Book Review: Joseph C. Rost’s Leadership for the Twenty-First Century

Joseph C. Rost's book, Leadership in the 21st Century, is a recommended book for leadership enthusiasts. Good read.
Joseph C. Rost’s book, Leadership in the 21st Century, is a recommended book for leadership enthusiasts. Good read.

Joseph C. Rost, in his book, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, proposes a new paradigm for leadership studies. He asserts that the old industrial paradigm of leadership prevalent in the 20th century should move forward to the post-industrial understanding of leadership in the 21st century to fit in the post-modern era. He asserts that akin to “scientific revolutions” (Thomas Kuhn), the industrial understanding of leadership as “good management” (Rost, p. 10) has yielded certain anomalies both intellectually and practically (p.9).

According to Rost, leadership practitioners need 1) to define the concept of leadership and 2) to develop a “new leadership narrative with revised myths and rituals that fit the post industrial paradigm” (p. 36). These intellectual and practical anomalies should lead to a paradigm shift that would change the rules of the game, provide a new structure for doing leadership and therefore, go beyond the old literature on leadership theories. The book therefore critiques the old paradigm by an extensive study of the old leadership literature (Chapters 2-4); presents a new definition of leadership (Chapter 5); and then explains certain issues that arise from the new paradigm such as the distinction between leadership and management (Chapter 6) and the ethical component of leadership (Chapter 7). In the final chapter, Rost then summarizes and provides suggestions to improve the study and practice of the new paradigm.

I have comments on the three main chunks of Rost’s book. First, his endeavor to change the old understanding of leadership by presenting his new definition of leadership as the post-industrial paradigm; second, a word about the distinction between leadership and management; and finally, a “feeling” while reading the chapter on ethics.

Let me begin with the first. Rost defines

leadership as “an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflects their mutual purposes” (Chapter 5, p. 102).

He arrived at this definition through a thorough review of previous literature in leadership. He claims that the authors of these old books found it difficult to pin down a definition of leadership. These authors relied on the assumption that everyone knew what leadership was. The assumption of the connotation of leadership made the word “hot” but constantly “misused” (Chapter 5, p. 97). Rost sensed that a new understanding of leadership is imperative in a world that is not anymore industrial. Experiences of both leadership scholars and practitioners have already affirmed that the old way do not fit anymore if applied to the new global reality.

This is then my comment: Though Rost was one of the earliest scholars in the discovery of “anomalies” in the leadership field, he was not alone in the search for a new wineskin. “Leadership in the 21st Century” was published in 1991. Consequently, others also published their search to find new ways to understand and do leadership.

Almost a decade since Rost’s book hit the stands, Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers published in 2004, “Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future.” This book chronicled the stories of their journey, sharing their “collective awakenings” and the “consequent changes they’ve witnessed to large social systems” (p. 3). Their experiences led to another way of doing leadership in the 21st century.

Let me attempt at a comparison. All the authors of these two books acknowledge the imperative of a paradigm shift in leadership. In the book, Presence, the reflections of Senge and his company describe the needed shift by comparing a machine from a living organism. They said that it has been customary to fix only the parts of the machine when it malfunctions, regardless of the rest of the machine. When a tire explodes, we change the tire.

All the authors of these two books acknowledge the imperative of a paradigm shift in leadership.

But an organism is different. Each part is connected to the whole. A single toothache affects the whole body, as well as the well-being of the body affects the health of that particular tooth. Each part of the organism naturally “fixes” itself – each cell is a blueprint of the whole. Every single part is able to organize itself vis-a-vis the formative field of the whole and to regenerate according to its morphic field. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake said that these cells are able to differentiate themselves into the body parts, such as the cells of our hands. This differentiation is called “pattern integrity” – the universe’s ability to create the part in view of the whole.

Senge and company asserts that the former way to do leadership was like fixing a machine. The new way is to regard a company like a living organism. Thus, every member of the company is indeed an embodiment of the whole. This image of leadership destroys the hierarchical structure of the old paradigm where the President of the country, the Director of an organization, the landlord of the feudal system, or the top administrators of a school are the ones considered as leaders. Moreover, the image shattered the notion that the head directs the parts. The book, Presence affirms that everyone represents everything of the company. We can say that every employee is the company. Every one ideally sets the company’s direction.

