29th November 2013

Redefining Leadership in the Flat World 

Leadership is being redefined in what Tom Friedman so cogently described as our “flat world”[i].In the flat world, global competition is multiple diverse stakeholders, hyper-competition, disruptive technologies, tipping points and feedback cycles that quickly reward success and punish failure. 

Today, of course, leadership in this flat world must also be exercised in the maelstrom of the multiple crises of our interconnected political, economic, social, climatic and environmental systems.

It is an exciting, challenging, fully engaging, sometimes risky and often exhausting place to live and work, and high performance demands the best of human capabilities.  Old paradigms of leadership are suddenly no longer serviceable.  Those who would lead must have an international rather than a merely multinational perspective; they must have broad vision, imagination, courage and resilience; the capacity to facilitate group thinking when complex problems arise; honed social and emotional skills for ‘sensemaking’ and creating followership amongst good people who always have choices about whether they stay or go.  Above all, perhaps, they must have a preparedness to work at their own developmental edge in order that they might bring to their role, in Abraham Maslow’s words, the necessary ‘full stature of which they are capable’[ii].

Organisations are very well-suited to holding us at the Organisational stage of our development, the hallmark of which is an independent selfhood.  These very structured and regularised contexts foster us in young adulthood in the important exercises of self-discipline, personal achievement pride in ourselves, and ambition.  But leading in the flat world requires more from us than the autonomous ways of thinking and being of this stage.  It requires the functional maturity of a higher stage of development - The World-Centric stage – which only becomes available to us when we have separated ourselves from our activities (through which we previously demonstrated and defined ourselves).  At the World-Centric stage we can give up our certainty for curiosity because ‘not knowing’ no longer threatens our sense of who we are, and so we can embrace complexity, paradox, ambiguity, uncertainty and flux.  We can learn from anyone who can teach us, and forge genuine, interdependent relationships with others because we can now grant them their own individuality.  We can challenge ‘business as usual’ because we are no longer invested in the preservation of the organisation as-it-is as the venue in which we affirm our identity.  And we can also propose a greater purpose for our organisation than simply to maintain itself because we can now envision the role it could play in the world. 


The higher-order functioning of the World-Centric stage is not just valuable for leaders, therefore.  It is essential if they are to steward their organisations successfully into their new flat-world future.

[i] Foreword, Finding Merlin, by Ted Tschudy (2012)

[ii]Motivation and Personality by Abraham H Maslow, 1987