Skip to Content, Skip to Navigation

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Future-fit leadership

We cannot solve many of today’s and tomorrow’s challenges with old thinking, say Ruth Donde and Graham Hart. We need leaders with novel ideas who can inspire and motivate.

If you have ever had the experience of having one foot in a boat and one foot on the shore, then you will know that feeling of instability and caution about your next step. It could be argued that this is a reasonable analogy to describe where we are with our leadership operating model. We have one foot in the past and one in the future, reacting to the rocking boat and being very cautious as to where we place our weight and focus.

With hindsight, its not that surprising that, influenced by two World Wars and the Depression, 20th century organisational hierarchies were structured along military lines with multi-layered structures to establish control through rules and processes.

Leadership became an apprentice model where leaders taught and showed the next generation how to lead using time-honoured practices of planning, coordination and execution.

Great for processes, system and control but poor for innovation and adaptive flexibility, the hierarchical model simply doesn’t fit our volatile, complex and changing times. The craftsman-apprentice model has been replaced by the pursuit of learning cultures filled with knowledge workers who don’t respond in the same way to “top down” leadership and senior leaders. We are right in that uncomfortable gap.

What is changing is the context and the change imperatives.

In order to succeed, leaders need to retain some timeless competencies, traits and skills such as integrity, holding a vision, and aligning people with purpose, values and strategy. There are also other competencies required with a shift from siloed single skill sets to more transferable skills. For example, in the past it was expected that those involved in information technology have computer skills. Nowadays, the requirement is for all leaders to be technologically savvy.

You can find many leadership competency models out there that try to predict what is important for leaders now and the future. One of the most practical iterations of 21st century leader competencies we have come across is the neuroleader i4 Model of four core competencies.


Performance is redefined here as “turning up” and being able to operate optimally. It is the place where, in our view, all leadership starts—with the ability to lead yourself.

Operating from a place of good foundations—diet, sleep and exercise, etc—and finding purpose and meaning in work helps us to be the best versions of ourselves. So many leaders are struggling to find the balance between competing demands from work and home. So many leaders are giving so much to others that there is little left over for themselves.

With the development of neuroscience and the validation of thousands-year-old wisdom of what it takes to discipline our mind, we can now expect our leaders to be as mentally, physically and emotionally ready as we would an Olympic athlete.

Useful focus. Are you investing enough in your own wellbeing and cognitive function? The scientific evidence is clear—if you are out of balance it affects your performance, your clarity of thinking, your emotional resilience and your long-term health. And it’s not just you that it affects! The chances are others notice and start to react to your behaviours. Spend time focusing on yourself, building self-awareness and social awareness too.


The challenges businesses face these days are too complex to be solved by individuals or even single organisations. Collaboration—within the organisation and with customers, suppliers, and even competitors—is required to achieve lasting solutions.

The 21st century is about community and open, two-way conversations. We no longer need to yell at people and broadcast to get their attention. People want to be truly engaged in conversation and listened to. The new breed of leader respects people and allows for communities to form where they no longer need to be at the head.

Leaders need to develop their ability to connect with the most diverse workforce in history. They need to learn how to keep this new wave of younger workers happy, or risk losing them. Diversity of perspective and mindset is seen as a strategic asset not an impediment to progress.

Leaders must foster this collaborative spirit, eliminating internal politics and focusing on internal cooperation.

Useful focus. Learn all you can about effective communication. At the current pace of change, fast action is what matters so invest in your influencing skills. Generosity and courage will be necessary to inspire people to work with us when they don’t have to. Leaders no longer have all the answers, so you need to know what questions to ask. Developing this “asking” skill is critical.


Innovation that fuels strategy as “last year plus a bit” thinking is no longer sufficient. We need constant new ideas to respond to a world that is no longer just turbulent, but continually disruptive.

The 21st century leaders do not have all the answers. They go into situations letting people know that they don’t know. They create the space for the conversation and allow the solutions to emerge. The expert model is left behind in the last century where you had to be the smartest person in the room to shine. In this century, leaders show up around creating shared purpose and understanding the power of hiring the best and the brightest to partner with them.

Leaders must call forth an ability to imagine, a curiosity that will energise our people, a drive that will keep them going and an attitude that will expect failure and success in a world in which we are constantly experimenting.

Useful focus. Be purposeful about reading widely and getting differing perspectives. Understand the outliers and innovators in your field of practice. Become more comfortable using new collaborative thinking tools such as agile thinking and design thinking.

In times of disruption where everything appears to be up in the air what isn’t changing is that you will still have customers, so be customer-centric. Find better and deeper ways to understand and partner with your customers to innovate and create more value.


If you could have only one skill in your toolkit, this is the one you need right now.

Every leader’s job now is to help the organisation develop the capacity to adapt, rather than stake out a vision and drive toward that. Leaders need to design their whole organisations for adaptability, not just possess the trait themselves.

Build an environment where workers are encouraged to express their points of view and to raise tough issues before they become crises. Have an organisation-wide emphasis on learning from mistakes.

Agility that fuels execution in this new disruptive world forces us to learn a new way of implementing. Ironically, the world’s best armies that gave us hundreds of years of command and control, are now teaching us what it takes to act with agility.

Armed with technology that puts the intelligence in the field, the frontline troops become as, if not more, important as the backend brass in HQ in forming the strategy. The plan constantly evolves as the awareness of requirements builds and then must be adapted to be deployed effectively at all levels.

Useful focus. No one cares about your learning as much as you do, and leadership and learning are indispensable. The best leaders are the best learners. You could look to develop routines that support your reflection and thinking, such as: journaling, asking more questions, seeking feedback, being present in conversations rather than be distracted by your own thinking.

The ultimate measure of effectiveness for leaders is the ability to sustain superior results over an extended period. Organisations filled with aligned, empowered and collaborative employees focused on serving customers will outperform hierarchical organisations every time.

We cannot solve many of today’s and tomorrow’s challenges with old thinking. We need leaders with novel ideas, who are willing to take risks, inspire and motivate, and build new strategic partnerships to address global challenges. In these endeavours, leaders need to bold and courageous learners and incorporate skills that are more in the realm of psychology and cognitive science.

According to the World Economic Forum Future of jobs report, the top skills required in two years’ time will be:

  • • 
    Complex problem solving;
  • • 
    Critical thinking;
  • • 
  • • 
    People management;
  • • 
    Coordinating with others;
  • • 
    Emotional intelligence;
  • • 
    Judgement and decision-making;
  • • 
    Service orientation;
  • • 
  • • 
    Cognitive flexibility.

You may notice that the skills in demand require a combination of maths and social skills.

Thinking needs to change, as shown in the table above. It’s past time to shift the weight out of the boat and on to the front foot.


HierarchicalShared purpose
The information sourceCommunity builder
Revered for credentialsTrusted for credibility
One way communicationTwo way communication
Measuring activityMeasuring impact
Train/upskill for a jobLifelong learner

RUTH DONDE ( and GRAHAM HART ( are directors of Mantle, a leadership consultancy focused on supporting organisations to flourish by developing future-fit leaders.

comments powered by Disqus

From Employment Today Magazine

Table of Contents