The Future of Leadership


At the closing of the 23rd Kravis-de Roulet conference, Dr. Jay Conger, Institute Chair, of the Kravis Leadership Institute compared leaders to matryoshka, the Russian nesting dolls. This illustration stuck out to me because Leadership originally conceived of leaders as a sort of all-powerful super hero. Dr. Conger further explained that as the leadership field has grown, “we began to open the doll and look inside the leader”, noticing that within every leader there were multiple smaller dolls, each of which represented a new force that allows a leader to succeed or fail. With Dr. Conger’s talk in mind, I will present two important forces discussed at the conference that affect the future of leadership: context and followership.

Importance of context:

Leaders are traditionally seen as charismatic heroes, lone figures towering above their organizations. They are seen most in the military or business worlds – General George Patton, auto executive Henry Ford, computer guru Steve Jobs. But in reality, the success of a leader depends on the context or environment in which they work – that is to say, the deck they’ve been dealt. This applies even to heroes.

But as contexts (workplace, workers, the work itself) change as we move towards a knowledge-based economy, the “lone hero” isn’t always the most effective leader in this new world. A different type of leader has emerged as successful, especially when cross-agency and/or cross-sector challenges arise. In fact, the best leaders tend to share leadership vision in any large-scale change effort.

Harvard Business Professor John Kotter wrote the book Leading Change in the mid ‘90s centering on his observations of what leaders had in common. In particular, he described eight steps taken by leaders who successfully navigated change. These steps seem to be relevant to agency-centric environments as well as cross-agency environments when a transformation is afoot:

Step 1- Establish a sense of urgency
Step 2- Create a guiding coalition
Step 3- Develop a vision & strategy
Step 4- Communicate the change vision
Step 5- Empower employees for broad-based action
Step 6- Generate short-term wins
Step 7- Consolidate gains and produce more change
Step 8- Anchor new approaches in the culture

While these steps seemed to be common among successful leaders, how they were applied differed widely because the leaders faced different operating environments.

Importance of followers: 

It cannot be assumed that people will follow a leader. A follower has needs that must be satisfied by their leader, or they will cease to follow. When this happens, the follower becomes a leader – either leading themselves and others away from the organization or leading the organization in another direction. Organizations or businesses that take an honest and open look at this dynamic and focus on how to support both leaders and followers have the greatest chance of success.

Followership can be defined as the willingness to cooperate in working towards the accomplishment of the group mission, to demonstrate a high degree of teamwork, and to build cohesion among the group (Holden Leadership Center, 2014).

Sounds pretty similar to leadership, doesn’t it? Effective followership is an excellent building block to effective leadership. There are numerous sources to which one can turn to find helpful information on effective leadership, leadership practices, and becoming the best leader one can be. Fewer such sources exist to guide one to be an effective follower, although there are some. The following behaviors have been identified as those comprising effective followership (Holden Leadership Center):

  • Volunteering to handle tasks or help accomplish goals
  • Willingly accepting assignments
  • Exhibiting loyalty to the group
  • Voicing differences of opinions, but supporting the group’s decisions
  • Offering suggestions
  • Maintaining a positive attitude, even in confusing or trying times
  • Working effectively as a team member



Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Harvard Business Press.

Kravis-de Roulet Conference (2014). Future of Leadership. Claremont McKenna College. Hosted by Kravis Leadership Institute.

Holden Leadership Center (2014).