What is 21st century leadership? The new skills every manager needs and how to develop them fast

21st-century leadership is different to anything that managers have been faced with before. Even prior to the pandemic, Gartner Analyst Mark P McDonald noted that 21st-century leaders must be artists; they must have an ability to adapt rapidly in a world of work where a talent to ‘relate, create, and instigate change’ defined overall success. 

Based on this observation, 21st-century leadership is rooted in the ability to:

  • Relate: Leaders need to make a shift from production-based management to people-centric management, relating with teams to better drive performance. 
  • Create: Leaders need to create new ways of working and introduce new processes that redefine standards and generate strategies that work today.
  • Instigate Change: Leaders need to be at the forefront of change, actively introducing and using new processes and motivating teams to accept change.

It’s clear that all three of these aspects require leaders to focus on improving their agile skills, and the agile skills of their team, in the face of multiple emerging leadership and management challenges. A concept borrowed from software engineering and design, an agile approach allows leaders to adapt quickly to different work personality types, and different situations. And perhaps most importantly, it allows them to adapt quickly. The need for organisations to embrace the agile methodology has been growing for many years, with a PwC report from 2016 showing that more than half of all young leaders believed, even back then, that their priority should be developing an adaptable team.

Vital Skills for 21st Century Leaders

But what agile and adaptable skills are needed by leaders to succeed not only in the 21st century, but also in a world heavily impacted by the effects of the pandemic?

Here are the five most important skills for leading today:

1. Connected Leadership Capability

Today’s leaders are faced with increasingly fluid workforces and an accelerating pace of change. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the global economy, creating challenging environments and complexity for leaders. In this backdrop, command-driven leadership is no longer effective. Instead, managers need to foster connections within their teams to drive collaboration and communication, pushing everyone towards a common goal. Training Journal suggests that today’s leaders must be emotionally intelligent in order to mobilise, focus and renew the collective energy of others’ while also nurturing a sense of meaning that exists beyond money. Connected leaders communicate values, which can inspire others to go the extra mile. They also bring greater meaning and purpose to the workforce with a focus on nurturing inter-team collaboration, fostering innovation and creating resilience. 

2. Capacity Building

Insights firm McKinsey notes that capacity building is a ‘critically important area that leaders need to address’ today, placing a firm focus on boosting three key aspects: mindsets, knowledge, and overall talent. Leaders must be aware of the most effective and efficient ways to develop these vital skills broadly across the team, giving the workforce the tools they need to inherently drive their own performance, and creating a shift from the more direct production-focused management strategies of the past. 

3. Data Analysis

As leaders shift from ‘hard’ management to a ‘soft’ leadership style, PwC believes that an ability to measure and track people metrics will prove to be one of the most important skills. Especially at a time when many businesses must achieve more with less, workforce performance is anticipated to become even more critical in a post-2020 world than ever before. For managers leading the workforce of tomorrow, having the skills to collect, analyse, and use real time people data to optimise performance looks set to be vital to success. 

4. Effective From a Distance

Remote working became the norm during the height of the pandemic, and even with many organisations beginning to revert to greater levels of normality, the trend for remote working is showing little sign of returning to where it was previously, meaning leaders must be effective and able to make an impact from a distance. Leaders can no longer micromanage their dispersed teams. While it can be difficult - especially for new leaders - there is an urgent need to work to develop a level of trust that enables team members to work independently, often this means cultivating a culture of mutual respect. Without the ability to build and nurture trust in remote teams, the promise that this method of working offers will fail to materialise.

5. Self Development

Perhaps one of the most difficult skills that leaders need to excel at in the 21st century is the ability to shift their focus from their team to themselves. A leader’s capability is often reflected in the performance of their team, so it’s natural to want to focus on the workforce. However, self development skills are becoming increasingly vital for managers whose teams expect them to lead by example. Today’s leaders must prioritise their own development and put themselves first, before developing their team.

Developing New Skills

Unfortunately, many of today’s leaders don’t yet possess these skills. But it’s not always the leader’s fault. In fact, a study by Deloitte found that, in many cases, it was the organisation themselves that was proving to be the biggest obstacle to skill building. 

‘Our research shows that while organizations expect new leadership capabilities, they are still largely promoting traditional models and mindsets, when they should be developing skills and measuring leadership in ways that help leaders effectively navigate greater ambiguity, take charge of rapid change, and engage with external and internal stakeholders’ notes the report. This shows a clear gap between what organisations need to be doing to support 21st century leaders, and what’s actually happening. 

To date, developing essential skills when moving into a new position has often been achieved through simple observation: from understanding the approach of the former leader, and mimicking that tried-and-tested style. Today, however, the business landscape is shifting too rapidly, especially in light of the pandemic. What worked yesterday isn’t going to cut it today, which means that 21st century leaders must be more active, seeking out opportunities that enable them to grow and develop.

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