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Leadership in the 2020s: it's all going to change

Co-authored with Sam Smithson-Biggs, Director of Transformation at Aviva


Leadership: what it is and what it isn’t.


Leadership used to be and too often is bestowed on the most experienced individuals. But leadership isn’t something achieved through tenure or knowing the most about a particular specialism, therefore leaders with expertise in a specialism don’t necessarily make the best leaders. Moreover leadership is not about knowing the most about a subject or being in charge, nor is it about telling people what to do. In fact leadership requires an entirely different set of skills.


Leadership is inspiring people to come on a journey: to stand behind a cause. It is vital. Good leadership is a critical recruitment tool: the reason people join an organisation. It’s also the reason people stay and can be the reason customers buy from an organisation. Conversely, bad leadership can deter people from joining. In other words it can be the reason people leave and the reason customers go elsewhere.





The world is changing and leaders are having to deal with more and more


The context in which leaders need to operate is changing:

  • The working world is evolving. In recent years we have seen a rise in remote/flexible working styles, which brings its own set of challenges for leaders. Traditional communication methods are radically changing (have radically changed), replaced by digital platforms that change the way leaders need to communicate across these mediums.

  • How capability is sourced has also transformed recently where short term and freelance contracts (the gig economy) are becoming more commonplace hence having an impact on the traditional approach to leadership. Leaders could be working with permanent, interim, partner, as a service and contract resource which brings different leadership challenges.

  • The workforce is changing and the day to day requirements of a leader for different generations are very different:

  • by 2025, roughly 75% of the global workforce will be millennials and people joining the world of work in 2029 are currently in primary school.

  • For the first time we have people in the workplace that have just left school and those in the 70’s and 80’s.

  • There is a clear move away from individual authority to a hive-mind which spans traditional silos and even organisational boundaries.

  • The pace of technology development is faster than it has ever been, as a matter of fact it will never be this slow again. Consequently the multi-generational workforce is being augmented by technologies like Robotics Process Automation & AI as business models become more digital.

  • Non-traditional aspects of business are coming to the fore, in particular climate change, ethical investment, diversity & inclusion, fairness and other societal factors.

What does this mean for leaders in the 2020s?

Firstly, a leader needs to know where they are going and need a strong purpose: a cause, a mission. That starts with WHY, not what or how. As Simon Sinek says. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. And that’s true for staff and customers.

That WHY needs to be embedded into the very fabric of the organisation. Into its DNA. It needs to be visible in everything the organisation does: from the strategy and roadmap to the operating model, the performance management system, the bonus scheme and the reporting.


In addition to that WHY, leaders in the 2020’s need to be able to do the following:

  • Deliver outcomes that goes beyond financial results and includes customer and staff measures, with trust being at the heart of both. This requires transparency and vulnerability which are not the qualities of all leaders today.

  • Be humble. Make themselves subservient to the cause or company that they lead. The purpose is more important.

  • Inspire, not motivate or manage. Build leaders, not managers. Bring mission and purpose to their team(s).

  • Unite around shared purpose. Hive mind. In our hyper-mobile, digitally intermediated world, relationships are hard to come by, so it is critical to create a culture based on community, united around a common purpose. Plus, solving new unusual problems requires the hive-mind of a strong community.

  • Understand their people. Recognise that not everyone’s the same. People are at different stages of their lives, driven by different things. Understand that to unlock inspiration.

  • Listen to their people. Ask them how they accomplished what they did. Encourage them to recreate it. Probe them. Gain their feedback and incorporate it. Get curious when things work well and when they don’t and understand why.

  • Be self-aware. Arguably no skill signifies a strong leader like self-awareness. The ability to understand your own strengths and weaknesses will equip the leader to work effectively with different co-workers possessing differing strengths. Setting a precedent of self-awareness among your team will allow your co-workers to more honestly assess themselves as well, and better gauge their own individual strengths and weaknesses. This in turn will undoubtedly propel your team to work more efficiently, with everyone understanding where they excel and where they lack. In addition, team members benefit from working in an environment that promotes self-awareness and discourages individuals from hiding their weaker skills.

  • Don’t be isolated. Isolation is the enemy of innovation. And the antithesis of taking people on a journey.

  • Collaborate. Great things come from collaboration … be open, transparent and work openly with others.

  • Ask. Not everyone has all the answers. Diversify and obtain a range of other perspectives on problems to remove blockers and improve results.

  • Be honest. Without honesty, the purpose won’t be believed and congruence is key. In fact consistency is more important than intensity.

  • Be future focused. Be clear on where you’re heading.


What else do leaders in the 2020’s need?


It’s not just about skills & capabilities. Leaders in the 2020’s need to build an external network to collaborate with, people to bounce ideas off, gain more diverse thoughts & different perspectives and expertise from people who’ve been there before.

Leaders also need the organisation to have the right structure, culture and processes to support the leader in 2020’s to succeed. That includes the way leaders are evaluated.  Traditional measures such as financial results, strategy delivery and managing the day to day will not embed sustained behavioural changes.  For this reason looking at employee engagement, leadership capability assessments and alignment to company values and living them through their leadership styles are options to consider.

Furthermore leaders also need a development path, they need the ability to improve their leadership skills over time and for this reason leadership isn’t a one and done. In fact it’s something that needs to evolve, develop, iterate. Particularly as an organisation goes through different phases: from start-up to scale-up to maturity – there are different challenges that require different skills.  In the same way as accountants need ‘continuing professional development’, why would leaders not need the same?


Logical Conclusions (Leadership in the 2020’s, it’s all going to change)


“Leadership is not a rank; it’s seeing those around you rise.” The power of a leader is accumulated through helping others, which may result in jeopardising your own job, but that’s fine. The by-product (aspiration) is that other leaders will emerge from across the organisation and it’s vital that they do.

This is an interesting concept for Founders: because at some point it will be time for the Founder to step aside and let others lead (more on this in an upcoming article).


So what?


We need to recognise the specialism of the generalist and promote leadership to be recognised as a specialism in its own right. A profession. And like other professions, have a clear development path in place.


Leadership is a profession, not a position. It takes work. You’ll get things wrong. That’s okay – it’s the best way to improve.


#LeadersOfTheFuture.

#FutureLeaders.


Leadership in the 2020’s, it’s all going to change. It has changed.

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