What does the leader of the future look like?

To understand the how the role of leadership has changed in modern society, you need to look at how our perceptions of ‘the job’ has evolved. 

Change is all around us

Over the past decade, we’ve lived through a time of perpetual change. Since 2010 there have been huge shifts of democracy and the economy; of international relations and national identity; of climate and society; of technology and security. The transition over the past decade and the changes we’ve undergone, both progressive and regressive, are still hard to truly understand.

These changes have permanently impacted the role of leadership and the business leaders of today now need to draw upon a range of leadership skills unneeded just a few years ago. Alongside this spectrum of societal change, there have also been significant changes in how each of us view our role in the society, and the role ‘work’ plays in our lives.

The changing perception of work

Since the early noughties, young people across the UK have been disengaging from organised religion – our traditional homeland for community and purpose. In 2019, a British Social Attitudes survey found that 52% of the public don’t belong to any religion, a rise on the 31% who said the same in 1983.

The weaning societal interest in organised religion is happening at the same time as other grounding factors in peoples’ lives are disappearing. During the Cameron premiership, economic austerity created lasting consequences for our communities around the UK. A total of 859 children’s centres and family hubs – which provide support services for babies, young people, and families – closed between 2010 and 2019, while 940 youth centres and more than one in five libraries (22%) shut their doors for good.

This dramatic scaling back of community services in the UK and the individualising of everyday life has narrowed our relationships with others – with an Aviva study showing that where one in eight people aged 25-34 don’t know any of their neighbours by name.

The combination of societal changes and the collapse of grounding factors in everyday life – such as religion and community – has played a role in dramatically altering how we, the people, view the expectations of our daily work. No longer is work seen simply as a way of making money and gaining financial security, but a place that can provide the safety, dignity and belonging we have lost in other areas of our life.

Increased scope of expectations on leadership

This shift is evident in the growing public interest in the CSR and environmental credentials of their employer. Nearly 40% of millennials have chosen a job because of corporate sustainability, while almost two-thirds of UK workers are more likely to work for a firm that have strong environmental values. We want to feel proud of where we work as, in the face of change and lack of community, we are searching for deeper meaning, purpose and connection within our workplaces.

All of this creates a need for a style of business leadership completely different from the one many CEOs experienced when they started out. Leaders today face higher expectations, have more to navigate and fundamentally have more people to potentially disappoint. However, conversely, leaders today also have more opportunities to exercise real leadership, and take a stance that inspires & mobilises their employees, customers and wider stakeholders. This is not the leadership that comes with a title, but the leadership that comes from taking a small act that requires courage, making a decision that makes your heart leap, or taking a step forward without knowing where the destination lies.

The author of Your Leadership Moment and Acumen advisor, Eric Martin, succinctly summarises these changes: “There has been an explosion of ‘leadership moments’ in recent years. Until about twenty years ago, the average executive faced less than two leadership moments per day. Today, the average person – not just executive – faces five or more leadership moments every day.”

The future of leadership

Today, our workforce is empowered and wants to work for a business that represents them and their views of society. This means as a CEO you will face various leadership moments throughout the day tied to an array of different issues & opportunities - such as workforce diversity, inclusive culture, re-distribution of power, inclusive decision making, environmental sustainability and much more. Employees are looking for their leaders to move beyond tick boxing exercises – to align these issues at the core of the business’s ambitions.

As one example; Building a more diverse workforce requires a huge amount of intentional effort and behaviour change that leaders need to create in order for that diversity to flourish and thrive. There is no silver-bullet solution, and the challenges business leaders face related to inclusion and representation will not be solved by simply hiring a more diverse workforce. Whilst this is an important first step, fundamentally, leaders need to be able to build the individual capacity and workplace culture that can embrace difference, navigate competing values in tension, use identity as a tool to connect – not divide, understand how to disagree without being disagreeable, and develop a deep practice of listening & humility as they navigate the different needs, experiences and ways of working.

These are some of the 'hardest skills’ to build, and it starts by asking building in time to move from a space of reacting to a space of reflection, as you continuously adapt to work with the known & the unknown. Asking the right questions to understand your teams values, needs and boundaries can help kick-start this work By asking questions such as “what’s one thing you need from me that will enable you to be successful”, “what motivates you, and how can we bring more of that to your work” and “what is a non-negotiable for you in the workplace” you can build a culture that not only cares for tour team, but also empowers them to own their identity and create the organisations’ culture.

Finding a way forward

The challenges leaders face today are broad and complex, and often there are no ‘right answers’. The breakdown of grounding factors in everyday life and the global changes we are simultaneously facing have changed the expectations we have for our work. It is now a place our team want to find safety, dignity and belonging- As a leader you will need to be able to build the skills to navigate increased complexity, disruption, difference and uncertainty.

The leadership required to hold this is grounded in practicing vulnerability, having the wisdom to admit failure, and having the courage to start again. Together, we have the opportunity to build a different type of leadership that fundamentally changes relationship between you and your team, in order to build the long term success of your business. Together, we have an opportunity to put dignity, shared humanity and the sustainability of the earth at the centre of our organisations and institutions. Together, we have the opportunity to invest in building trust, exploring different identities and connecting with those who think differently to you.

Some challenging years lie ahead as step over a range of tipping points. We have the technical tools to solve our biggest problems. What we now need is the leadership.