The Leadership Lab: Understanding Leadership in the 21st Century By Chris Lewis and Dr. Pippa Malmgren


Chris Lewis, an entrepreneur and author of the bestselling book on ideas and creativity Too Fast to ThinkOpens in a new tab. and Dr Pippa Malmgren, an economist, an entrepreneur and the author of the bestselling economics book SignalsOpens in a new tab., in their book The Leadership Lab: Understanding Leadership in the 21st CenturyOpens in a new tab. argue that the old models of leadership are inadequate for the new environment of uncertainty.

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Chris Lewis and Dr Pippa Malmgren assert that there is an imbalance in leadership thinking. Their hypothesis is that our over-reliance on analytical, reductive thinking is part of the problem, so they are after all, trying to show the bigger picture. The LAB Kythera is their response to this challenge.

The eight ‘I’s model or ‘Kythera’

The Kythera is a tool to help leaders navigate complexity. This is to be imagined as a 360-degree sphere spinning. The objective is to keep the sphere upright on its axis and balanced. The faster the technology changes the faster the sphere spins.

The first obvious element of the Eight ‘I’s model or Kythera is that it is divided into a light and a dark side. This shows both the progressive and the reciprocal negative effects being created by change.

Next, you will notice the eight ‘I’s, which correspond to the first eight chapters of this book.

1.Information and Inundation

Since the turn of the century, we’ve seen a massive increase in information overload. There’s more information around us than ever before. In this chapter, we look at how the volume and type of information are changing leadership culture.

“The problem is that we think we’re choosing the information we want without realizing that, in so many instances, it’s already been chosen for us.” Chris Lewis and Dr Pippa Malmgren

The scale of the information overload and disruption is enormous. This makes us the most distracted audience ever. We’ve stopped paying attention to anything other than basic headlines and what’s front and center.

“Creativity is the residue of time wasted.” Albert Einstein

The data overload forces us to filter towards information we see as important or relevant.

  • – We filter in news about the family.
  • – We filter in news about friends.
  • – We filter in stories about violence.
  • – We filter in news from sources that agree with us.

The longer-term, more qualitative information is often missed, for two main reasons.

  • 1. The interruptions force us to move faster, thus prioritizing only what we need right now.
  • 2. It also forces us to an analytical mind set because when we are constantly interrupted, we operate in ‘compare, contrast, analyze’ mode.

Of course, information can be useful and a great boon for efficiency. Unfortunately, it also comes with side effects which have a negative impact on behavior. The overwhelming amount of information leads to overload which narrows our attention into more analytical, short-term, tangible thinking at the expense of longer-term, softer, less measurable qualities.

“The facts do not always speak for themselves because imagination is more powerful than knowledge.” Chris Lewis and Dr Pippa Malmgren

We may not be immediately aware of this, but over time the change is becoming clear. We have become more:

  • – Frightened
  • – Angry
  • – Distracted
  • – Bored
  • – Intolerant
  • – Impatient
  • – Cynical
  • – Opinionated
  • – Informed (but not always helpfully).

The internet has created equal and opposite effects. It is both good and bad. The more information we have, the more we can understand. The opposite effect, though, comes when we allow the internet to be our main source of communications and server of news.

To make sense of it, we need to zoom out to a higher level so that we can look across to take into account everything that is happening in the world, from geopolitics to economics to sociological analysis and key cultural changes.

Our understanding of the world is limited if we try to make sense of it day by day. The overload thus has profound effects on our thinking. By swamping us with information, it’s removing the time and opportunity for asking questions.

We need to keep imagination and doubt alive in the boardroom. Leader’s job is to ask questions, not confirm assumptions.

“The future belongs to people who are curious.” Ian Leslie

2. Internationalism and Insularity

This chapter will help leaders strengthen their awareness of the world economy as it actually is, not as it was, or as one hopes it might be. Often, we’re too busy dealing with the waves to see the tide, often too busy with their everyday business to notice the changes on the macroeconomic horizon.

How can leaders better manage a fast-changing macroeconomic environment?

