process (mining) does become a medium of exchange in most premodern societies, as do certain other natural resources (such as silver, pearls, spices and art works) that are prized for their beauty or scarcity. Given the absence of any elaborate trade system or of any way in which to preserve perishable commodities (other than through a salting or drying process), the primary focus in most premodern societies has been placed on the cultivation or extraction of sufficient resources to sustain life and on high quality craftsmanship (quality rather than quantity).

Governmental institutions are typically minimal in size or scope — usually focusing exclusively on the protection of national boundaries against invasion. While there may be a rudimentary community government system (village council or town hall meetings), the primary authority resides within the family and in the informal control exerted by the most economically powerful families in the community. Even today, we find that many premodern societies are essentially feudal in nature, with power residing with a few members of the community who, in turn, assume overall responsibility for the welfare of the community and all of its residents.

While most premodern societies are established in small communities, relatively large cities obviously existed throughout the world long before the 19th Century advent of industrialization in Western Europe. Premodern cities such as Paris, Rome, London, Cairo, Istanbul, Mumbai and Beijing were usually not much more than very large (and often quite unwieldy) extensions of the small village. Minimal government existed in these urban centers and tightly knit ethnic neighborhoods took the place of the village community. Extended families still played a dominant role and bartering was prevalent. The premodern city played a critical role in supporting limited international trade and the more sophisticated crafts (such as printing and the construction of large buildings). They also typically housed the central administrative offices of the only two organizations of any significant size in the premodern world — namely, the military and church. A large cathedral or temple usually dominated the central core of the premodern city, while the military typically provided protection at the outskirts of the city: the gates to the city, and/or the towers and walls surrounding the city.

Modern Societies

The modern society was a byproduct of Western industrialization. As machines were being invented and built that enabled mass production, there was an increasing need for centralization of both capital (for the machines were very expensive) and a work force (to run the machines). Extended families from premodern communities were broken up as the younger members of the family were lured by the prospect of money and material possessions to the new urban centers of industry. Of even greater importance (especially in modern American life) was the creation of a new form of community — called the suburb. Often identified as “the sultans of sprawl,” William Levitt, James Rouse and Robert Moses led the way, following World War II, by creating the first large-scale housing developments (Levitttown, New York), commercial malls (Rouse) and expressways (Moses) to connect the suburbs to one another and the urban centers that employed the suburbanites.

The new industrial workers discovered a new commodity: money. They soon substituted wages for the production (or bartering) of their own food or commodities. With the shift to a money-based economy came the vast expansion of financial institutions. While banks exist in premodern societies (primarily to serve the upper class), they play a much larger role in modern societies, serving not only as a safe repository for saved money, but also as a source of unearned money. The modern worker soon discovered that banks would enable them to spend money that they had not yet earned and to take out long-term loans to make major purchases (especially homes). Modern societies inevitably become communities of debt and money becomes the most valued entity in these societies.

Industrial workers also substitute employment in modern organizations for their premodern reliance on the extended family. The organization becomes their new source of security and they look to their work site for friendship and a sense of purpose and community. Increasingly, the modern worker also began to look to the government for basic social services: education, health, retirement. Thus, we find in the modern society not only expansion in the size of private industrial organizations, but also in the size and scope of public institutions. Public education, social welfare and medical services for the elderly became the givens of modern societies. Citizens no longer looked primarily to their family or to their church or other philanthropic organizations for support. Rather, government became the new guarantor of health and happiness. Government soon also entered the much more controversial arenas of organizational operations (labor law and affirmative action), family life (protection of children against abuse) and private morality (the right for women to abort an unborn child).

With mass production came a shift in focus from quality to quantity. Industrialization (and an accompanying capacity for widespread distribution of products) shifted the focus of economics to productivity. Industries (and the workers in these industries) were considered successful if they were highly productive. High levels of productivity in turn led to the need for marketing and a new emphasis on sales. Profit could only be derived from large volume sales (to make up for the initial costs associated with purchase of the mass production equipment). Productivity without sales yielded nothing but a costly surplus of goods. The modern era (in conjunction with the move to suburbia) brought about the department store, the franchise fast food industry, and the abiding concern about crab grass and lawn fertilizers. Thus, the industrial Revolution became a Commercial Revolution.

While the premodern craftsman typically only made a product when it was requested and tended to custom make each item, mass production processes called for uniformity of product and for interchangeable parts. The new emphasis on uniform production and marketing and sales set the stage for new organizational roles that were not directly connected to the production process. These non-production roles in marketing, sales and production control were soon complimented by another set of organizational roles — those associated with the overall coordination of organizational functions. These roles (called “management”) soon came to dominate the culture of the modern organization and provided much of the leadership for 20th Century organizations. Thus, the industrial and commercial revolutions produced yet another revolution: the Managerial Revolution.

