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The demise of the individual leader and the rise of 'wirearchy'


What exactly makes a great leader? The answer has never been straightforward – and maybe the question no longer makes sense either.

16th Feb 2021
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Leadership is a topic we've all considered in the past year as we navigated the pandemic, perhaps comparing and contrasting the different styles of world leaders or business leaders and examining their relative successes and failures. When we emerge from this period of uncertainty, the way we look at leadership may change permanently. 

It is increasingly clear that in order to attract and retain top talent, leaders must be trustworthy, effective communicators and able to build relationships – narcissistic leaders just do not stack up.

As part of the Myers-Briggs Global Trends Report, we researched how the traditional model of individual leadership has evolved to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world. We found that the expectations of leadership today are far more dynamic and fluid than the traditional image we have been used to. This is largely due to the environment we currently live in, one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). This VUCA climate requires leaders to adapt with ease to the fluctuating world around us and, in turn, continually develop themselves and their skills to keep up with the fast pace of change.

Leadership is no longer only about the style and characteristics of an individual leader, instead, the emphasis is on groups or teams of leaders to create cultures and systems that inspire the people around them.

The rise of the wirearchy

Our research has revealed several factors that have brought about this change in the leader archetype, one of which is the rise of the ‘wirearchy’. This model of leadership and influence is based on the flow of information and connectedness, rather than the traditional power structure of one overarching sole leader.

Influencers in wirearchies may not have the formal status or trappings of a ‘leader’ but can exert an informal but effective style of leadership that allows for cohesion and communication across an organisation.

While it can be unclear where exactly the power lies in a wirearchy, there is a distributed form of leadership where cultures and systems within organisations are widely adopted and reinforced, instead of originating from the top down from a single, less interpersonally connected leader.

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Narcissism is no longer effective

This distributed style of leadership means the traditional ‘great man’ approach is quickly becoming outdated. As the individual characteristics of leaders become less relevant, so too does the narcissistic leader. While narcissistic individuals are more likely to become leaders, there is evidence to suggest that they perform less effectively.  It is increasingly clear that in order to attract and retain top talent, leaders must be trustworthy, effective communicators and able to build relationships – narcissistic leaders just do not stack up.

Often possessing self-inflated views and lacking trust in their relationships, narcissistic leaders do not possess the engaging qualities needed for effective modern leadership.  In addition, our research has shown that these behaviours contribute to the under-representation of women and minorities in leadership roles, if this is the image and example of leadership that they have experienced. Diversity is essential to an engaged, adaptable and innovative workforce, and narcissism cannot foster this.

Awareness in leadership

Skilled leadership is a multi-faceted process, requiring self-awareness from leaders to realise their own potential, awareness of others to bring out the best in their team, and outward awareness in order to lead across the organisation as a whole. As such, engaged teams of leaders who are ready and willing to foster partnerships and listen to employees’ opinions can master these three facets where single traditional leaders often fail.

An area where traditional ‘great man’ leadership is perhaps more obvious in its failings is in external awareness. We live in an age of increasing transparency, where leaders are held accountable by both their own employees and the public on their personal values and the values of the organisation they represent.  

From gender pay gap reporting to the #MeToo movement, the ability to act quickly and authentically in the face of public scrutiny is a crucial part of modern leadership. Without a team of leaders that publicly embody the values and culture of an organisation, attracting top talent and gaining the trust of the public will be difficult.

The dynamics of the modern workplace

Finally, we examined the changing dynamics of the workplace and the effects this has on nurturing and developing future leaders. The working environment of today sees people stay in jobs for shorter periods of time, increasing the turnover of employees and potentially reducing the incentive of organisations to invest in their long-term development. This, combined with rapid technological advances, which remove a large portion of ‘grunt work’ that younger employees would normally undertake means junior employees are at risk of gaining less experience in working with and managing other people.

For many organisations, the age demographics of their workforce has meant the early retirement of baby boomers, which can leave a sudden gap in leadership roles that need to be filled. If junior leaders aren’t nurtured by mentors before filling these vacancies, they may lack the knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses required to fulfil a more modern style of leadership. It is crucial then that organisations are consistently self-reflective of their leadership models, and that senior and junior leaders work together to adapt to the ever-changing working landscape.

Leadership is a complex skill that is constantly evolving. In an age where uncertainty is rife and advances are rapid, it takes more than one person to lead a team to success. Embracing these changes and adapting to a new model of leadership is the key to a successful organisation with clear values, and an engaged and dedicated workforce.

Interested in this topic? Read Why we need connected leaders to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution.

Replies (2)

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By Jon Husband
02nd Mar 2021 13:32

The article is useful and a decent interpretation of the impact on leadership of the concept of wirearchy

The article will have more credibility if the spelling of the term in the article's title and the spelling in the body of the article are the same.

The proper spelling is "w i r e a r c h y"

You're welcome ;-)

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Replying to Jon Husband:
By Gina Jones
08th Mar 2021 10:37

Oops! Sorry about that. Now corrected. Thank you for commenting.

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