The 21st Century World of Work: not a place for wimps


The 21st-century workplace is placing tough demands on executives. Globalisation and rapid changes in information and communication technology have created a workplace in which change is fast, endemic and complex. For most executives, it is now impossible to keep up with all the developments that affect them in their day-to-day work.

Added on 07 August 2014 by Anthony Kasozi

Man crying into his hands

Implications for leaders

All this change has significant behavioural implications for leaders. It requires them to “step away” and then to “step up”, but to do so in ways different from those they have been accustomed to, not simply by working harder or faster. As leaders they have to work in ways that simultaneously balance how they seek to sustain the changes they are initiating, offer containment and foster insight.

Today’s executives have to deal with escalating demands for personal performance, engagement and responsibility. They are expected to drive themselves and others hard to achieve a multiplicity of challenging and changing stretch performance targets. They have been trained and are often encouraged and expected to be “tough” and to prevail in the face of challenge and adversity. Their overwhelming experience suggests to them that the 21st century world of work is certainly not a place for “wimps”.

New book offers a solution

A new book ‘The Leadership Shadow’ addresses the commonly-held perception that in modern life, and its challenging circumstances, and in the midst of a hectic career, professionals can go into “overdrive”. Leaders can be pushed, or push themselves, into a balancing effort that overshoots and is difficult to recover from. Ultimately this overshooting may lead to a negative spiral that can cause physiological and psychological illness or collapse.

Cycles of hubris and humility in leadership

Central to these extreme experiences of overreaching is the idea of hubris; “a sense of overbearing pride, defiance or presumption not justified by the circumstances or by the perceptions of others”. Excessive pride is associated with public displays of overconfidence, which can hide private feelings of remorse and doubt. This can become a repeating cycle that may well spiral out of control.

What makes the recovery from cycles of hubris most challenging is its association with processes that are actually quite “healthy”. These are two related and mingled processes: one, a process of “growing our talents” or “growing our business”; the other, an intertwined process of “growing our hubris”. The primary developmental task here is to grow one’s talent without succumbing to the exhaustion, the pride or the stress, that are the essential concomitants of the very process, leading to excessive and unfounded self-assertion. For growth and balancing to take place effectively we need to pay attention to our progress and the influences of our changing roles and relationships. Learning to lead requires humility; in the sense of being lowly and grounded; in touch with what the base of your organisation thinks and open to your own experiences of “incompetence” (impotence) and “over-competence” (omnipotence).

How contextual challenges contribute to overdrive

As a 21st century executive you have to work well with ambiguity. You are expected to be highly self-aware. You are required to be flexible, comfortable with conflict and adaptable to ever-increasing and complex demands. You have to have a strong strategic sense, able to rise above it all; and then be able to switch mode and quickly engage with the detail. You have to be a hard-working team player as well as a strong independent individual.

You have to be incredibly “present” to a great many people. You have to be erudite and action- oriented, reflective and initiating; flexible and warm in relationships, and decisive in taking a stance. It appears superhuman, yet around the globe entire hierarchies of executives are engaged in precisely this tough yet flexible dance.

But, rather than trying to develop ourselves into even faster-adapting human beings, it is more important to anchor ourselves in our vulnerable yet stable human nature, to extract more radical and deeper insight that gives us the edge.

So what might we do next? 

What is needed is a better understanding of:

  1. What is changing in our context 
  2. How that is impressing itself on fundamental aspects and patterns of our human nature. 

This requires that we not only understand our context much better but that we also develop deep insight into ourselves, our qualities as well as our drivers and patterns. We have to develop a way of working, living and being that encompasses our core qualities, drivers and patterns; and at the same time enables us to thrive in this demanding environment. To do this we have to be able to analyse, recognise and assess the best of our qualities and how these get engaged and activated within our context.

‘The Leadership Shadow’ considers how people’s qualities, strengths, drives and patterns of behaviour enable them to thrive in today’s fast-moving, challenging and competitive contexts, as well as how the very same drives and patterns of behaviour can go into “overdrive”, resulting in difficulties. The book addresses how managers:

  • Overcome their “overdrive” tendencies and difficulties in practice
  • Manage to draw on their best qualities to recover from episodes of overdrive
  • Engage with and relate to others in effective ways.

The Leadership Shadow will be of particular interest if you are, or aspire to be, in a senior leadership or management position in business or public service, or if you coach or supervise other leaders or managers.

This article is adapted from the forthcoming book by Prof. Erik De Haan and

Dr. Anthony Kasozi, The Leadership Shadow, published by Kogan Page.