The LAB’s answer is that they should stop trying to predict the future and start preparing for it instead.

The persistent feature of the economic landscape is that it keeps changing. We fear because the old ways are not working well, but the new ways are hard to understand.

When confronted by unexpected change, fear drives people towards one side of the Kythera – the side that involves insularity, nationalism and protectionism. Leaders can, instead, understand the fear, face it down and inspire people towards the more positive side where we find internationalism, greater communication and trade.

The economy is international and global. Data about the economy are domestic but transaction flows are international. Policies in one country can affect economies abroad. International trends may overwhelm national policy.

“Globalization is set to persist in the longer term, but it is occurring in new ways.” Chris Lewis and Dr Pippa Malmgren

3. Immediacy and Impatience

The efficiency and speed, offered by internet, have created an expectation that everything else should now be as quick and easy. The internet has contributed to an ‘I want it now’ web-driven impatience.

Web-fed impatience can be tracked all the way through its beneficial effects of efficiency and real-time information up to the erosion of trust and confidence at the strategic level.

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” Winston Churchill

Impatience is defined as an irritation with anything that causes delay or a restless desire for change and excitement. Impatience atomizes teams. It is difficult to respect long-term values with impatience.

There is a causal link between impatience engendered by the internet and the risk of a breakdown in relationships on a personal, domestic, corporate and political level.

Patience is ‘waiting without complaint’; to be patient is to endure discomfort in silence. This enfolds three other virtues such as self-control, humility and generosity. It is an amalgam of being disciplined, considerate, unselfish. It is long-term efficient. It fosters long-term unity and trust.

“The patient educates, feed and contribute to the community.” Chris Lewis and Dr Pippa Malmgren

  • – Patience is required in just about every walk of life.
  • – Patience is also inherently tied to justice.
  • – Democracy depends on patience.
  • – Construction requires patient planning of all environmental considerations.
  • – Teaching requires an understanding that not everyone learns at the same pace or in the same way.
  • – The human virtues of caring, nurturing, even parenting itself all depend on patience.
  • – It’s required for inspiring leadership as well.

Power and patience walk hand in hand.” Chris Lewis and Dr Pippa Malmgren

4. Intelligence and Insurgency

The death of patience is upon us and with that comes the potential for great ignorance. Learning and listening require patience. When that is lost, experience and knowledge are also undermined and we enter a modern age of educated ignorance.



Intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge. Howard Gardner has supported that there are several types of intelligence

Few if any of these qualities are referenced or codified in the traditional models of primary, secondary and tertiary education. The orthodox emphasis is much more on the logical-mathematical (science) or linguistic-historical (arts) vectors.

“The leader’s job is not to be the most intelligent person in the room. The leader should make everyone else feel as if they’re the most intelligent person in the room.” Chris Lewis and Dr Pippa Malmgren

The promulgation of one type of hierarchical intelligence (short-term, drill-down, academic, data-based and so on) creates vulnerabilities. It shuts out potential and imagination. It excludes the long-term, diversity and opinion, which destroys hope and creates a causal chain of frustration, impatience and anger.

The anger could also be about a set of perceived injustices, such as income inequality, gender unfairness, sexual harassment or racism.


The axis of leadership challenge was evolved for personal balance, but it has useful applications in an organizational sense. The objective is to keep as close to the origin of the axes as possible.

This balance model is important in that it recognizes that overemphasis of one area – typically the logical axis – is, of itself, destabilizing to the overall balance.

Above all, leaders must recognize the growing tide of frustration and cynicism and work to create more harmonious outcomes. This means recognizing and resolving conflict and focusing teams on shared goals and values.

Mindfulness is an important tool in this respect. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, writer and Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School mindfulness is when ‘Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’ It’s about being more in the present and thereby being able to do everything with more discipline and focus.

“The biggest benefit of mindfulness is its direct impact on the development of emotional intelligence.” Monica Thakrar

Megan Reitz and Michael Chaskalson, have identified three areas of leadership perspective:

– The first they called Metacognition or ‘the ability to simply observe what you are thinking, feeling, and sensing so you can actually see what’s going on’.

