11 Essential Leadership Qualities for the Future of Work
Nikki Newsome didn’t fully realize how much leadership has changed until her diaper-clad toddler made a cameo appearance in a work-related video.
The video was “Newsome News,” a regular video newsletter that Newsome, Meta Chicago chief culture officer, filmed at her home to communicate with the office’s 500 employees during Covid lockdowns. Newsome could more or less control the atmosphere, as she filmed in her kitchen, backyard and other spots around the house. Control flew out the window, though, when her daughter came charging through the scene, brandishing Newsome’s electric toothbrush.
The kid stayed in the video. “I don’t ever want to paint a picture that I have it all together,” said Newsome, who has three young children. “I have days where the balance of it is difficult,” she said. “When you think about honesty and transparency, I want leaders to not shield their employees from things they’re going through.”
A leader’s actual child on display, in a work situation, for colleagues to see would have been embarrassing 10 or even three years ago. Not anymore. As the workforce and workplace change to meet employee demands ranging from flexibility to work-life balance to a more intense focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, leadership is changing, too.
Essential Leadership Qualities
- Authentically Self-Aware
- Able to Delegate
Leadership skills such as empathy, self-awareness, communication and emotional intelligence are becoming more important, and others, for instance confidence, are evolving to stay relevant for the times. Bossy, authoritarian, robot-like demeanors can’t effectively lead today’s workforce.
Indeed, it’s high time for a “rebranding” of leadership and strength, said Gianna Biscontini, a behavior analyst and author of F*ckless: A Guide to Wild, Unencumbered Freedoms, a guide for women to shed societal expectations. “We discuss strength and leadership though a primary lens of white, heterosexual and male, which silos giant subsets of individuals, including women, away from leadership roles,” she said, noting that qualifiers such as “black CEO or “female CEO” signal such executives as aberrant.
“That’s not a great look for leadership in 2022, where nearly every research article shows that diversity in gender, background, thought and race is key to creativity, innovation and organizational success,” Biscontini said.
Strength and its traditional connotations of force and coercion, “perpetuates the archaic view of strength and leadership and prevents us from moving in a more human-centered, progressive and effective direction,” Bisconti said. Because of the upheaval of the last several years, “we are now starting to perceive acts of authenticity, vulnerability, compassion, humility, and emotional maturity as strong,” she said. “We must also continue to build a society that rewards this behavior in all individuals, not only for the health of companies, but for the health of society.”
Amy Zimmerman agrees. “Team members crave decisiveness and strength in their leaders,” said Zimmerman, chief people officer at Atlanta, Georgia-based fintech company Relay Payments. “The biggest difference is there’s less tolerance for arrogance and command-control type styles, which was more prevalent and acceptable a couple decades ago,” she said. “It is possible to be strong and decisive and kind and empathetic. That’s what team members expect.”
What Is Leadership?
Before launching into a list of leadership qualities, it’s helpful to address a few questions: What is leadership? And what is a leader?
“It’s a question that’s been asked since we’ve come out of caves,” said Lanny Hass, professor emeritus at North Carolina State University and president of Chrysaleye Consulting in Raleigh, North Carolina, who has been researching leadership for 35 years.
“A leader is someone whom people will follow to places they would not go alone,” Hass said, quoting futurist Joel Barker. “You have to have followers, and you have to have influence.” To be sure, business executives have led their employees to undesirable places, causing detriment to themselves, their followers and the company.
