We The Leader: The Evolution of Leadership in the 21st Century

Evolution of Leadership

Joining host Jennifer Orechwa on ProjectHR today is Jeffrey Spahn, Founder & President of Leading Leaders, Inc., and author of We The Leader: Build A Team of Equals Who All Lead AND Follow To Drive Creativity and Innovation. The parameters and processes by which we work were established long ago, during the Industrial Age -- but as times have changed, while we have changed as employees, and while our businesses, our products and services have all dramatically changed as well, the way we go about our work and the evolution of leadership has stubbornly remained the same. On today's ProjectHR episode, Jefrey explains:

  • How today, we have an opportunity to "reset" our understanding of leadership;
  • Why the Industrial Age's "Command and Control" approach to leadership fails with modern workers;
  • The idea of panarchy; and
  • How unlocking the power of collective flow can inspire innovation and success!

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Profit and Purpose in the Workplace

  • In 2003, Dr. Spahn wrote “A New Capitalist Manifesto? Imagining Business in the 21st Century,” which focused on the need to — and value of — balancing profit with purpose. It predicted that businesses in the future would recognize that the most successful companies are the ones that recognize the relationship, and that they can strike the appropriate balance between higher purpose and financial success.
  • Twenty years ago, executives didn’t want to talk about whether their company was motivated by profit or purpose, but today, purpose has, in fact, become a more prominent value in business.
  • Today, people are looking for something that addresses the stages of hierarchy without dismantling it, and are looking to redefine leadership.


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We the Leader and The Evolution of Leadership

  • Today, we are questioning our fundamental understanding of leadership;
    • We are now facing an opportunity to “reset” leadership;
    • This opportunity centers on the way we view hierarchy in leadership; Some are advocating to get rid of hierarchy altogether, while others are clinging to it, fearing chaos without it;
    • The key here is that this is NOT an either/or argument, but rather a both/and approach; 
    • If we all show up as leaders, but also as followers, we set the stage for deeper innovation and trust

Looking Back, Looking Forward

  • The word “collaboration” comes from the Industrial Revolution as a way to talk about what it means to work, and we still use it as an example of effective leadership. “Our language reveals the limits of our self conscious thinking”
  • “We need a new, evolved framework to understand what it means to not just work together but create together”
  • Leadership in the Industrial Age primarily engaged a militaristic “command and control” approach. 
  • The evolution of leadership is critical: if we don’t evolve, if we don’t move beyond this Industrial Revolution mindset, the human race is in danger.
  • In the We The Leader approach, we don’t just lead or follow. Depending on the situation, we all show up as leaders who are also followers and learn to lead and follow each other in a way that activates a new level of innovation and trust


  • Dr. Spahn has a theory called panarchy where everyone is a leader, rather than being led by one or few. The idea of panarchy is an important part of the evolution of leadership, and it has its roots in two things:
    • Millennials and Gen Z, showing up as leaders and seeking meaning in their work; and
    •  The notion that everyone leads their own life. A panarchy supports integrated teams, cross functional teams, and projects are leaders working together and creates more ideas and more innovation.
  • Defining everyone as their own leader is a diversifier, and allowing everyone to be a follower of a common purpose of an organization acts as an equalizer.
    • Everyone within an organization is a leader of their own life, but a follower of the common goal;
    • This is an egalitarian system.

Collective Flow

  • Dr. Spahn’s first experience with collective flow was playing baseball when he was sixteen.
  • It’s likely that everyone has experienced collective flow – it’s those moments where “the magic is working” and everyone on your team just connects!
  • We The Leader poses the question of how we can all experience collective flow consistently. 
  • Leaders know how to lead followers, but the key for leaders to uphold collective flow is to bring a curious conviction.
    • Curious conviction starts with a consilience mindset;
    • Bringing in curious conviction is good for people engaged in it, and for living in the moment; 
  • Innovation and creativity is good for business and the evolution of leadership within businesses, but in-sync execution is also important. Collective flow brings these two concepts together in harmony.
  • The role of leader in a panarchy is to facilitate collective flow. That’s done by:
    • Facilitating conversations where opposing energies are not just tolerated, but expected and welcomed and celebrated;
    • To show up that way consistently, we need to develop some emotional intelligence and some inner leadership capacity.
  • Dr, Spahn’s background in improvisation via Chicago’s Second City helped him teach him the mindset and skills of improvisation helped him better understand collective flow, the dynamic of being in the moment and creating with others. 


  • Evolutionary Biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote a book titled Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge twenty years ago. 
  • “The notion of consilience is the jumping together of opposite energy. That the evolutionary impulse of life itself, that a human being is created from opposite sex jumping together and creating something new.” 
  • Dr. Spahn took that notion and made consilience the foundation of collective flow, engaging with others with and through our differences, making a difference through our differences.

The Role of Neuroscience in the Evolution of Leadership

  • The conceptual framework and mindset of We The Leader and its evolution of leadership is rooted in science.
  • People assume a right brain/left brain concept as one or the other, however both things can happen simultaneously.
    • This principle can be applied to business leadership standards;
  • That's what We The Leader is calling for - for us all to bring both a curiosity and a conviction to the work we do, to lead and follow simultaneously. 

Jeffrey Spahn Background


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