The new roles of leaders in 21st century organizations

As we’ve discussed extensively, agile organizations operate in fundamentally different ways to traditional organizations (see our previous articles here and here). But what is the role of the leader in this new open, empowered organization?

The roles of leaders in traditional organizations

In traditional organizations, the focus of leaders is to maximize value for shareholders. To do this, they play the roles of planner (developing strategy and translating it into a plan); director (assigning responsibility); and controller (making sure everyone does what they should to minimize variance against the plan).

The new roles of leaders in the 21st century

Today’s complex business environment calls for a new approach to leadership. This approach must focus on co-creating meaningful value with and for all stakeholders, expanding beyond shareholders to include customers, employees, partners and our broader society. In an open system, everyone must win. Otherwise, they’ll simply go elsewhere.

This new style of leader must play four new roles: visionary, architect, coach and catalyst. The traditional roles, while still available to leaders when needed, become woven into the way people work.


As visionaries, leaders shape the emergence of a clear, compelling purpose and vision – a North Star – that resonates throughout the organization and beyond. They don’t arrive at this in the boardroom. Rather, they emerge it from the organization by observing and listening to people throughout the system, offering ideas for consideration, and integrating others’ perspectives with their own original thinking. As visionaries, leaders also work with teams to translate the vision into measurable outcomes that empowered teams can work towards.


With clarity on what is to be accomplished, leaders act as architects. Rather than developing plans, leaders take on the more sophisticated role of designing the organization as an open and empowered system, able to continually plan, execute, and adjust flow of resources across shorter working cycles in pursuit of its North Star. They favor a deeper examination of the system designs at the core of the organization, creating space to re-imagine how products might be produced, or how sales might be generated. This requires letting go of limiting assumptions and beliefs in order to allow new forms of business and organizational models to emerge.


As people are empowered to achieve organizational goals, they need to develop greater business acumen, learn to think more strategically, and deepen their ability to collaborate. Capability building—of mindsets, knowledge and skills—becomes a critically-important area that leaders need to address.

They do this through encouraging a wide range of formal and informal learning initiatives, and evolving a culture of learning throughout the organization. They create environments where it is comfortable to experiment, where people feel equally good about discussing what went well and what could go better. They also build coaching into their team interactions by asking more questions than prescribing solutions, and seeking multiple perspectives to expand the solution space.


As catalysts, leaders unleash energy throughout the system. They do this in four primary ways: remove roadblocks that prevent empowered teams from bringing ideas to reality; foster connections across the organization; help people connect what they’re working on to the organization’s vision and aspiration; and finally, encourage an inclusive and welcoming environment of wholeness, where people can bring their authentic selves to the office, work in energizing and sustainable ways, and pursue the full range of their personal and professional aspirations.

Shared and servant leadership

Collectively these four roles aggregate into a very different and more powerful kind of leadership. Leaders – and the teams they lead – find this new approach far more energizing and effective, as it unleashes the full passion and potential of people to deliver impact and value.

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