A new wave of leadership for the 2020s

Looking back to look forward

Around 2010, if you were looking for a book on leadership, these were some of the titles you would have found: Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Servant Leadership, Start With Why, The Gifts of Imperfection, Appreciative Leadership, The Soul of Leadership and The No Asshole Rule. The collective theme is clear.

Since its emergence in the early 2000s, Authentic Leadership dominated many coaching conversations and approaches to developing leaders in the 2010s. Bill George described the five key tenants of Authentic Leadership in his 2003 seminal book: (1) clarity of purpose manifested as passion (2) clear, uncompromising values lived through congruent behaviors (3) deep relationships and connectedness with followers (4) self-discipline, which gives leaders focus and (5) heart, expressed in compassion.

In discussions during the 2010s about leadership, we were speaking about vulnerability, profound self-awareness, humility, naming one’s truth, leaning in, genuineness, openness, transparency, and true Norths. Vision, innovation, global-mindedness, agility and, later in the decade inclusiveness, also defined leadership in the 2010s, at least in North America and Europe.

Leadership in the 2020s

When we look at theories and concepts of leadership, they evolve as society and humankind evolve. For example, the directive, command and control, transactional style of leading synonymous with the 1980s has little resonance or acceptance with followers today. So if the 2010s were about authentic leadership, what will be the leadership signature of the 2020s?

We asked leaders we admire from diverse sectors including medicine, SaaS, media, law and fashion, and experts on leadership for their views on the new wave of leadership they want to see sweeping organizations in the 2020s. This is what they told us:

“I hope in this decade we see more emergence and embracing of individuals who lead with defiance; those who lead with being deeply concerned and dissatisfied with the status quo across whatever industry and role they are in. I hold the belief that the vast majority of progression across societies and cultures takes place by those who are unpleased by the way things currently exist and/or function. Yet at the same time, we are socialized to tame those instincts in us of “not being pleased”, “not being satisfied”, “to look at the positive”, ” to listen to advice”, and in the process of doing so, we become refined. I hope in this decade we see more misfits, and more defiant people, with big visions and drives.”

Naira Musallam, Co-CEO and Founder of SightX

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“I’d like to see organizational leadership that shifts the focus beyond the exclusive demands of the immediate and near future, but considers our shared, deep future. 2020 is here. We’re living a modern reality that was shaped into being for centuries. It exceeds expectations in some matters, but in others still falls painfully short. We need to envision how we want to shape the daily lived experiences of people 20, 30 and 100 years from now.

We frequently express the egalitarian principles of our founding documents. It’s long past time that we champion those ideas into full being. We need to create broad superhighways of opportunity and to strive maximizing our human potential. In short, we need to commit to leaving no talent uncultivated, no client unserved.”

Hirschel McGinnis, MD

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“Organizations in this decade will need leaders that are able to lead without ego. The century has ushered in a workforce that is nimble, diverse and fickle – accompanied by a macro-social and economic environment that is demanding businesses play a role in shaping our civic society. As such, leaders in this decade will need to be able to serve and prioritize many potentially divergent interests. To do so effectively, a leader will need to put her own ego aside – specifically be able to make decisions quickly and change course when circumstances change. The ability to change course effectively requires an admission of not having all the answers all the time.”

Sejal Shah Gulati, President Harvard Business School Alumni Board, Former President Time Inc India

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“When I think about what successful leaders will need to do in the 2020s it’s, among other things, the ability to manage paradoxes and deal with apparently unresolvable situations that cannot be completely defined and controlled and can only be addressed through collaboration and fluidity. For example, to pick a classic case, it’s a trap to become preoccupied with whether a given decision or governance model is decentralized or centralized… it’s often neither, or both, and driven by a specific situation. Leaders will need tolerance for ambiguity and to be able to manage competing ends of a continuum.

Leaders that won’t do well this decade are those that increasingly want clear, tight answers to questions like: Who owns this client? Is this my decision or yours? Are we going to make this decision for the long-term or short-term?”

Adam Carroll, VP Global Talent Management, Interpublic Group

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“I would like to see leaders who are able to take longer-term strategic decisions over shorter-term results. The obsession with quarterly earnings and rapid EBITDA growth holds executives hostage. It often leads leaders to shortcut groundbreaking innovations and investment in talent and, overall, make poorer business decisions. These larger effects leave employees frustrated, confused and less secure. In order to create greater long-term wealth and health for the organization, leaders will need to have courage and conviction in standing up to their executives and boards to lobby for the future of their business, not merely for today’s results.”

Emily Amdurer, Principal, Heidrick & Struggles

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“I think the 20s will demand that leaders address the following inter-dependent themes:

The digital revolution’s impact on business will accelerate. Leaders across all businesses will increasingly need to be savvy in areas such as Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, social media, market influencers, data privacy, and fake news. I predict it will become a major divide amongst leaders, with many traditional leaders starting to look obsolete if they do not actively engage with these areas. As the rate of change accelerates, increasingly leaders will have to think through the ethical issues presented by technology.

Purpose and reputation. Related to the above point, and as some businesses span national boundaries, leaders are increasingly having to hold themselves to a higher purpose, and manage their reputations even more actively. Leaders need to take clear moral and ethical positions about societal issues. Again, I think change will move much faster than governments can legislate.

Globalisation vs nationalistion. Leaders will need to navigate leading a global entity whilst operating in a sometimes increasingly nationalist context. Trade tariffs and local/global reputation will become major themes.

Climate change. Finally, I hope climate change goes mainstream and we see all leaders fully embrace this.”

