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4 Future Leadership Qualities for a Decade of Rapid Change

As we emerge from the pandemic, the pace of change is only going to accelerate. Here are four fundamental qualities successful leaders will need to cultivate for the future.

As we emerge from the pandemic, the pace of change is only going to accelerate. Here are four fundamental qualities successful leaders will need to cultivate for the future.

By Tim McEwan, Managing Director, Leadership Advisory

As we look ahead to the business challenges of 2022 and beyond, organisations are asking themselves what qualities the leaders of the future need in order to thrive. It is tempting to see this as a rection to the upheaval of the last couple of years, not to mention now having to cope with hybrid working. Yet the reality is that organisations were asking themselves searching questions about future leadership qualities for years before Covid struck.

The underlying challenges leaders face have not fundamentally changed, even if some of them may have been intensified. Consequently, when asking the question “what do we need from the leaders of the future”, it makes sense to focus on  

Future leadership quality #1 – Generosity

Generosity is not a leadership quality we often speak about, though I remember once being delighted to hear this being discussed as a valuable quality at a conference on leadership in asset management a couple of years ago. I have never forgotten that moment because it was so surprising.

Generosity suggests a genuine interest in giving to others, doing the right thing and being socially conscious and responsible. On the most basic level it just means giving of yourself to others and giving them the benefit of the doubt.

This might apply to your team, someone you might be mentoring, or anyone who values your time and opinion. It also applies to those outside the workplace who love and value you – your friends and family.

With acrimony and bad blood becoming more and more prominent in public discourse – not least on social media and even traditional media – now could be a good time to reflect on generosity as a leadership quality. Could you be a more generous leader? Could you be more giving of your time, your praise, your concern for others and perhaps your concern for the planet?

In a time of great upheaval, anxiety, and anger, leaders who are able to rise above and display generosity are likely to thrive this decade.

Future leadership quality #2 – Adaptability

Promoting adaptability as a leadership quality almost seems like a cliché at this point since, unlike generosity, adaptability is often spoken about. However, if anything it is only becoming more relevant in the wake of Covid.

After all, the pandemic was a huge test of adaptability, as well as proof of its value. Those that can weather, and even thrive in, the storm of rapid change, will win through. Indeed, if anything the pandemic showed that many of our organisations and institutions were more adaptable than we might have believed.  

The pandemic has also exposed lack of adaptability in some respects. The UK’s National Health Service, for example, having responded well to the initial challenge, now suffers from record waiting lists for non-Covid-related treatments – a reflection of its possible lack of adaptability. The British government appears to be lurching from one short-term crisis to another – which could be a sign of its lack of adaptability, or indeed of the media’s lack of adaptability in covering other topics.

Where many organisations have displayed a high degree of short-term adaptability, those who will thrive will be those who can show long-term adaptability – the ability to react to short-term challenges without taking their eye off long-term strategic goals.

As we look ahead to the rest of this decade, it’s probably worth thinking about how you can build up your own individual adaptability, as well as how your organisation might look to embed this amongst the wider leadership team.   

Future leadership quality #3 – Passion

The last few years have seen a huge amount of passion in politics and from activists such as Greta Thunberg. By contrast, corporate leaders can seem more vanilla. This is a natural stance to take, perhaps. No one wants to alienate potential customers.

But it is undeniable that we live in a passionate age and, if we are honest with ourselves, we are all passionate about something. It strikes me that it is no longer enough for an organisation to have a purpose. Anyone can write a purpose statement, and these are often drafted by committee and drained of passion by design.

Passion is the emotion that reinforces purpose and gives it meaning.

Take the example of diversity and inclusion. Every organisation of a certain size has made some kind of commitment towards D&I. But how many are truly passionate about this? If you see such things as an obligation, then you are unlikely to be successful. If, instead, you see D&I as a means of better representing society, or of increasing cognitive diversity (and therefore adaptability) then becoming passionate about this becomes much easier.

We need to see more passion and more physical demonstrations of that passion and emotion.  Less buttoned up suits talking in corporate language that no one really understands and more real passion that clients, staff and the wider world can understand and rally behind.

Future leadership quality #4 – Understanding capacity

I recall working with an organisation a couple of years ago which had the expectation that all of its leaders would be on top of everything all the time. Of course, this expectation was unrealistic and unreasonable but I mention it because it is still all too common.

Alongside rapid change in politics and society, we have been struggling for well over a decade with the explosive rise of new technologies, new market segments and huge volumes of data. We are now at the point where there sheer amount of information available now far exceeds any one person’s capacity to retain it all.

This change is not going to slow down any time soon. Indeed, all the signs point to it getting faster. If leaders are struggling to stay on top of information overload, this is only going to become more challenging in the months and years ahead.

Organisations must adjust their expectations. Leaders who are constantly pushed beyond their capabilities are only going to become less effective. It is certainly not sustainable. Leaders therefore need to understand what it means to truly delegate, empower, and give autonomy to their people, while learning to work with AI technologies that will augment their capacity.

Organisations must learn to practice empowerment and autonomy, to delegate decisions to more people, and to distribute decision-making powers more widely. This approach is the only way to avoid overwhelm and improve the quality of decision-making in the long term.