Book review: ‘The Leadership Lab’ by Chris Lewis and Pippa Malgrem

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Understanding leadership in the 21st century.

The premise is simple enough, if a little vague. The 21st century is the most complex humankind has ever faced and because of the rapid development of digital technology, things are happening faster than ever. As a result, our leaders – whether in business or politics – need to be better at leading than they used to be when everything was slow and comfortable.

While back in the 20th century all managers had to contend with was, “an overwhelmingly male, heterosexual, patient, predictable, factual, planned, white, long-term, Western-oriented, technology-leveraged, deflationary, structured, left-brained rational, broadcast, top-down, militarily symmetric world,” now we are facing something else. That’s because we now live in, according to Chris Lewis and Pippa Malgrem - the authors of ‘The Leadership Lab: Understanding Leadership in the 21st Century’ (Kogan Page, £14.99, ISBN 9780749483432) - an “inverted, unreal, amoral, impatient, gender-fluid, polysexual, asymmetric, strategically multipolar, everywhere-facing, bottom-up, information-soaked, multi-racial, androgynous, rapidly moving, asymmetric world.”

Once you’ve got your breath back, you’ll probably draw the conclusion that what Lewis and Malgrem might be trying to say is that ‘things ain’t what they used to be.’ In that, they are entirely correct, because, as they point out, political, economic and industrial landscapes are seemingly more volatile and prone to unpredictability than ever before. In response, we have to think differently, say the authors, who between them have backgrounds in entrepreneurship, economics, journalism and advising both the British and American governments.

Leadership, they tell us, is more important than leaders. Leaders are easily distracted because of the ubiquity of digital communications, which in turn creates an increase in short-term thinking. Stakeholders get more impatient more quickly. Leaders should be thinking about what they need to be, as well as what they need to do. The virtual world is “atomising” behaviour and “disintermediating” relationships. Modelling future trends on extrapolations from historical data might not be as effective as it once was. There are some important ideas struggling to get out, but often they get buried under a mountain of management gobbledeygook.

While ‘The Leadership Lab’ is without doubt a good place to start a discussion on the nature of change faced by leaders in the 21st century, it might be pushing it a little too far to claim, as does Cherylyn Harley LeBon in her foreword, that the understanding of leadership reached by Malgrem and Lewis is “unique and precious”. Maybe we should be more cynical in our approach to the ‘The Leadership Lab’. After all, when authors take it as axiomatic that the launch of the iPhone was a “great defining moment” in the dawning of the 21st century, you do need to ask yourself whether they’ve got everything in proportion and perspective. Authorial over-excitability aside, ‘The Leadership Lab’ is a decent enough examination of the “new global storyline” that should help usefully pass a few hours on your next long-haul flight.

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