3 Leaders on Leadership
- “Twenty years ago it was common for a tech leader just to be the domain expert who knew the technology the best; today, tech leaders need to be able to communicate with executive stakeholders, anticipate product challenges and navigate between what is ‘interesting’ and what is ‘valuable.’” - Jim Head, president, Fitzco Analytics, Atlanta, Georgia
- “I focus on connection. How do leaders take care of those on their team, connect them to the vision and each other, and inspire them to achieve their career goals and organization’s vision?” - Courtney Dioguardi, senior vice president, QuickFi
- “Effective leaders decades ago had more forgiveness when their EQ wasn’t as high as their IQ. That phenomena has shifted in a material way over the years so much so that leaders can’t succeed in most environments if they aren’t great listeners, communicators and strong champions for their team members.” - Amy Zimmerman, chief people officer, Relay Payments
Leadership is also contextual on at least two levels, Hass said. Each leader brings their own context — their upbringing, unique brain chemistry and lived experiences — to the role. Second, circumstances, or the context of each situation, can call for different approaches from the same leader. “Then there are circumstances, which can call for assertive leadership at one point and submissive at another,” he points out.
Essential Leadership Qualities
If one overarching term applies to leadership qualities essential for the present and future, it’s humanness. Leaders like Newsome recognize that they and their teams are human, and that’s perfectly okay. They must also be able to acknowledge and respond to — which is different from reacting to — human emotions and human situations. It’s empathy, emotional intelligence, superb communication skills, and a host of other so-called soft skills.
First, effective leaders must have the competence and capacity to do their jobs.
The definition of “competence,” though, has shifted with the times.
When Todd James started out in the tech world, leaders were expected to know technology, not necessarily business operations. “There was even a focus on the need for ‘business translators’ who could bridge the gap between technology organizations and their business partners,” said James, chief data and technology officer at retail insights company 84.51˚, Cincinnati, Ohio.
“Today, technology leaders are expected to deeply understand the business, acting as a true partner, providing prescriptive guidance, taking action to drive competitive advantage, and monetizing data and technology assets,” he said.
“Leaders earn credibility when they’re experts in the types of roles they’re responsible for leading ... We’re also more empathetic to the challenges because we’ve likely encountered them before.”
Hass adds another facet to competency, and that’s capacity. “As you move up in an organization, the chess match gets harder, the math gets harder,” he said. Capacity means having the mental and perhaps even physical strength and wherewithal to handle the complexities of a leadership job, which encompasses everything from keeping a business running to maintaining employee morale to anticipating an organization’s future needs. “Capacity is that ability to see out to the future,” he said.
Competence also enables leaders to exercise a tandem skill — coaching. “Leaders earn credibility when they’re experts in the types of roles they’re responsible for leading,” said Zimmerman of Relay Payments. Demonstrating superior competence lets leaders effectively coach team members on functional aspects of their roles that would be impossible had the leader never filled that role. “We’re also more empathetic to the challenges because we’ve likely encountered them before,” she said.
“As leaders it is important that we show up consistently and that we are strong, but we also are human,” said Newsome. All people get colds, have family issues and sometimes want to be just on audio for a meeting. “That’s okay,” Newsome said. “It’s okay to give people a break from being ‘on’ at all times.”
Self-awareness is part of emotional intelligence, said Courtney Dioguardi, senior vice president at fintech company QuickFi, who also helps women entrepreneurs secure funding for projects. “I’ve observed leaders that are very aware of their emotions and how their emotions impact others,” she said. This self-awareness helps leaders manage high-stress situations, and helps them advise others in similar situations.
Self-awareness also extends to the greater world. Black Lives Matter, the war in Ukraine, the global climate crisis — today’s leaders can’t pretend the world around them doesn’t exist. “I think the obvious one here is the ability to show up in the cultural events of the day in a way that is authentic and empathetic,” said Alex Collmer, founder and CEO of New York-based creative company VidMob. “I would characterize this as a new leadership skill that’s quite important,” he said.
“In the past, simply having a strong company mission and public image along with competitive pay was enough to get and keep good people at a company,” agreed Jake Hare, founder and CEO of Launchpeer, an incubator for early-stage startups based in Charleston, South Carolina. Today, employees want more meaning in their work, which means a stronger focus on not just communicating the company mission but also ensuring that mission aligns with the values of the team.”