The new way is to regard a company like a living organism. Thus, every member of the company is indeed an embodiment of the whole.

It is the same implication as that of Rost. He said that leadership does not refer to those in “administration” or of “one person directing another” but leadership is a relationship between a leader and his/her followers. These followers obey by influence and not out of coercion. Influence is a dialogue between people (Rost will ask the reader to note the plural) because it affirms the interconnectivity between the parties involved. Rost further asserts that in a leadership relationship, followers may take in leadership or managerial roles too. The facility to shift roles is legitimized by their shared or mutual purpose or purposes. Therefore, Rost has moved the understanding of leadership from the top-down hierarchical structure to an “equal but distinct” relationship. His theory therefore crushed the old paradigm of leadership.

One of my most meaningful experiences as a leader was to participate in the Strategic Planning of the University in 2011.

The excitement I felt sprung from the feeling that the university believed that I had the capacity to contribute in the university’s adaptive response to the complex changes in the world.

In the strategic planning process, I experienced working with the whole community: the process attempted to involve everyone, from administrators to middle management to the staff and ultimately the students. I was pleasantly surprised to meet students in Antipolo. They were there so that we can work together on equal footing. While it was true that the President had led us to the new direction of the university; it was also in the same breadth that it was the work of everyone in the community like a healthy living organism. Moreover, we were treated as equals because we were given the same opportunities to articulate our ideas as those who were occupying positions of authority in the university. On the other hand, I knew why I was there: my “field of contribution” lies in my being a Jesuit working in the high school.

leadership image

Second, Rost reacts to the industrial paradigm view of leadership as good management. He asserts that in the post-industrial age, a distinction should be made between leadership and management. The attempt to separate what has been understood interchangeably has led to a “conceptual confusion” (p. 149). On one hand, Rost says that leaders influence their followers both intend changes that reflect their mutual purposes. Managers, on the other hand, relate with their subordinates as people in authority. Together, they produce, sell goods and/or services through their coordinated activities (Table 6.1, p. 149).

John P. Kotter also shares the same sentiment. In his article, What Leaders Really Do, published in May 1990 for the Harvard Business Review, he differentiated between the role of the leader and the manager. Kotter says that leaders cope with rapid change, while managers cope with complexity and bring order and predictability to a situation. Moreover, leaders set direction, align people and motivate them. Managers, on the other hand, plan, budget, organize and provide the staff to solve problems. (John P. Kotter, What Leaders Really Do, HBR’s 10 Must Reads: On Leadership, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, Boston: pp. 37-55)

Roth and Kotter leave me with the impression that leaders direct, while managers get things done; leaders set the direction, managers move everyone to that direction.

I have a question with these distinctions: Does the attempt to differentiate a leader from a manager mean that the leader and manager cannot be just one person? My experience is different. Sometimes I lead; sometimes I manage. I lead in a climate of change; and I manage on normal weather. As a person in a position of authority, I find myself managing more frequently than doing actual leading.

My experience is that leading is episodic. Like paradigm shifts, I lead when a revolution interrupts the normal grind of things. In a sense, the old paradigm applies: Leadership is good management.

On a daily basis, I am more a subordinate to someone in authority. Inspiration comes seldom, thus I am not always inspired or influenced by those in authority because their words and deeds do not persuade. So I just do their orders. I admit that in these instances, I do not do things freely and willfully.

I would be lucky if my superior, whether a Jesuit or a lay person, is inspiring, influential and credible. Then I would be a happy follower. Someone like Pope Francis will make me do the magis every single day. I don’t mind being a follower, especially if one is empowered and passionate. From experience, leading comes natural when on fire.


