The Most Important Skills for 21st Century Leaders


What do you picture when you think of a leader?

Many envisage the classic traits of confidence, decisiveness, and authority. But is this reflective of the modern leader?

The rise of technology, the spread of 21st-century social attitudes, and the increase in remote work and the gig economy have all brought with them the need for an adjustment from managers and leaders.

There’s been a rise in flatter hierarchies, with more people experiencing temporary or task-based leadership roles even when they’re not the boss.

In this shifting work environment, it’s imperative that we equip ourselves, or are at least familiar with, some essential leadership skills.

And if we’ve not worked in a constructive 21st-century environment ourselves, it can be difficult to recognize the skills or the impact they can have.

So here is a (by no means definitive) list of the skills that will, if developed, recognized, and consistently applied, lead to a more constructive and rewarding environment for both the leaders and the led.

#1. Motivating Others

You want to cultivate an environment where it’s in the culture to strive for the best. Gone are the days when this was done with an iron fist, or using ‘the carrot or the stick.

Modern leaders know that the best results come from a workforce that is invested in the success of the company, as they see it as a reflection of their success. We should inspire them to toil on their terms, unlocking intrinsic motivation to do their best.

Leaders can improve their motor skills by:

  • Setting clear goals and expectations, then throwing their support behind individuals and the team to meet them.
  • Giving clear and transparent information about what needs doing, by when, and why, but leaving space for people to find their own way there (and helping them find and then exploit this).
  • Aligning goals and expectations with the company’s vision, values, or mission, so everyone is aware of how their work and effort contributed.
  • Celebrating wins and re-framing losses/failures as lessons or opportunities for growth.

#2. Emotional intelligence

The ability to tune into other’s emotions and experiences helps you find common ground on which to build a strong rapport, and foster the kind of respect and trust that is essential for long-term, sustained success.

Some methods for unlocking and developing your emotional intelligence:

  • Actively listen when people talk to you, especially about things they’re struggling with. Look for what they’re saying behind what’s being said. Don’t jump to conclusions.
  • Try to be more compassionate when someone is struggling. Look for the human inside who’s trying their best. A simple trick is to put yourself in their shoes and imagine what might have happened to you to get you into that position.
  • Be approachable and sociable — make it easy to come to you with problems.
  • Practice being self-aware. Think about the impact of your words and actions. Consider how verbal and non-verbal communication may be received. Be ready to acknowledge if you’ve hurt or upset someone.

#3. Creativity

If we have the same ideas as everyone else, we’ll get the same results.

No, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel every week. But if you’re consistently encountering the same filing issues as a result of a poor or outdated system, it makes sense to try thinking outside the box, rather than simply getting out the filing 101 handbooks.

Take the example of the bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka. The chief engineer was trying to find a way to reduce the impact of a phenomenon known as ‘tunnel boom’ — when a train makes an explosive noise as it enters a tunnel due to the air pressure change. It so happens he was an avid birdwatcher, and he managed to find the solution in the beak of the kingfisher, whose beak is specially shaped so the bird can smoothly dive from the air into water and catch its prey.

How to develop more creative thinking:

  • Try approaching problems you’ve faced in the past with three ifs: what would change if the components (people, situation, location) were different? What if I changed my response, with the benefit of hindsight — what would be different? What if other connected things had gone differently?
  • Understand the fundamentals of the area you’re trying to be creative in. A comprehensive understanding of the basics gives you greater scope for drawing together independent threads and coming up with new ideas.
  • Diversify your thinking into other areas of expertise where similar problems may apply, and try to draw parallels to see if lessons can be learned. A lot of creativity is actually just the recycling of existing ideas in a new context (take the example above with the bullet train). The more we know about the world, the more examples we have to draw on for inspiration.

#4. Fostering potential, developing talent

Leaders should look beyond today’s success and think about tomorrow’s too. A big part of this is recognizing potential rather than just performance.

Mistakes are inevitable. It’s the reaction to and development from them that the best leaders are interested in.

Get better at developing your team by:

  • Encouraging people to become the best version of themselves, rather than simply following and mimicking you.
  • Avoiding a blame culture where mistakes are seen as an abject failure, and instead cultivating a growth-minded organization where everyone either wins or they learn.
  • Use appraisals and workshops to create space for intrinsic identification of areas for development, with regular check-ins and debriefs to help encourage a reflective mindset in your team. Ask questions that stir self-reflection, rather than bombarding people with critical analysis.

