The Future of Leadership: What the Literature Says

August 2nd, 2021


The notion of hybrid work has been with us for a while now, yet it is not exactly clear what this means to leaders and organizations. As Satya Nadella said, hybrid work is paradox where “the vast majority of employees say they want more flexible remote work options, but at the same time also say they want more in-person collaboration, post-pandemic".1

In addition to hybrid work, DEIB issues are receiving more attention, employee experiences are changing, and the rapid changes in our world are demanding agility from leaders.

To understand how leaders should develop and what skills they need the most, we conducted a literature review. Here’s what we learned.

What we saw:

For this literature review, we identified and analyzed roughly 60 articles, periodicals, industry reports, and blogs – both pre – and post-pandemic. Below are the top 5 themes as well as 5 articles we encourage you to read for more insight.

  1. Future leadership needs to consider remote workers
  2. Leaders will be managing increasingly diverse teams
  3. Soft skills are increasingly important
  4. Leaders' digital skills matter
  5. Leaders need alignment and support

Future leadership needs to consider remote workers

The trend of utilizing remote work was growing even before the pandemic. Future of work is most likely hybrid, which means most leaders will be managing people in-person as well as remotely. This poses many challenges for leaders in areas such as performance management, communication, work-life balance, etc. To deal with the challenges and changes, leaders need to adopt a multi-model leadership to lead different groups of people effectively.

Leaders will be leading increasingly diverse teams

Employees expect leaders to take to heart the many social just movements in the last few years. In fact, in the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, 86% of survey respondents expect business leaders to step up when it comes to societal issues (pandemic impact, job automation, local community issues).2 and are spending increasing time and energy to ensure diverse teams. Add to that the fact that remote work introduces access to a much larger talent pool: if employees do not need to be collocated, orgs can recruit talent worldwide. Leaders will increasingly be called upon to create strong DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging) cultures, which will require deeper skills in relationship-building, sensitivity, culture-building, and inclusion.

Soft skills are increasingly important

While soft skills have always been key to leadership, hybrid work, desire for better employee experience, and a focus on the “human” employee have led to added focus in recent years. In addition to communication, relationship building, collaboration, and conflict management, we’re hearing about the importance of concepts like agility of thought, growth mindset, and grit as well.

Development of these skills tends to be more time intensive and harder to measure, but also increasingly important in building the right culture, developing employees, and meeting new business challenges.

Leaders' digital skills matter

Technology is advancing fast, and the recent move to hybrid or virtual work has further necessitated use of workplace technology. To stay effective, leaders need to understand how to use existing technology, as well as how to leverage it.

Leaders have an opportunity to not just use technology to make the things they were doing before more efficient, but to do completely different things. For example, how can VR be utilized to increase sense of presence (and hence inclusion)?

Leaders need more organizational support

While we read a lot about the traits, characteristics, and skills leaders need to face current and near future challenges, one thing that was missing from the literature was solid ways to support leaders. Most literature suggested leadership training (some of it very inventive), and some suggested regular practice of leadership behaviors, but not many discussed how to leverage existing systems within organizations to support leaders. We think this needs more exploration.

Articles that caught our attention

Of the literature we reviewed, several pieces stood out to us. Each of the pieces below contained information that we found useful and / or intriguing. We learned from their perspectives and encourage you to do the same.

The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work — Are We Ready?3


Leaders need to be prepared to embrace hybrid work, and that involves considering/rethinking inclusion, relationship building, exhaustion, innovation, and talent management.

"We know two things for sure: flexible work is here to stay, and the talent landscape has fundamentally shifted."


  • Create a plan to empower people for extreme flexibility
  • Invest in space and technology to bridge the physical and digital worlds
  • Rethink employee experience to compete for the best and most diverse talent
  • Prioritize rebuilding social capital and culture

How to Develop and Select Your New Leadership Profiles4

C. Kim & R. Mauborgne

One of the challenges in leadership profile development is gaining buy-in from managers and leaders. As such, presenting the current leadership as a big picture (instead of individualized description) would have less resistance, and involving leaders in decision making regarding what future leadership profiles look like can further facilitate the process.