Rachel Robinson, Co-founder, Napoleon Consulting

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“EQ remains important. It is the new baseline for leadership capabilities. Building on this, focus is turning to the quality of the conversations we have with each other and the ways in which we collaborate. Simply put, if we can improve the quality of conversations, this will increase collaboration between people and teams, which will, in turn, lead to higher performance. Taking our attention to the quality of conversations is essential. A key part of this is candor.  It’s not candor for its own sake or at any cost. Rather, it is candor in the service of a higher purpose or goal coupled with compassion or kindness for another person. So, let’s improve the quality of the conversations we have with each other. In doing so we can expect better outcomes for all.”

Peter May, Global Chief People Officer, Baker & McKenzie

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“A trend we commonly see in corporate organizations is that logical, action-oriented, pragmatic individuals move up the ladder quickly, and then find themselves in senior roles. By contrast, more divergent, innovative individuals can struggle to make the leadership jumps from middle management, unless deliberately rewarded by an organization that encourages pioneering behavior. 

As I look into the next decade of leadership, what’s on my mind is climate change. Corporations may need to rely more on this often passed-over profile of leader to respond to the massive, currently unpredictable disruptions that will be caused by climate change. We need leaders who can anticipate the longer-term disruption caused by environmental changes, react dynamically to different scenarios, and apply creative proactiveness to manage shifting external forces. As such, businesses should ensure that they have this pipeline of these individuals ready now, to take up leadership roles in the next chapter. “

Maisie Sather, Human Capital Advisor

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“The first thing that comes to mind is clarity. As we continue to evolve in a highly transparent society, with digital and social media platform expansion and political awareness at a whole new level, people will want to work in environments whereby their leaders display the same level of clarity. This can be anything from a specific work task to broader issues like job stability, career growth, and opportunities.

In my time in luxury fashion, the one thing all companies struggle with is providing clear road maps for their employees to feel confident in. Sure, there are always brand-related strategies (elevate brand awareness, decrease or increase distribution, surpass sales expectations) but as a leader, it’s something I strive to deliver more and more.

Clarity can closely align with transparency. When you are open and build confidence and trust with your team, it allows your business to function more effectively. I say this with a bit of reluctance though because often it can be confused with entitlement. “I’ve been committed to the brand for five years so I should clearly be moving to the next step.” This is hard to manage at any level, but clarity on what leaders want and expect, with very little ambiguity, can help course-correct some of the entitled expectations and build better foundations for upcoming, strong leaders to learn from. When leaders are clear on their process and plan, it helps with job retention and company loyalty. People are happy to stay somewhere they feel they are learning, valued and can grow. Otherwise, more often than not, they seek clarity elsewhere. “

Aaron Stout, Director Men’s Wholesale, Burberry

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I’m guessing the ‘20s will be remembered as the decade of digital revolution. No doubt it will bring wonderful things but I hope that as our leaders wrap their heads around all things digital they don’t get lost in the ones and zeros, or whatever the digital equivalent of ‘the weeds’ is! It would feel like two steps forward and three steps back on the evolution of leadership.

What if we put a heavier focus on the leader’s responsibility to create other leaders? It’s not a new concept but a greater emphasis in this digital age could serve us well. It might keep today’s leaders focused at the right level and the right competencies, and ensure the leaders of tomorrow are true leaders versus digi-savvy managers.

Noreen Murphy, Transformation and Change Manager, Heineken USA

What did we discover about leadership for the 2020s?

While there is a range of themes here, what strikes us is a commonality in the voice across a number of the contributors. There’s an air of demand, almost a dissatisfaction, that current approaches to leadership and traditional organizational paradigms aren’t going to cut it. In fact, when running these perspectives through sentiment analysis software, the two main tones detected were analytical and sadness.

When we reflect on these messages about leadership for the 2020s, what jumps off the page to us is a higher-order, courageous leadership that will actively confront issues within and beyond organizational parameters. This resonates with us since the boundaries between companies, employees, customers and communities are becoming increasingly blurred.

Furthermore, employees and those interacting with organizations (partners, suppliers, consumers, customers) are losing patience with companies that act in anything but a just, fair, equitable and ethical manner. Leaders in the 2020s can’t sit on the sidelines on societal issues. Taking no action or making wishy-washy gestures on issues like the climate crisis will be interpreted as a measure of a leader’s true values.

A new generation has entered the world of work in the 2020s, Gen Zs, reinforcing and contributing to the evolving nature of what people want from work and how jobs and careers are changing. Correspondingly, how leaders need to lead is changing. Being treated as individuals and humans first, not employees matters, co-creating and shaping society and culture matters, inclusiveness matters, hyper-flexibility matters and wellness and wellbeing matters.

Leading in a technology-age was only mentioned explicitly by a couple of our contributors. There is something that delights us about this and something surprising about it. Delighted because a people-focused approach is still at the forefront of leaders’ minds. Surprising because we’ll undoubtedly witness massive explosions in the pace and growth of digital and technological change during this decade – augmented reality, the spatial web, gigabit connectivity, “AI as a Service,” biometric data from wearables.

Leaders and organizations are likely to see the biggest wins when humans and machines work together, leveraging the best of what each partner has to offer. This, essentially, is the notion of collaborative intelligence. Effective leaders in the 2020s will be those that adopt this mindset and harness the power of collaborative intelligence.

We are only a month into this new decade but we are cautiously optimistic if the next ten years are dominated by leaders who lead by higher-order ethics, values, and courage and, as Naira Musallam, Co-CEO of SightX said, with defiance.