#5. Giving and getting feedback

It’s tempting to see feedback as a chance to pass your judgment about why something didn’t work and weigh it too much towards either being too critical or too positive. There needs to be a balance, but not at the expense of clarity.

To generally improve giving feedback:

  • Remember it should always come from a place of reflection, with advice that is constructive and actionable.
  • There’s no use talking in abstract terms with non-identifiable examples. Keep it relevant to the individual and their experiences, with a clear idea of what they can do to try and find their way through it next time, and why it will benefit them.
  • Set an example of how to receive feedback by being a bastion of the values you’re trying to encourage.

#6. Setting goals for all

It’s not enough to set goals for yourself. You need to be able to set, support, and oversee goals for others too.

The problem with goals is they can sometimes be restrictive and narrow. If everyone is fixated on goals, they do not see the inevitable issues that can arise in the space between goals.

Don’t fall into the trap of only measuring output through goals. Many people in your team may be indispensable, but if you measured their performance purely on goals, this could fail to reflect their true impact.

One option is to set short-term, humanistic developmental goals, rather than deadlines and work tasks. This way, you can ensure you’re starting a chain of development through your staff’s general performance, and these skills and growth points can dovetail into the team, company, or organizational goals.

What you want to avoid, with yourself in others, is creating a system that can be gamed.

In my previous job, I would regularly polish the numbers and targets to make my KPIs appear on the track, regardless of the truth.

If you’re optimizing performance for the arbitrary illusion of goal-hitting, rather than the actual outcome, you’re in trouble.

It’s not only about just setting goals. Do they make sense?

The company may have overall strategic goals, but without tailoring these, or elements of these, to individual staff, you’ll struggle to achieve them satisfactorily.

Some ways to help improve goal setting:

  • Consider using Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) rather than goals. These tend to be more specific to the individual, and based on how they can best contribute to the overall vision and mission of the organization.
  • Think in terms of months or quarters, not years. Regularly have brief check-ins to course correct and update support. And give staff ownership.
  • Use meetings to lay out the objectives of the company, and how these trickle down to your department or team. Then elicit and allocate tasks and goals across individuals based on experience, development, or expertise. Your job is then to throw everything you have behind making each person a roaring success.
  • If you’re struggling to stay on top of everything, look at some project management software. Trello is a particularly straightforward and versatile option, but there are plenty more (especially if you can afford to spend some money)!

#7. Authenticity

To help build trust and credibility, it’s essential that modern leaders act with authenticity.

If people can understand you and your motivations, they’re much more likely to follow you. Especially if they know you’re being honest and genuine with them.

It lends validity to your interactions and makes staff feel trusted and respected.

How to improve authenticity:

  • Use self-awareness to understand and admit both your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Be honest about those weaknesses, and how to address or offset them. Don’t try to hide or deny them.
  • Avoid having a ‘work persona’ and instead, try to act from a truer sense of who you are. It’s natural to light a candle in different windows of our personality based on the situation, but don’t mistake this with actively suppressing or changing parts of who we are to try to manipulate people.

#8. Self-development

It is not enough to get to the top of the hill and then stop. Being a leader is a perpetual climb of development. You never reach level 99.

Each interaction, employee, task, and scenario offer valuable experience, lessons, and opportunities that will lead to your growth and development IF you can recognize them.

Yes, you should focus on developing your team. But how can they possibly follow your direction toward unlocking their potential, if you’ve not been able to unlock your own?

Set an example and look for the lessons in everything you do.

To cultivate a mindset that encourages greater reflection and development, try:

  • Keep a record of the experiences you have and the lessons you learn, then compile similar or overlapping experiences into training sessions for your team. Nothing helps you digest and internalize lessons learned more than sharing them with others.
  • Regularly checking in with yourself about your development, and setting goals to address areas of weakness. This could mean reading a book on the area, doing a course, or finding a mentor.
  • Keep an open mind and try to learn from everything you encounter. Stay humble, and stay hungry.

In Summary

Leadership is changing.

And though there’s value in understanding the leadership essentials of yesteryear, that won’t be enough to prepare you for the modern leadership landscape.

The leaders who will thrive in the world of tomorrow will be capable of the following:

  1. Motivating others
  2. Emotional intelligence
  3. Creativity
  4. Fostering talent, nurturing potential
  5. Giving and getting feedback
  6. Setting goals for all
  7. Authenticity
  8. Self-development

What else do you think will be essential skills in the world of tomorrow?

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