Emily Marsh January 22 2020

How leadership has changed: 2000 versus 2020

Leadership has shifted in the last twenty years away from an autocratic style and towards a more collaborative approach, fostering greater teamwork, productivity, innovation and creativity.

We're nearing the end of January 2020, and two decades into the 21st century; a lot has changed since the turn of the millennium.  

In 2000, the Nokia 3210 was the mobile phone of choice. While busy playing snake, we were also watching the first ever series of Big Brother in the UK. Westlife, Craig David and Britney Spears were topping the charts, and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston got married, sparking a global obsession.Fast forward twenty years and the majority of the population would be lost without their iPhones. Reality TV has gone wild, from TOWIE to Love Island to Gogglebox; Westlife have just completed their twenty-year reunion tour; and we've followed the whole of Brad and Jen's tumultuous journey, right up until their awards ceremony reunion last week.

 The corporate world has also changed drastically in the last twenty years. The pace of commercial and technological change that’s dominated the 21st century has led to a hyper-competitive business environment; one that’s far removed from the stability of the past. 

In this blog post we ask, what has this shift meant for leadership? How much has leadership evolved over the last twenty years? And what does this mean for how we develop our leaders of the future?

Has leadership really changed?

Arguably, the fundamental qualities of effective leaders haven’t really changed. We still need leaders who have a clear vision, who can communicate that vision in an inspiring and memorable way, who work hard and are committed to the goals of the organisation. We still need leaders who act with integrity, honesty, and transparency.

It’s just the commercial environment has changed so radically that we’ve had to adapt how we lead in order to keep pace.

Leadership in 2000: autocratic and task-oriented

Twenty years ago, businesses were operating in a relatively stable world, where change occurred at a much slower pace. The internet had only been mainstream for five years, remote working wasn’t half the phenomenon it is now, and we were all blissfully unaware of the financial crisis that was to plague the noughties.

Against this backdrop, autocratic leadership was often the norm. Managers made all the decisions, with little input from employees. They had full control, giving people clear direction on what they need to do, when to do it, and how to do it. The focus was on hard skills and getting tasks done.

In this stable world, it was also easier for organisations to identify and develop their future leaders. With a linear career path the norm and people staying in jobs for longer, succession planning was easy. Organisations knew exactly where the next leaders were coming from and the skills they would need to succeed.

Leadership in 2020: collaborative and people-oriented

Fast forward to today, and we live in a world driven by commercial and technological disruption. With change a constant, leaders need to be both attuned to the impact of technology on their business and highly adaptable as a result.

This has meant a shift away from the autocratic leadership style of the 20th century and towards a more collaborative approach. In this new style of leadership, work is no longer ordered from above but powered from within.

This new way of working has opened the door to innovation and creativity, which is crucial for organisations wanting to gain a competitive advantage. It has also brought teamwork, productivity, meaning and purpose to every aspect of our work, which just so happens to be exactly what employees today are seeking.

There has been a shift away from hard leadership to soft leadership skills too. Leaders are more people-oriented than task-oriented. We’ve talked in previous blog posts about the power of leading with kindness and a more human approach. We can see this in the greater awareness of how employees’ different personalities reflect how they respond to leadership. Leaders are more open to adapting their approach to get the best out of the individuals they lead, using tools like personality profiling that offer insights into the best ways to manage people based on their natural behavioural preferences.

The impact of technology has also brought new challenges that have triggered a change in how we lead. The rise of remote working, for instance, has emphasised the importance of leaders trusting people to work towards organisational goals without constant monitoring or guidance. This notion of empowering rather than smothering your employees is fundamental to 21st century leadership.

When it comes to succession planning and identifying the future leaders of your company, it’s not as easy today as it was twenty years ago. Research shows that there has been a continued slippage since 1999 in the number of companies who feel they have leaders ready to step in to replace those who retire or move on. Data from 2018 shows that only 14% of companies have a strong bench of ‘ready-now’ leaders.

What this shift means for leadership development

Knowing where your future leaders are coming from is as key now as it was twenty years ago. It’s just more complex. The pace of commercial and technological change shows no signs of slowing down, and so the image of what effective leadership looks like will continue to evolve.

This only makes it more important for organisations to invest in developing high-potential employees early on. As Kathy Caprino writes in an article for Forbes, “Part of being a great leader in a digital era also depends on developing other leaders.”

As employees across the board are given more autonomy and freedom to make decisions that align with the goals and strategy of the business, organisations are starting to develop leaders earlier, before they reach senior roles.

What’s more, these development programmes are more personalised to the learners’ roles and the organisations’ needs. Many organisations have seen benefits in introducing a formal mentoring culture, for example. Likewise, technology is also being used to create learning content that is more tailored to individual employees.


The last twenty years have seen organisations shift from an autocratic to a more collaborative leadership style; from task-oriented to people-oriented. Change can be good (imagine still having a Nokia 3210?), but it can also be bad (no-one wanted Hollywood’s golden couple to split).  

When we think about the last twenty years of leadership, despite the turbulence digital disruption has caused, the shift in both how we lead and how we develop our leaders has been a positive one.  

What do you think? Has our approach to leadership changed for the better? 

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