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New Leadership in the 4.0 World

In a transforming world order defined by radical uncertainty, leaders must embrace different capabilities to stay at the vanguard

Words by Debashis Chatterjee

Leadership, once believed to be a fixed set of characteristics and behaviours, has experienced a remarkable transformation in recent years. This evolution in leadership is a direct response to the dynamic landscape of today’s organizations, shaped by technological advancements, globalization, and evolving societal expectations. Gone are the days of rigid top-down approaches; instead, leadership has progressively moved toward a more dynamic, inclusive, and forward-thinking paradigm. Understanding this progression is crucial for leaders who aspire to thrive in the fast-paced and interconnected world of contemporary organizations.

Understanding the stages of leadership

Let us delve into the various stages of leadership to gain a comprehensive understanding of this transformation. In the agrarian era, known as Leadership 1.0, leadership took on a vastly different form compared to the modern era. It resembled a competition of “Who’s Got the Biggest Biceps?” where rulers and leaders flexed their muscles both literally and metaphorically. Physical strength, courage, and dominance played pivotal roles in determining leadership positions. 

This style of leadership emphasized authority, hierarchy, and control, with leaders expected to lead by example and demonstrate muscular strength in times of conflict or challenge. While we may find amusement in picturing a CEO in a loincloth, leading with bulging muscles and a primal roar, it serves as a reminder of how far leadership has come from those agricultural days of raw strength and the occasional flex-off competitions.

With the transition to industrial economies, Leadership 2.0 emerged. Leaders during this period faced new challenges and opportunities as they organized and coordinated large-scale manufacturing operations, focusing on optimizing efficiency and driving productivity. Imagine leaders confidently striding through factories, monocles firmly in place, dramatically pointing at gears and machines as if they held the secrets to the universe. This methodical approach gave rise to command-and-control styles of leadership, characterized by a hierarchical structure, centralized decision-making, discipline, adherence to rules, and strict supervision.

The information age ushered in Leadership 3.0, marked by rapid technological advancements and the widespread availability of information. Leaders encountered unique challenges and opportunities as information became a valuable currency and organizations increasingly relied on knowledge-based work. Armed with smartphones, laptops, and an ever-growing collection of chargers that mysteriously disappear, leaders navigated through the digital wilderness. In this digital landscape, leaders were expected to manage the flow of information, filter through vast amounts of data, and make sense of complex systems.

The age of Leadership 4.0

Now, we find ourselves in the cognitive age, characterized by Leadership 4.0. This era is defined by advancements in artificial intelligence, automation, and the integration of cognitive technologies into various aspects of our lives. Leaders in this age must navigate and comprehend complex systems, leverage data-driven insights, and anticipate and respond to rapidly changing circumstances. Rather than perceiving technology as a threat, these leaders embrace it as an enabler. They harness the power of artificial intelligence and cognitive tools to enhance decision-making and increase organizational efficiency. Visionary thinkers and researchers have emerged, challenging traditional notions and pushing the boundaries of knowledge. They recognize the importance of studying the mind as an information-processing system, striving to unravel its complex workings.

Concurrent with the cognitive revolution, the concept of the meditative mind and mindfulness gained recognition, particularly in the realm of leadership. The meditative mind refers to a state of focused attention and heightened awareness achieved through practices such as meditation, mindfulness, and contemplation. By incorporating these practices into their leadership style, leaders can enhance their ability to make informed decisions, remain present in the moment, and navigate complex challenges with equanimity.

Cognitive leadership encompasses several vital qualities, including adaptability, creativity, and curiosity. Leaders in this realm acknowledge the ever-changing nature of knowledge and understanding, embracing the need for adaptability. By fostering a culture of flexibility and continuous learning, cognitive leaders effectively navigate complex challenges and stay ahead. Leadership 4.0 signals the evolution and emergence of new leadership from the age of muscles, machines and memory towards exploration of newer frontiers of the enigma called the human mind.

Debashis Chatterjee is Director and Distinguished Professor of IIM Kozhikode. He can be reached at



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