“Today, the context of one’s colleagues’ 360 degree existence is front and center in leadership and personnel management,” said Jim Head, president of Fitzco Analytics, an Atlanta, Georgia-based ad agency.
For Zimmerman, empathy means she can effectively understand the needs of others, is generally aware of their feelings and thoughts and how different situations affect them. “It serves my team members and our company well because they work harder and feel seen, heard and valued,” she said.
Effective leaders use a transparent decision-making process informed by the minimum number of key perspectives, said Richard Hawkes, author of Navigate the Swirl: 7 Crucial Business Conversations for Business and founder of consulting company Growth River.
Decision making traditionally takes one of three shapes, he said. One leader, usually a manager, makes a decision with minimal input. Or a designated decision maker handles a task. The third option: The decision is made via consensus, with team members having veto power. In all three scenarios, compliance is expected.
The sweet spot, Hawkes said, lies somewhere between autocratic and consultative. “It is not ‘consensus,’” he said.
However decisions are made, they have to consider who’s doing the work, said James of 84.51˚. “Pushing the decisions out to those closest to the work has had a significant impact on speed and responsiveness,” he said.
James, a former U.S. Coast Guard officer, noting that decision making has changed, to collaborative and democratized from top-down and prescriptive.
“As a leader, this means you spend less time prescribing and more time setting a direction and clearing hurdles,” he said.
“It is hard to make decisions without a healthy dose of self-confidence and conviction,” said James. Confidence, too, has morphed with the times. “There is a much larger focus today on vulnerability, or what I like to think of as being genuinely authentic as a leader and a person,” he said. “It’s less about being steadfast in your direction and more about being confident in your ability to adjust to changing circumstances, learn from setbacks and incorporate new and better ideas.”
Right on, said Vidmob’s Collmer. “Twenty years ago, a self-confident leader knew everything — or at least seemed to,” he said. “Their word was unquestioned and unquestionable.” Today, confidence means transparency and vulnerability, including the willingness to admit when leaders don’t have the answer and courage to empower teams to speak up when something isn’t right. “This new type of self-confidence is far harder, but I believe it leads to a better-operating company,” Collmer said.
The notion of flexibility has “evolved massively” since Hare started Launchpeer in 2014. Flexibility used to be a broad-strokes human-resources function, extending to good PTO packages or time away during the day for doctor appointments. “Today, it is much more focused on the individual,” he said. Last year, for instance, a Launchpeer team member on an eight-week maternity leave decided she wanted to slowly ramp up to full-time work. “We had no specific policy for this but we created one after that,” Hare said.
It circles back to the idea of humanness: “Remembering that the people that work for you are human with individual needs and situations is important, and balancing that out with already defined company policies is challenging but rewarding if you can get that balance right,” he said.
Inclusivity has always been important, even if leaders weren’t focused on it. Now it’s front and center and it means more than hiring and retaining people from diverse backgrounds, Hare said. Companies must be inclusive with external practices too, for instance marketing.
“Is the marketing or sales messaging we’re putting in the market inclusive to the point where we are also inclusive about the types of people our company works with? That’s an important question to ask today for two reasons,” he said.
First, team members might feel that internal inclusivity practices ring hollow if they’re not practiced externally. Second, best pricing or best value no longer trump all in the marketplace. “Oftentimes, another factor in decisions is, ‘Does this company represent the values I myself value?’” Hare said.
Hare has strived for both internal and external inclusivity since the start of Launchpeer. “We know this industry has traditionally not been very inclusive to people of color and women, both in terms of access to education but also access to the financial resources needed to get a new company off the ground,” he said. More than 30 percent of the founders in Launchpeer’s startup program are women and minorities, and in 2022, the company planned to establish a scholarship fund for entrepreneurs.
“Knowledge shared is knowledge squared,” said Stephen Baer, cofounder of The Game Agency, an edtech company based in Stanford, Connecticut. To make all employees, especially those working remote, feel part of the corporate culture, “I am an open book 100 percent of the time,” he said. He asks the same of his employees, regardless of age, title or geography.