– Second, allowing for ‘the ability to let what is the case, be the case. It’s about meeting your experience with a spirit of openness and kindness to yourself and others.’

– Finally, they identified curiosity, ‘or taking a lively interest in what has shown up in our inner and outer worlds’.

5. Infrastructure and Isolation

Leaders in the 21st century cannot afford to take anything for granted. They need to think about the competition for scarce resources, the rise in defense spending and the seeming loss of trust in the international rule system.

We are being driven to defense spending for economic and nationalistic reasons. Sometimes this is to gain access to resources. More often, it’s because the original 20th-century infrastructure benefitted only the nations that established it.

The physical geography of the world is changing as well. Countries like China are building new transport connections and the United States and Europe are building new walls. Some places are becoming more competitive and others less so.

People are on the move. Migration continues to be one of the most important defining features of the geopolitical landscape, as is the ongoing competition for scarce resources. Borders are fluid and moving, too.

Now governments are being torn in two directions.

  1. 1. First, they are having to deal with a new nationalism, with its implied threat of isolation and tariff barriers.
  2. 2. At the same time, the trend towards internationalism is clear and the global economy is redistributing wealth and economic power at an unprecedented rate, based on ever more open trade.

Governments and their militaries remain large, influential players. They fundamentally reshape the leadershipOpens in a new tab. environment and the economies that surround them. Their decisions affect citizens in many ways.

Leaders of all types therefore need to be internationally and geopolitically fluent at the same time as being aware of the pain caused by economic change. This is quite some balancing act.

6. Innovation and Intimidation

New technologies such as the Internet of Things, the Data Sphere, the Artificial Intelligence, the bodyNET, the Drones, etc. are offering wonderful new developments that will benefit our communities, extend our lives, make them more fulfilling and allow us greater efficiencies.

“We’re entering a new dimension where everything is connected, virtualized and triangulated.” Chris Lewis and Dr Pippa Malmgren

These will be used to cause great changes which have also the potential to be negative. Because change is always perceived as a threat to the community our enemies are fear and prejudice. Our weapons are understanding and familiarity.

Fear of the new can drive us into an incapacitated state, unable to make decisions and fearful of the future. Familiarity and awareness of the opportunities could have the opposite effect.

Learning and leading must go hand in hand. This means the leader must encourage an attitude that experiments and anticipates new ideas and looks for ways to apply it.

“Technology creates profound opportunities but also vulnerabilities.” Chris Lewis and Dr Pippa Malmgren

7. Inclusivity and Inequality

Leaders need to create the conditions under which collective endeavor can be maximized. They need to be able to unify people in the pursuit of common goals and create a collective identity, cohesion and efficiency.

One of the largest of all group sub-identities in the workplace is gender. Most organizations remain hierarchically structured irrespective of the gender of board directors.

Let’s look at the basics of gender as applied to leadership.

  • – Height and authority

  • – Confidence and loudness

  • – Are women more agreeable?

  • – Is a ‘hidden’ patriarchy to blame?

  • – More interrupted, less listened to

  • – More judged on looks

  • – The cult of the individual

Dr Dan Goleman asked whether Women Are More Emotionally Intelligent Than Men. He supported that emotional intelligence has four parts:

  • – self-awareness
  • – managing our emotions
  • – empathy
  • – social skill

Empathy is another key skill. There are three kinds.

  • Cognitive empathy understands how the other person sees things.
  • Emotional empathy feels what the other person feels.
  • Empathic concern is ready to help someone in need.

There’s another way of looking at male–female differences in emotional intelligence. Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge University says that there’s an extreme ‘female brain’ which is high in emotional empathy but not so good at systems analysis. By contrast, the extreme ‘male brainexcels in systems thinking and is poor at emotional empathy.

The LAB Brain Model puts together what we already know about Western Reductionist thinking – the so-called left-brain process with its ‘compare, contrast and analyze’ functions – and juxtaposes it with the right-brain process and its imaginative, divergent qualities. These processes belong to both genders.