Postmodern Societies

The new social structures into which the more privileged people of the world are moving offers a remarkable mixture (hybrid/pastiche/mosaic) of the premodern, modern and postmodern. New communities are being formed that in some ways resemble the premodern villages of olden times — yet these new communities are formed around electronic communication systems and the new digital economies of the 21st Century. We are returning to bartering systems, but are now negotiating exchanges over the Internet rather than down at the Town Square. The big businesses of the modern era continue to exist, but are now competing or cooperating with the small e-commerce businesses of the postmodern world. We are returning to premodern rituals and spirituality, while proclaiming our modern-day independence from superstitions and dependence on science and technology.

Our new postmodern world comes to us complete with new heroes (ranging between Bill Gates and Madonna) and new legends (such as the sagas of Elvis Presley and Nelson Mandela – to mention the extremes). It also comes to us with great promises (universal education, abundant food sources, new forms of energy) as well as daunting challenges (overpopulation, environmental collapse, virulent plagues). Each of these promises and challenges is global in nature and scope. A level of cooperation between nation-states is required that has never been achieved in either the premodern or modern era. The new global village must look to new strategies and discover new answers, while also honoring the wisdom and values of past eras. Our emerging postmodern era is perhaps best described as an edgy experience: we are poised on the edge of both chaos and order. We know something about what is to come. Yet, we don’t know exactly what form the new will take. As Salmon Rushdie queried in his very postmodern and life-threatening (for him) novel The Satanic Verses: “How does newness come into the world? How is it born? Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made? How does it survive extreme and dangerous as it is?”

Transition in Organizational Forms and Roles

We propose that the transition from the premodern to the modern society has produced a comparable transition in the form that organizations take and the roles being played by people who work within these organizations. Furthermore, there are comparable changes in organizational forms and roles that are taking place with the transition from a modern to postmodern society. In many cases, technology is the common element in bringing about the transition from premodern to modern and from modern to postmodern in both social structures and organizational forms and roles. New machine-based technologies created the industrial era, which transformed the ways in which people lived.

These technologies also produced the organizational transformations from premodern to modern. A new machine that can produce five thousand widgets an hour replaces low wage workers who can each mold only two hundred widgets per hour. The workers are now shifted to jobs that require monitoring of machine output or to jobs requiring the packaging of the widgets to be shipped half way around the world. Other workers obtain a high school or even college education and enter the organization as marketing experts (so that potential buyers half way around the world will come to believe that their life is unfulfilled without widgets). Others enter the modern organization as accountants (since monetary exchange has replaced bartering in a world where purchasers live many miles away). The largest proportion of workers now enters the organization as managers (for all of the other functionaries in the organization need to be coordinated, motivated and assessed). Thus, from the introduction of new technologies into an organization comes a sequence of events and decisions that produce new organizational forms and new organizational roles.

A similar case can be made with regard to the transition from modern to postmodern social structures and organizational forms and roles. Technology has once again served as the primary transformer of both social and organizational structures. We are therefore in an excellent position to learn from the previous technological impacts that transformed our premodern societies.

Leaders Work in Three Different Kinds of Organizations

In this section I briefly, but systematically, review many of the elements of three types of organizations and suggest several perspectives and strategies by which the leaders of contemporary organizations can survive in and even help to co-create our emerging postmodern world. Eight dimensions are commonly used by contemporary theorists and practitioners as focal points for their investigations and analyses of organizations: size, complexity, intentions, boundaries, communication, capital, worker values and leadership. My analysis of the emerging postmodern organization will center on these eight elements. In the case of three of these dimensions, we have combined two separate, but closely related, aspects of organizational life. Size and complexity tend to be closely related. Intentions and boundaries directly bear on one another, as do capital and worker values — especially when consideration is given to shifts in each of these dimensions during the premodern, modern and postmodern eras.

In essence, I propose that major shifts have occurred in each of these dimensions as our world has moved from a premodern era (based in the extraction of natural resources and craft work) to a modern era (industrial and human-service based). Shifts of a similar magnitude are now occurring throughout the world (and particularly in the Western world) as we move into a postmodern world.