"…because the As-Is Leadership Profiles reflect the dominant acts and activities of all leaders at a level, not of particular leaders, not only does defensiveness go down as openness goes up, but a kind of we’re all in this together spirit of collective responsibility for change is born."


  • Identify hotspots and coldspots (“As-Is Leadership Profiles”)
  • Identify what leadership acts and activities should be eliminated, reduced, raised, and created
  • Develop alternative To-Be Leadership Profiles
  • Have top management select the To-Be Leadership Profiles to move forward on

2021 Leadership Development Survey: The Times They are a Changing…5

M. Leimbach

The shift in 2020 in terms of leadership development focuses indicate that the future of leadership is anticipated to be soft-skill oriented and socially responsible. Leaders need to learn to provide support and facilitate hybrid work.

" While the past year has been stressful, it also has opened a window of opportunity to make significant and meaningful change in how we develop leaders, transition to the next generation of leaders, and measure our success in leadership development."


  • Leverage senior executive engagement and investment in remote learning
  • Improve manager support of the next generation of leaders
  • Sustain the priority of Diversity and Inclusion
  • Focus on organizational outcomes

Purpose, or ‘purpose- washing’? A crossroads for business leaders6

A. Murray & B. Simpson

Having authentic purposes can help employees in multiple aspects, such as raising engagement and inspiring innovation. However, to really benefit from authentic purposes, devoting time and resources to pursue stated purposes is necessary. Purpose-driven employees, in turn, can support business operations.

"A powerful mix of forces … have led an ever-growing group of corporate leaders to recognize that a focus on profit is not enough. Purpose beyond profit has become a necessary ingredient for exceptional business success.”


  • Consider purpose as a long-term success necessity while profit as a short-term success measurement
  • Hear what employees have to say when determining what purposes can support them
  • Inspire innovation and creativity through raising purpose
  • Utilize measurable success factors to demonstrate said purposes are indeed followed and pursuit.

Digital mastery: The skills needed for effective virtual leadership7

S. Roy

Past research and theory demonstrated that these skills are especially important in a virtual work environment. The center of these skills are communication facilitating and relationship building, because virtuality introduces a barrier in these two areas.

"The Use of Virtual Teams by organizations is growing, thereby creating a need for virtual leadership skills, since it is more challenging to lead in a virtual environment, than in a face-to-face environment because of the lack of nonverbal communication”


  • Build trust and embrace diversity
  • Learn to utilize technologies
  • Understand communication difficulties and always be clear and non-critical
  • Create an open and supportive environment

Additional Articles to Check Out:

Other thoughts:

The fast pace of most businesses and hybrid work is likely here to stay, which means leaders need to develop and emphasis on a different set of skills. This point was made loud and clear in the research. However, there were several things we think should be addressed that weren’t:

  • We saw that demands from leaders are rising in hybrid work, but we did not see articles suggesting how leaders themselves can be supported.
  • We saw a possibility in organizational growth during the pandemic, but we did not see how specifically the growth could/should continue when work is hybrid (sure we can hire globally, but do we have the appropriate systems in place to manage a remote global workforce? If not, how to build these?)
  • We saw suggestions in balancing employees’ work-life balance by thinking and considering for the employees, but specifically to what degree employees should receive support from their leaders? In other words, when should leaders stop help balancing and say “hey, it’s your family not mine”?

What do you think leaders and orgs should be aware of? We’d love your thoughts on this. If you are interested, you can also email us to schedule a conversation to share your thoughts!

Dani Johnson Redthread Research
Dani Johnson
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst
Tony Cao


  1. The hybrid work paradox,” LinkedIn, S. Nadella, 2021.
  2. 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer
  3. “The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work: Are We Ready?_Original report,” Microsoft, N.A., 2021.
  4. How to Develop and Select Your New Leadership Profiles,” Insead Knowledge, C. Kim & R. Mauborgne, 2014.
  5. 2021 Leadership Development Survey: The Times They are a Changing…,” Training Magzine, M. Leimbach, 2021.
  6. Purpose, or ‘purpose- washing’? A crossroads for business leaders,” Fortune, A. Murray & B. Simpson, 2020.
  7. Digital mastery: The skills needed for effective virtual leadership”, International Journal of e-Collaboration, S. R. ROY, 2012.