According to the authors, we need an inclusive approach that encompasses new types of thinking. Enlightenment and education to create efficiency are better ways of improving leadership. Joining up the genders and improving our capacity to move between feminine and masculine thinking strengthen our ability to contend with the future.

8. Inspiration and Inversion

The promise of the future is exciting and inspirational. If we get it right, we’re looking at an infinitely more sustainable, fairer, productive, efficient world, with greater access to education and information.

Despite more material wealth, we have rising inequality, isolation, ignorance, impatience, anger and unhappiness.

In an atomized, rational, tangible, left-brained process world, the thing that could grant us greater happiness is what the left-brain process abhors. The right-brain process feels the unity. The overload and the interruptions all push us more towards the left-brain process, and this has profound implications.

At a superficial level, the world appears unchanged to many leaders. It has, though, undergone arguably some of the most profound technical, commercial, cultural, social, behavioral, moral and economic changes ever.

“This is not just a case of leadership becoming aware that one or two vectors have changed. It needs to recognize that the majority of the vectors have changed.” Chris Lewis and Dr Pippa Malmgren

When we step back and survey the landscape, it becomes ever clearer that there are many inversions of our values. We can summarize these ‘inversions’ as shown in The LAB table of inversions.  

‘Good’ used to be… ‘Good’ is now…
‘We the People’ ‘Me the People’
Communities/groups Groups and groupthink are bad. Individuality is more admired
Thoughtful, clear, measured responses Twitter at speed, jargon and emojis
Long-term careers Work gigs, internships, ‘experiences’, fast turnover, side hustles
Simple truth Spin, messaging, weaponized information. Fake news
Study Hacks and shortcuts
Education Work experience
Debate No-platforming, anger, dictums
Restraint Bingeing and excess
Saving Spending
Buying Sharing
Dress up Dress down
Etiquette and protocol Huddles and hang-outs
Marriage and commitment Promiscuity and Tinder

The greatest irony of all is that the great age of inversion has had its most enduring effect on leaders themselves. Rather than being seers of events, they have become victims of events.

“We need our leaders to be better, not just do better.” Chris Lewis and Dr Pippa Malmgren

The Global Leaders Narrative

The spokes used in the Kythera – information and its overload, economics and its effects, behavioral changes, geopolitics, technology, gender and the generally inverted nature of things – provide the key challenges to leadership.

The Global Leaders’ Narrative

  • – The first task of all leaders is to recognize that uncertainty is the primary characteristic of the 21st century.
  • – The second task is to recognize the deep paradoxes illustrated by the Kythera. The pull towards polarity is a centrifugal force constantly offsetting leadership efforts.

Leadership must see the limitations of the left-brain process. We need our synthetic skills to contextualize and parenthesize. Leadership needs to:

Learn the lessons of the past

  • – Weak leadership lacks imagination, not analysis
  • – Overconfidence is a problem
  • – The dangers of ‘big is better’ thinking
  • – Lessons from a general
  • – Guard against short-termism, it can destroy everything
  • – Control the information flows, before they control you

Study the present

  • – Study geopolitics and the physical world
  • – Guide capitalism, don’t guillotine it
  • – Consult conspicuously, communications are expected
  • – Know your team, see the gaps
  • – You cannot defend yourself with the facts alone

Prepare for the future

  • – Culture eats strategy, so lead with values
  • – Lead by values
  • – The ‘J’ word still matters more than anything
  • – Failures are more visible and often due to fear
  • – Use trust to kill fear, otherwise it will kill innovation

Commit to the leadership spirit

  • – Leadership is more than management/Leadership can always be better
  • – Serve the widest community
  • – Cultivate inclusivity, it breeds unity
  • – No alternative but to embrace the future
  • – Faith matters
  • – Situational fluency
  • – St Augustine of Hippo

In this book Chris Lewis and Dr Pippa Malmgren aggregated and paraphrased the opinions of many global leaders on how the world is changing and how leadership, in all its forms, is evolving. Their view is about not just what has happened, or what is going to happen, but what is happening to the way leaders think and perceive the world around them.


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