Leading in the 21st Century: Overcoming the Conspiracy Against Your Leadership Potential

May 19, 2023

By Cesar Maldonado, Ph.D., P.E.
Chancellor, Houston Community College

 HCC Graduates from the 2023 Commencent Ceremony

This time of year, I attend many graduation ceremonies. With so many embarking on a new journey, it is important to reinforce the leadership skills graduates have shown in overcoming the many adversities brought by the COVID-19 pandemic—the changes in cultural norms, institutional structures, and personal behaviors that they navigated. In his influential work titled Why Leaders Can't Lead: The Unconscious Conspiracy Continues, the late leadership scholar Warren Bennis argues that there is a pervasive 'unconscious conspiracy' against achieving your leadership potential. This is not a deliberate plot but a system that nonetheless works to stifle leadership potential. First published in 1989, Bennis’ argument is still very much on point for 21st century leaders dealing with a rapidly changing world. I offer these strategies to help you work around those challenges and unleash your full potential as leaders.

  1. Embrace Lifelong Learning: One of the most crucial aspects of leading in the 21st century is the ability to adapt and learn continuously. The world around us is rapidly changing, and if you don't keep up, you risk falling behind. Make a commitment to yourself to engage in lifelong learning, whether through formal education, seminars, or online resources. Stay curious, and never stop asking questions.
  2. Develop Emotional Intelligence: In today’s complex world, understanding and managing your own emotions, as well as empathizing with and effectively communicating with others is vital. With self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness, you can create strong connections with your team members, build life-long relationships, and make better decisions.
  3. Overcome the Fear of Failure: The fear of failure is a significant barrier that holds many people back from reaching their full leadership potential. Embrace the idea that failure is a natural part of growth and learning. Instead of fearing it, use setbacks to analyze what went wrong, and use that knowledge to improve.
  4. Tackle Imposter Syndrome: Many high-achievers struggle with imposter syndrome—the feeling that they don't belong or that they're not as competent as others perceive them to be. Remember that your achievements and experiences have prepared you for the challenges ahead. Trust your abilities, yet don't be afraid to ask for help when needed.
  5. Leverage Technology: The 21st-century leader must be comfortable with technology, as it's an integral part of our lives and workplaces. Embrace technological advancements as tools to help you lead more efficiently and innovatively.
  6. Build a Diverse Network: The world is more interconnected than ever and leading in the 21st century requires an appreciation for diverse perspectives. Actively seek out connections with individuals from different backgrounds, industries, and cultures. A diverse network will provide you with fresh insights, creative solutions, and valuable feedback.
  7. Cultivate Resilience: The path to leadership is often filled with challenges and obstacles. Developing resilience will help you navigate these difficulties with grace and determination. Learn to accept change, be flexible, and maintain a positive attitude even in the face of adversity.


For both aspiring and seasoned leaders, leading in the 21st century requires adaptability and the courage to face challenges head-on. Embrace the strategies I've shared with you to tackle the ‘conspiracy’ and achieve your leadership potential.

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