Finally, Rost talks about ethics in leadership. My understanding of leadership is that ethics is integral to it – it is not just a process as Rost would relegate it. Good leadership is an oxymoron. Leadership IS good. “Bad” leadership is not leadership. However, I understand why Rost do not integrate ethics into the definition of postindustrial leadership. He said that what is ethical to one differs from another. He gives me the impression that ethics is relative; that there is no absolute ethical principle. To integrate ethics will present difficulties in arriving at a new definite definition.

With regards to ethics in the process of leadership, Rost points out that the area of concern is not in the relationship per se, but in the way they would influence one another. With regards to the content of leadership, the area of concern will be with the “ethical content of the proposed changes that leaders and followers intend for an organization and/or society” (p. 153). In Table 7.1, Rost acknowledges that there is a leadership process and content that is unethical, but still falls under “leadership” ergo there is such a thing as an “unethical” leadership. A leader thus can use an ethical process to pursue unethical changes and vice versa.

I do not “feel” right about it. When the process and/or the content are unethical, then what is being done is not leadership. We can label them dictatorship or domination or anarchy, but I assert that they are not leadership. The reason is simple: Being ethical to me is constitutive of our identity as a person. Our nature is good; to be ethical is being good. Therefore if this is our nature, then to be true to ourselves means to manifest ethically our identity. Both our formative and the morphic fields of the universe are good. This is the ejaculatory remark in Genesis, “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1, 31).

I believe that this is the point of the book, Presence. “Presencing” is coming to terms with the whole of creation and discovering that all of creation is not only good, but very good! Presencing according to the book’s authors is a “state because it is about becoming totally present – to the larger space or field around us, to an expanded sense of self, and, ultimately, to what is emerging” (Senge, et al, p. 91). To add the element of faith is to assert that the discovery of the larger space or field around us will lead to the discovery of the nature of creation as good. When one realizes our interconnectivity with all of the goodness of creation, we will eventually discover the anomalies that corrupt this goodness. Eventually we will be able to find ways to prevent the “requiem scenario” from happening. The requiem scenario is the image Senge and company used to mean the death of the innate goodness of creation.


Let’s put this reflection on the ground. There are times when I sense that something is not right. We label this experience as conscience. And this experience drives us to examine what went wrong, what should be corrected, and how to pursue what is right. The discovery of a truth is a process. Initially, I could not put my finger into what is not right. It may have been something that I’ve said or done, or perhaps something that I have missed saying or doing. To name and identify what it is not right would take a few minutes or, in complicated situations, a day or two. But certain things are clear: an anomaly has presented itself and something’s got to change.


All the authors of leadership in the 21st century agree on the phenomenon of rapid and complicated change as the prime characteristic of the post-modern world. The present is different from the past. Therefore a new paradigm of leadership is in order. For Roth, the industrial ways of leading should pave the way to the post-industrial understanding of leadership. Just like Rost, I suggest that constant refinement is needed in developing a theory of leadership that is applicable intellectually and practically to the present times.

The challenge, however, is that the present sails on the global ocean of pluralism. In this context, different new theories of leadership will arise – actually many have already arisen. The challenge of present day scholarship will therefore be in the constant study of leadership theories and in the continual discernment which theory, or a combination of theories, or a modification of one or many, fit one’s certain context. Here, Senge and company will be right: to arrive at the exact fit, we need to suspend all our previous templates of leadership in order to immerse ourselves totally into the specific reality needing their unique leadership template. Simply put: I am a Filipino. Any leadership theory created in the West and in the East may not entirely fit the Filipino milieu. Perhaps it would be better to immerse myself first into my culture and hope that a Filipino leadership paradigm will emerge.

Published by Jboy Gonzales SJ

TV/Digital host: Kape't Pandasal. Vlog: YT On the Line. Environment, Youth Formation. Music. Leadership. Always dancing to a different drum.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Joseph C. Rost’s Leadership for the Twenty-First Century

  1. Thank you very much for reblogging this book review of Joseph C. Rost’s Leadership in the 21st Century. It is one of the MUST READ in the area of Leadership. Your reblog is my first experience of a “reblog” of a book review. It is pretty an awesome feeling. Again, with all my gratitude. Thanks, stuffinsidebooks!


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