Size and Complexity

We find in the premodern era the dominance of simple organizational structures (usually based in the family unit) and an emphasis on gradual growth. By contrast, in the modern era, emphasis is placed neither on the process of growth itself nor on the gradual expansion in organizational capacity, but rather on the outcome of growth, i.e. large size and an accompanying increase in organizational efficiency and market share. Organizational structures are no longer simple in the modern era. However, these structures are usually uniform within and between organizations (being bureaucratic in nature). Furthermore, these structures are compatible with hierarchically based forms of leadership and authority, and with the highly energy-intensive and technologically driven processes of mass production.

In the movement to a postmodern era, emphasis tends to be placed not on growth and largeness, but instead on keeping things small or of moderate size. Structures are neither simple nor uniform — despite the emphasis on smallness. Rather, fragmentation and inconsistency typifies the postmodern organization. It is comprised of differing organizational structures, policies and procedures. While many people view this fragmentation and inconsistency as transitional in nature — between the modern era and some new, as yet undetermined, era — there is reason to believe that this will be a much longer-term condition of postmodern organizations.

Intentions and Boundaries

The premodern organization typically has tacitly held boundaries (particularly between work and family life) as well as tacitly held intentions. This doesn’t mean that boundaries and intentions are unimportant; rather the intentions and boundaries are taken for granted and rarely discussed. There was little need for an explicit definition of organizational intentions since family members primarily performed the work of the premodern organization. Furthermore, their intentions focused almost exclusively on the provision of sufficient nutrition and shelter. Furthermore, even among those working in the trades, a formal statement of intentions was unnecessary since the product spoke for itself. A system of bartering and exchange of goods and services (for example, the farmer’s market) eliminated the need for any substantial monetary system.

In the modern era, boundaries are quite clear, while statements of intention have tended to remain rather unclear or inconsistent. In modern organizations, clear distinctions are made between the places where employees work and where they live, relax, and worship. We know when we are entering and leaving a modern organization and often define this organization by its sheer existence rather than with regard to its specific intentions. Thus, in the modern era, large organizations can buy up other organizations with relatively little regard for the compatibility of organizational intentions, and can diversify their enterprises primarily with regard to monetary or market gain, rather than with regard to some founding purpose or cause. In many cases, the mergers and acquisitions have resulted in impressive short-term financial gain and even in the rebirth of organizations that have been poorly managed or become stagnant. Longer-term consequences, however, have often been much less positive or even destructive to both organizations.

Frequently, the absence of a clear statement of intentions in modern organizations has been hidden behind the facade of fiscal accountability. The organization exists to produce a profit for the owner or the shareholders. Such a statement of intentions in the modern world heightens confusion or inconsistency in the identification and maintenance of long-term goals and sustaining values. While profits are often essential to the existence of a modern organization, they should not be the reason for its existence. Furthermore, profits rarely provide sufficient guidance to steer the leaders of modern organizations through the increasingly turbulent waters of our emerging postmodern world.

Postmodern conditions have precipitated a crisis with regard to both intentions and boundaries. In order to survive, most postmodern organizations have formulated clearer statements of intentions, in part because they usually no longer have clear boundaries. As specialty shops in postmodern corporate and human service malls, these organizations must find distinctive niches and become more adaptive in the manner in which they market, produce and deliver products and services. The leaders of organizations in the postmodern world repeatedly must re-examine their intentions, for the world in which they operate is constantly changing and demanding new and different products and services. Without a clear sense of intentions, these organizations soon splinter or become aimless vagabonds or scavengers that feed destructively on other organizations and segments of our society.


Oral forms of communication were dominant in the premodern world. Small, simple organizations allowed men and women to freely communicate face-to-face with one another. A strong sense of community and homogeneity of interests and values minimized the need for written documentation. With the emergence of industrialized and highly specialized modern organizations, there came an increasing need for written communication (contracts, letters of agreement, recordings of transactions and so forth) as a substitute for direct interpersonal contact. Rather than seeing and listening to another person, one reads her memorandum or written proposal. Other visual modes of communication also prevailed: television, film, graphics, and icon-based computer programs.

The postmodern world tends to be orally based — and in this sense more closely resembles the premodern than the modern world. In the postmodern organization we call each other and leave voice messages, rather than writing letters. We eliminate our secretaries and clerks, and seek to reduce paperwork. The Internet provides an opportunity for information and spontaneous communication to take place that seems more like extended conversation than a formal office memo. As computers are made available with even greater capacity and speed, we are likely to find that the written e-mail is replaced with the visual e-mail, making this mode of communication seem even more like face-to-face conversation.

In the postmodern era, short-term, face-to-face meetings, ad-hocracy, task forces and temporary systems have replaced long-standing bureaucratic structures that were dependent on written rules and the documentation of policies, procedures and program ideas. In this orally based world, gossip and story-telling take on new relevance and appreciation, as does the interplay between communications and relationships. Words intermingle with nonverbal expressions of concern or happiness. People learn how to quickly bond together in temporary groups and then just as quickly disengage so that they can move on to different groups and different projects.