Able to Delegate
Baer also feels that effective leaders delegate. “People want their ideas to be valued and acted on, so whenever a good idea comes forward, no matter how big it is, I empower the idea owner to be one of the implementation owners,” he said. Delegation gives both employees and The Game Agency the opportunity to grow and innovate faster than companies that don’t delegate, or where delegation is bogged down by bureaucracy.
“We encourage everyone on the team to bring their innovative ideas forward ... The more people talk and bring up their ideas without initial pushback, the more effective we can be together.”
Baer offers this example: He co-founded The Game Agency 15 years ago, and for many of those years, it built custom games for training and education. Six years ago, the company’s head of software development proposed building an authoring platform that would enable anyone to build games using the company’s technology. The idea would require a seven-figure investment, but would let The Game Agency scale from 10 clients to hundreds of clients a year. “It was a bold idea but a risky one,” Baer said.
He asked the head of software development to start working on the project. Within a few weeks, he and his team presented Baer with a blueprint for what is now the company’s The Training Arcade. “The entire team was thinking like business owners and had provided enough information for us to raise venture capital,” Baer said.
Today, The Training Arcade has millions of users and has considerably boosted growth at The Game Agency. “We encourage everyone on the team to bring their innovative ideas forward,” he said. “The more people talk and bring up their ideas without initial pushback, the more effective we can be together.”
People view their jobs differently since the onset of the pandemic, said Andrew Scivally, CEO of eLearning Brothers, an American Fork, Utah-based edtech company. “Their careers play a bigger role in their life. Work and home aren’t separated as much,” he said. Work has expanded to encompass more than a paycheck — it’s a place for people to do good and showcase their talents, he said. “It’s important for leaders to create a vision to inspire people so they know that spending their time with us will not only help them in their career but they will be helping the world and the people in it,” he said.
Scivally has a clear vision for eLearning Brothers: It helps organizations create learning experiences that are interactive, engaging and effective. Yet that vision won’t become ingrained in the culture unless it’s repeated consistently and constantly. Employees practice the vision in sales meetings and training sessions, and Scivally distributes videos in which he shares the vision. It’s also repeated in quarterly all-company meetings, he said.
Vision must be an external factor too, said Newsome of Meta. “Vision is about the culture of Meta Chicago, but it’s also about how we’re helping Chicago’s youth, how we’re helping communities recover from the pandemic, how we’re helping small businesses,” she said. To push out the vision externally, Meta has given employees “choice” days to give them time to volunteer at nonprofits and overall, take time for what matters most to them.’
Its philanthropy employee resource group has also redoubled efforts, raising money for local causes, including Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, My Block My Hood My City and Austin Coming Together. Meta also offers Coursera scholarships to small Black- and Brown-owned businesses in the community, and this spring, resumed its annual Habitat for Humanity build, Newsome said.
Twenty years ago, strong communication manifested itself as first, a crisp communication of priorities and second, feedback in the presence of error, said Jim Head of Fitzco. “Today, strong communication is the language that satisfies employees’ developmental and motivational needs whilst meeting corporate/enterprise commitments.”
Communication entails superb written and verbal skills, and active listening, said behavior analyst and F*ckless author Gianni Biscontini. “This goes beyond nodding heads and ‘thank you for sharing,’” she said. Listening also involves reserving time for reflection: Pausing for seconds, minutes or even hours between a stimulus and an action gives leaders time to respond, rather than react, to a situation. “This increases the chance that you will choose an action that more effectively serves the greater good, because you are in a cognitively alert state instead of a skewed emotional state,” she said.
Think back to Nikki Newsome’s video featuring her daughter. It encapsulates communication, and nearly every other leadership quality essential for the shifting workscape: Transparency, empathy, inclusivity and flexibility, not to mention a touch of whimsy. It’s what leadership can be, and must be, in the 21st century.