Responding to 21st century challenges requires 21st century leadership

In 1995 the Karpin Report delivered comprehensive insight into Australia's workplace leadership and provided recommendations on how to best develop business leaders. The report recognised the need for a robust 'enterprise culture' and spoke of 'leadership competencies' beyond traditional management. Twenty years on, how are we going?

It is no secret that Australian workplaces are facing significant challenges. From productivity slumps—the most recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) assessment of the Australian economy, forecast Australian GDP growth to underperform against the G7 average in each of the next five years; to the waning of the resource investment boom and sharp falls in the terms of trade; to an ageing population and drastic shifts in both the workforce and the ways in which we work. What we need now is a dynamic response that entails learning, investment and innovation. What we need now is 21st century leadership capability.

But, in our contemporary world, characterised by rapid change, leadership is becoming an increasingly complex concept. On a global scale we are more interconnected than ever before. Economies have become more integrated; the flows of goods, services, capital and people have become greater. The economic and social ties that bind our economy to the Asian region in particular have never been stronger, especially as newly developing and transition economies have accounted for an increasing proportion of world production and trade.

This contemporary world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous; or in consultant parlance, 'VUCA'. Australian entrepreneurs and businesses, consequently, now face greater competition and more uncertainty about their future sources of competitiveness and growth opportunities than at any point in history. This is daunting stuff! Our leaders need to be comfortable stepping up to the challenge of this VUCA environment.

21st Century leadership requires a very different set of management skills and capabilities than the command and control school of yore. It will require our leaders to be flexible, adaptive and transparent. We need leaders who can drive employee engagement, collaborate both within and between organisations, and develop and empower their staff; leaders who can mobilise change and focus on the future, whilst navigating the complexity surrounding them; leaders who can exercise knowledge and judgment to create a shared vision and drive organisational goals. We need people who can lead themselves, their teams and their organisations with strategy and conviction while maintaining and actively displaying the core values of enterprise.

Don't worry, it is entirely unreasonable to expect one person to master all of these principles; leadership is a team effort. But if we all make incremental improvements and slowly build our repertoire, it will make a huge difference to not only our own working lives, but those of our colleagues as well. We will each spend, on average, between 80,000 to 100,000 hours in the workplace. We want to make those hours as productive, positive and fulfilling as possible.


Australia's prosperity is increasingly dependent on the creativity of individuals and their ability to work collaboratively. We are transitioning from production to service to knowledge and, now, toward the creative economy. In today's workplace, leadership will not reside in senior management alone, but will come from better interactions between managers, work teams and employees. It permeates throughout an organisation; we all can become better leaders. As Karpin identified two decades ago, Australia requires better leadership capabilities. Are you ready to lead?

The Centre for Workplace Leadership (CLW) is committed to advancing leadership knowledge and practice in Australia through research, training and events. Jacob Workman is leading a team in the development of the Australian Leadership Capability Standard, a rigorous, evidence-based framework that describes the leadership capabilities, skills and behaviours that drive workplace performance. This tool will be made freely available online so that everyone can better understand themselves and become a more effective leader.

As we go to print the team at CWL are preparing the beta launch of LeaderShift, an online leadership assessment and development tool that enables both individuals and businesses to develop leadership capability, even in time and resource poor environments.

Centre for Workplace Leadership