Capital and Worker Values

Land and other natural resources (for example, gold, oil, and timber) are the dominant and most tangible forms of capital in the premodern era. Ancestry and reputation are two less tangible, but equally as important forms of premodern capital. The divine right of kings prevails. The Catholic Church has emphasized property and prohibited the use of money to make money, hence one could not charge interest on a loan. Thus, an emphasis was placed on property rather than money. Workers, in turn, tended to focus on shelter, food and water — and quality of life. They readily conformed because they looked outside themselves for the essentials of life. They looked toward people in positions of authority to provide both guidance and sustenance and asked for little in return.

The modern forms of capital, by contrast, have been money and buildings. Reputation and ancestry have become less important. The new wealth and new bourgeoisie is more liquid and more volatile. Rich men come and go. This new form of capitalism was supported by Calvinistic doctrine and by the Protestant churches that became more dominant and influential (at least in middle and upper classes) during the modern era. One’s worldly success (as manifest in the non-conspicuous accumulation of monetary wealth) is a sign of one’s predestined salvation. Thus, poverty is considered in some very basic sense to be sinful and a sign of one’s damnation, as is laziness and a questioning attitude about the dominant social order. This Protestant Ethic has dominated European-American notions about the meaning of work and capital for several centuries.

Modern workers no longer owned the business in which they worked, nor did they have a close familial (paternal) relationship with the person who did own the business in which they worked. Workers were now confronted with large, faceless corporations in which responsibility for worker welfare was absent or, at best, diffuse. As Marx suggested (at the start of the Modern era in Europe), workers were now alienated from the profits for which they toil. They no longer “owned” the products and services they were employed to provide. Thus, the primary motivators for workers in modern organization concerned assurance regarding job, wages and health. Modern workers wanted three things: job security, adequate pay and benefits (a living wage) and a safe work environment. They often unionized in order to obtain assurance in these three areas.

The new capital of the postmodern era is information and expertise. Approval (and its inverse, shame) are components of the new capital. Values of the postmodern worker compliment this new capital. Emphasis is placed on three motivating factors: the meaningfulness of the work, the ability to influence the work environment and the quality of interpersonal relationships among those working in the organization. The three modern motivators (job security, wages and safety) are still important. They must be addressed in a satisfactory manner prior to addressing postmodern motives. However, assurance regarding job security, wages and health is no longer sufficient. Increasing attention is given to the meaning of work and to recognition derived from colleagues and one’s boss(es) regarding the quality of one’s work. Quality of Work Life programs and Social-Technical Systems dramatically increase worker involvement in the design of production systems and even in daily decision making regarding purchase of equipment, composition of work teams and increased worker safety and security. The new values of the postmodern worker begin to border on the spiritual domain, as greater meaning, purpose and ownership is sought in one’s work and affiliation with an organization.


Leaders in the premodern era tended to be great men and women who were selected for their character and education. Great men not only led organizations, they also influenced history and established societal values. Leaders were either born to greatness or provided with an elitist program of liberal arts and mentorship. They tended to exert authority through a paternalistic concern for the welfare and proper education of those who depended on them. By contrast, the more democratic modern era tends to emphasize structures, processes and procedures that ensure the appropriate expression of leadership and influence. Events and structures — not great people — determine the course of modern history, and values are identified as products of the system and bureaucracy rather than as products of any specific individual(s). Emphasis was thus placed not on identifying or producing a great leader (as in the premodern society), but on constructing a great system. Those who head modern organizations typically define themselves as managers rather than leaders. They were to manage and be worthy stewards of the great system that had been created by other people (the nameless and faceless designers of bureaucracies). Modern authority is expressed through the autonomy of rules, regulations, roles and organizational structures.

The postmodern world has called both the premodern and modern notions of leadership into question. The postmodern leader is neither inherently great nor is she merely a product of a great system or bureaucracy. Greatness in a postmodern society involves interaction and great alignment between potentially great people and a potentially great system. The postmodern leader can be found at any level of an organization. Individual leadership can be effectively exerted and will be influential if applied at the right time, in the right place, in the right manner, and with regard to the right problem or goal. This contextual model of leadership requires careful consideration of both individual and organizational character and style. It also requires a tolerance for ambiguity, recognition of the need for one to learn from his or her mistakes, and a clear sense of personal aspirations. It is ultimately spiritual rather than secular in nature.