Twenty-First Century Leadership

Tonight I want to talk about how leadership has been changing, and how the art of leadership is different today than it was ten years ago. This is important because if you try to lead today using yesterday’s methods, you’ll be lost. On my wall at home, I have a map of my neighborhood that’s 70 years old. If I handed you this map today, and you tried to use it to navigate, you’d be lost. You can’t use yesterday’s roadmap to navigate today’s roads. I want to give you a roadmap for how to be a leader in the 21st century.

The principles of leadership never change. There are principles of leadership, for instance, that you can find in the Bible, in books like Nehemiah, that are timeless. But the methods of leadership change all the time. What I’m going to tell you tonight probably wouldn’t have worked 100 years ago, and what I’m going to tell you may not work in 100 years. But you need to know it today. This is the shape of 21st century leadership, and you need to know it.

I want to begin by asking you to envision someone the qualities of good leaders from your past. What made them good leaders? Give me some answers and I’ll write them down…

The leader of the past – what I’ll call the modern era – was an expert at administering structures, at providing guidance and regulations. The leader of the past was directive. “I’ll tell you what to do. It’s not your place to ask any questions.” He or she knew the answers, sat at the top of the pyramid, and was likely a charismatic person. The leaders of the past spent most of their time giving orders and making sure that their subordinates obeyed. The leader of the past generated decisions at the top, and through reporting, measurement, and incentive systems, made sure that his or her decisions were implemented throughout the organization. The leader was the decision-maker, and everyone else was the implementer. Information flowed up to the leader, who alone possessed the wisdom, courage, and intellect to synthesize this information and pop out the right decisions. The leader was a singular, heroic figure who had the answers and motivated others – through charisma or by threat – to carry out his directives. That’s the image of leadership that many of us carry around with us.

The problem with this model is that it no longer works. We all realize that the leader isn’t always the most knowledgeable on every single subject, nor is his or her wisdom always available at the split second that it’s required. Followers become de-motivated when they see themselves as “choiceless doers” forced to carry out rules, regulations, and organizational charts. The leader of the past ends ups enfeebling his or her subordinates, becomes overburdened, and ends up creating a culture of Dilberts. The leader of the past will not be the leader of the future.

How do you think leadership has changed? [Get answers.]

Today, I want to give you a major transition that you can make to become a twenty-first century leader. This transition can be summarized in 5 words:


By far, the most important move that you need to make as a 21st century leader is from control to collaboration. Old-style leaders believed that people want and need to be controlled and to have decisions made for them. New leaders understand that people want to make their own decisions and have multiple choices. The leader understands that they are not a leader of doers; they are a leader of leaders.

Does the leader retain any control? Absolutely! The leader at the top of any ministry makes the choices of greatest importance to that ministry – either alone or collaboratively. For instance, the leader can take the freedom to set the direction of that ministry, but then that leader allows others the freedom to make choices that reinforce this direction. The leader says, “We’re going to cross this river, but you can do it by boating, jumping, swimming or paddling. Just cross the river!”

Let’s say that Sally has been put in charge of planning a Bible class for children of parents who are addicted to Gaither videos. She’s been given a budget and a team to work with her. Sally knows the purpose of this Bible study: “to bring healing and restoration to children of parents who are addicted to Gaither videos.” The vision of that ministry is clear. How should Sally proceed?

The old style would have been for Sally to make most of the high-level decisions, then pull her group together and tell them what to do. “Susan, you handle publicity. Sheila, you’re in charge of food.” She would have given them some freedom to make choices, but not much. Sheila could have picked whether to get French roast or dark roast coffee. But if any decision had to be made, Sally would have been calling the shots.

How would a 21st century leader act? A twenty-first century leader would realize that the members on that team are far more knowledgeable in certain areas than she is. In this scenario, Sally would pull together the team, outline the goals of the new Bible study, and say, “Let’s dialogue and share information. This is our goal. Now how should we proceed. What can we all bring to the table? How can I help you succeed in reaching our goal?”

If you watched Survivor II last night, the tribes had to build huts. In one tribe, they were lucky enough to have somebody who naturally assumed the mantle of leadership. He just began to direct people to do different tasks. It just emerged that he was the leader of that tribe.

This tribe also had a carpenter who had built many houses before. A twenty-first century leader would have said, “Look, we need to build a hut. You know much more than me about how to build a hut. I’ve never built a hut before, and you’ve built not only huts but houses. You’re in charge of the hut-building. How can I help you?” That’s how a twenty-first century leader would have acted. Unfortunately, he reacted differently. He began to tell the house-builder how to build a hut. He failed to get out of the way of the person who had the greater knowledge, the greater skill.

How do you turn from control to collaboration? It’s simple. Realize that the job of a leader isn’t to have all the answers. Move from centralized leadership to team-based leadership. Stop asking, “How can you help me succeed?” to “How can I as a leader help you succeed?” Move away from authority to trust. See your team members as co-experts, more knowledgeable in some areas than you are, and then give them the freedom to act to meet the team’s goals.

Leonard Sweet writes:

In ecclesiastic ecosystems, people at the lowest levels must be given every decision-making power and entrepreneurial boost to rise to the top; creativity in all staff, including those at the lowest level, must be given free reign; teams must be encouraged to be self-organizing; power and authority must be shared by everyone. (Aquachurch p.187)

If you want to be a controller, then be an air-traffic controller. What’s the job of an air-traffic controller? Not to keep the planes on the land, but to get them off the ground and into the sky. That’s what “controllers” do: they clear people for take off.

Sweet continues:

The future belongs not so much to the movers and shakers but to leaders who can work in teams. In fact, the movers and the shakers of postmodern culture are teams, which must become the dominant model for ministry and mission. There are no more clergy and laity. There are only ministers. Leadership…is the art of making every member as good a minister as you are endeavoring to be. (Aquachurch p.188)
Leadership in the modern world was the power of charisma and command. Only a few people had it. These were gifts. Leadership in the postmodern world is collaboration and interaction. Everybody has it. (Aquachurch p. 192)

The best part about this new style of leadership is that it’s biblical. Jesus did it. Jesus was team-work obsessed. He spent his ministry building a team. God exists in the context of a team – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Paul teaches that the church is a team – a team composed of different members who are good at different things. The New Testament says that every follower of Jesus Christ is a leader.

Let’s summarize. What’s new about leadership? What’s changed?

Old leadership style – Telling. New leadership style – Asking. “The leader of the past was a person who knew how to tell. The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.”

Old leadership style – Knowledgeable. “I know what to do.” New leadership style – Collaborative. “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

Old leadership style – Muscle. “I’ve got the power. New leadership style – Relationships. “Together we’ve got the power. Let’s do it together.”

Old leadership style – Centralized. New leadership style – Decentralized.

Old leadership style – Control. New leadership style – Chaos – but organized chaos.

Old leadership style – Self-improvement. New leadership style: Team improvement.

“In a team-player mentality, no leader ever goes to a continuing education event of conference without taking others” (Aquachurch p.193).

Effective leadership – effective ministry – is going to be team-based. Let me ask you for your own ministry: are you acting as at team? What would change if you were? What new solutions would appear to old problems?

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada