Executive Master of Leadership Blog

Metamodern Leadership Style: 21st Century Avant-Garde

[fa icon="calendar'] Mar 7, 2018 11:40:11 AM / by Anna Montgomery, MPA


Innovation in technology is visible in our everyday lives but innovation in leadership isn’t always easy to find. To innovate, a leadership style based in a new philosophy is needed. 

This new philosophy is found at the end of a progression from modernism through postmodernism to metamodernism.

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Vermeulen and Van Den Akker define metamodernism as, "the space between “modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony” (n.p.). This liminal space is where metamodern sensibility integrates the rational and emotional. It incorporates the self-conscious irony of postmodernism and the sincerity we desire to bring back to human endeavors and culturei.

Metamodern sensibility has been aptly captured through the paradoxical descriptor: pragmatic idealism.

Postmodern leadership, metamodern’s predecessor, has brought important questions into the leadership discussion. With its emphasis on the aesthetic, imaginative, and playful aspects of the art of leadership it changed what it means to lead.

However, postmodernism’s 50-year impact on philosophy, arts, and culture is waning as metamodern sensibilities are increasingly observed. As this shift gains momentum, I posit it’s time to conceptualize leadership in metamodern terms.

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To understand how metamodern leadership innovates, we need to look at what philosophies initially undergirded modernism.

Positivist science was one naïve philosophy integral to modernism, one that postmodernism has helped deconstruct. Thanks in part to postmodernism, contemporary social scientists and scholars embrace science but understand its limitations, allowing art to be integrated back into leadership.

Social scientists are no longer required to view human behavior in organizations through a mechanistic lens or a Skinnerian utopia of behavioral control. More theoretical and philosophical options are available.

To conceptualize the metamodern leader effectively I propose imagining metamodern leaders as performance artists. Initially this conceptualization may make the metamodern leader sound ingenuous, as if the leader is only adopting a role to be played, but it’s more complex than that characterization. 

Metamodern Leadership Parallels Performance Art


Avant-guard performance artist Marina Abramovic provides a model for how performance art is at once artifice (involving performance skills and delivered in a specific context) and also an authentic expression of the self.

In her groundbreaking work at MoMA, documented in the film, The Artist is Present, Abramovic makes herself available during gallery hours to interact with the audience. This interaction doesn’t involve language and is therefor constrained.

During the performance Abramovic sits opposite a rotating audience member and is simply, yet nearly impossibly, present to that person.

Many audience members exclaimed how transformative the experience was for them. Abramovic’s special type of presence, artifice (for the sake of the context and role), combined with the authentic engagement with people, hints at what metamodern leadership can develop into as more people look beyond command and control styles.


Destabilization of Identity

Increasingly workers have come to realize that “social reality is a contested terrain” and that their place in the world is fragile. Further, “identities are being destabilized” in the context of current work environments and increasingly global perspectives.

Previously stable societal conditions gave workers a sense of belonging in the world and a clear role identity. Now, knowledge workers, likely to work for many organizations throughout their career, are experiencing destabilization as they lose their previously afforded stability.

As workers' identities are dispersed across a virtual, interconnected world, they increasingly look to work to help stabilize a sense of identity. Additionally, workers realize that they are more empowered than ever to participate in the creation of not only their own work product but also its environment and outcomes.

The empowerment and awareness experienced by workers is like the audience participation in The Artist is Present. Members of the audience in performance art are not passive observers, not told what to think or feel by the performance artist, but active co-creators of meaning.


Co-Creators of Meaning

Being a co-creator in a work setting means leaders are now called on to be adaptable, even in their self-construct. Also, leaders are expected to be responsive and reflexive to today’s ever changing and demanding environment.

This type of adaptability dovetails with increasingly flat organizational structures so leaders need to be capable of persuasive communication to engage followers.

According to positive psychology research, in order to influence others in a positive way, a leader’s self-construct should be a highly complex concatenation of desirable goals, values, traits, strengths, affects, and states.

Leadership is therefor, another way to discover the self through action. Complex self-constructs help leaders deal with diverse and nuanced situations, evolving contexts, and an increasingly interconnected world.

This need for a complex self-construct is easily accommodated in the metamodern leader as performance artist model.

Complex Self-Construct 

Leaders with complex self-constructs create demonstrable results that flow from a focus on the leader’s self-awareness, “Thus, what begins as a self-regulatory process centered on a leader’s self-construct becomes a dynamic social process benefiting both leaders and followers”.

Emotional intelligence is part self awareness, part self-control but is also importantly about empathy toward others and competently managing interpersonal relationships.

Leaders that possess complex self-constructs are more self-aware and reflective thereby gaining emotional intelligence. This intelligence provides the leader with a broader pallet of productive responses that are good choices in specific contexts. 

A metamodern leader, therefore, has a bigger toolbox available to help create positive work environments.

Positive leadership inspires extraordinary performance, focuses on strengths, emphasizes the life-giving aspects of work, and values virtuousness. The advantages of positive leadership and leaders developing complex self-constructs are outlined below.

Advantages of Positive Leadership

  1. Promotes well being and the development of skills
  2. Increases match of skills to complex roles
  3. Provides a feedback loop of cues for employing skills
  4. Leads to more authentic, sonistent, and grounded behavior
  5. Creates positive organizational behavior, organizational development, and performance of followers 

Transformation and Diversity 

Leadership “development is nuanced, contextual, collaborative [and] fluid”. It is custom tailored to the unique individual, recognizing that leaders have myriad ways of succeeding based on each person’s strengths, capacity, and personality.

Scholars argue that metamodernism, at its core, involves a transformation of the self. The arising gestalt is a unity of the self that encompasses, without appropriating, otherness and envisions a transformational self that concurrently respects other humans and perspectives.

Placing value on the validity and necessity of diverse perspectives is important. Through this respect for otherness, metamodern leadership embraces current leadership literature that emphasizes the importance of valuing diversity.

While diversity is intrinsically valuable, as it relates to virtue, it is also instrumentally valuable. Creativity and innovation have never been more important. Research clearly indicates that diversity (in primary and secondary characteristics) brings new ideas and innovations to organizations.

Creativity and Innovation


Creativity and innovation occur at all levels and increasingly come from collaborations with other organizations. Metamodernism integrates diverse spontaneity and creativity with science and technology to improve organizational performance.

Scholarship calls on leaders to facilitate symbiotic relationships, a model that allows the burden of leadership to be shared by all. Scholars have conceptualized organizations as interwoven webs with permeable edges.

Permeability allows for a free flow of ideas, further reinforces interconnections, and facilitates improved communication. Permeability is how the performance artist, Marina Abramovic, connected with audience members to create a larger performance space. In doing so, she increased her ability to communicate with the audience as they participated in the conversation.

Organizations are increasingly engaged in co-creating meaning, with constituents involved in authoring narratives and participating in collaborative problem solving. This permeability calls for Front-line leaders who are flexible, sincere, and catalysts for positive change.

Topics: Leadership Styles

Anna Montgomery, MPA

Written by Anna Montgomery, MPA

Anna Montgomery earned her MPA at USC Price and is pursuing her EdD at USC Rossier.

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