10 August 2021

Insights on Future Leadership Skills

Dani Johnson
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst
Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst


  • This readout presents the highlights from our roundtable on future of leadership skills, including an explorable mindmap and key points from the discussion 
  • Not surprisingly, human skills are important to leadership
  • Cultural norms often differ from leadership expectations, causing confusion
  • Orgs are beginning to think about leadership more systemically – tweaking processes to support and sustain leaders 

In June 2021, we launched a new study on the future of leadership. As part of our ongoing research, we recently gathered leaders for a research roundtable focused on this topic. Our roundtable discussion focused on 4 key areas:

  • Hybrid Work: How would hybrid work influence leadership?
  • Culture: How do you develop a leadership model that reinforces the company culture?
  • Accountability: How can leadership effectiveness be measured?
  • Support: How should organizations support leaders to be more effective and to continuously develop?

Roundtable Mindmap

The mindmap below summarizes the main themes that surfaced as part of this roundtable.

Note: This is a live document. Click the window and use your cursor to explore.

Key Takeaways

The roundtable helped us identify which leadership skills are surfacing as more important, given the changes in the way we work, and how orgs can support leaders – both through development and through systemic changes. While several interesting insights were shared, we identified these 5 key takeaways:

  1. Human skills are among the most important
  2. Decision models are needed to make leaders effective
  3. Perceived and real culture should align
  4. “How” matters as much as “what”
  5. Data will be increasingly important

Let's expound below.

Human skills are among the most important

Throughout the discussion, human skills, particularly, adaptability, communication, and sense-making were mentioned the most often when talking about the future of leadership.

Adaptability is almost always mentioned when addressing the rapidly changing nature of the external environment. Often paired with flexibility and agility, adaptability reflects leaders’ ability to handle a crisis and adjust themselves. As a leader pointed out:

“We have been thrown into a situation no one predicted… flexibility and adaptability – face to face meetings to zoom – leaders adapting to that quickly has been the greatest skills leaders have shown.”

Communication and empathy are also important. These skills are often tied to trust and psychological safety, and they are the most important when it comes to organizational culture and leadership support. These skills are always important, and they became more important in a hybrid work environment because the remote settings decreased visibility, creating challenges in trust and communication channels.

Leaders also mentioned storytelling and sense-making. Leaders need to be able to take in information and draw connections between disparate data points in order to align culture and react to environmental changes.

Decision models are needed

Many leaders mentioned the lack of decision models in their orgs; others mentioned that, given hybrid work, some of the social movements, and the speed of their industries, new decision-making models were needed.

“Craft what the future of work looks like, rather than talking about what the skills we need assuming we know what the future will look like.”

Traditional decision trees, or even worse, pushing the decision up the leadership chain until someone decides to claim it, don’t work in today’s environment. Decision trees are often rigid and unbending and employees on the front line often have the most information. As orgs think through leadership frameworks, decision-making authority for leaders, as well as their subordinates, will need to be clarified and codified.

This new way of decision making often requires both technical and emotional skills. Communication, unsurprisingly, is at the center of the process, along with flexibility and adaptability. These become even more important when considering hybrid workforces. As leaders move away from “managing by walking around”, decision-making authority and frameworks will be key to ensuring work does not slow down or become bogged in decision-making morass.

Culture should align…with itself

Many participants also talked about the gap between company-stated and actual culture. This gap is likely widened as we change the way (and location) of work. Hybrid workforces will need a sense of the true culture – so it will need to be more clearly stated and upheld.

Leaders need the skills to actively support culture and align their teams and the work they do with that culture. Participants named empathy, sense making, and storytelling as key skills to being able to do this.

Participants also mentioned a bottom-up approach to culture – while general precepts of culture can and should be defined from the top (This is how we want to be perceived from the outside, and here are general guidelines for doing that), leaders, particularly in frontline and supervisory positions, act as role models and reinforce cultural norms.

“For example, unlimited vacation – if you say you have it but nobody above you is taking it, nobody’s going to do it”

Participants also mentioned reinforcing parts of the culture that are more or less stable in times of big change; what are the core cultural norms that will be true in any circumstance? How do we ensure that those are reinforced and implemented regardless of the external environment?

“How” matters as much as “what”

Participants also focused on how leaders lead, not just what they do. We saw this in the Performance Management research we did a couple of years ago too – many performance ratings are composed of two parts: the what, and the how. This is often put into place to avoid jerk managers – they may deliver numbers, but they do so by crushing the souls of their teams.

“We say the “hows” are important, but we often let things slide when someone is producing results.”

Participants mentioned the importance of accountability here – establishing standards and defining good behaviors and holding leaders to those standards. Interestingly, in later interviews, leaders also mention that sometimes overly-heavily defined leadership profiles are less effective – because they define each behavior – than overarching purpose models. In our purpose research, we saw orgs with strong purpose drive decision and leading decisions from that purpose rather than from prescriptive leadership models.

Finally, participants mentioned rewards – aligning other systems to reinforce good leadership; for example, one org gives bonuses to managers when their people are promoted; another celebrated in other ways. Some participants talked about holding managers accountable to engagement scores and other metrics.

Data will be increasingly important

Participants mentioned the black box that is leadership to this point. It is largely subjective, and orgs find it difficult to identify the secret sauce to good leadership. They also mentioned, however, that data was getting better and could play a larger role in the future.

“We’re talking about leaders as hierarchical and leaders as people in positions of authority. That’s management, not leadership. Leadership is a way of thinking that everyone in the org should have.”

A few of the ways participants saw this happening included: giving leaders more data about team engagement and team skills to take full advantage of strengths as well as desired career path and motivation; understanding leadership behavior through data that is then fed into LXPs or other developmental software to feed leaders what they need. Gathering meta information about coaching initiatives at a company level to see broadly what skills leaders need and are working on.

Increasingly, data is also helping organizations view leadership as a system, not as a skill; technologies, processes, systems, rewards, learning opportunities, all play into the effectiveness of leaders. As orgs start to look at it systemically, leadership can become stronger with a little less effort.

Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.

Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.


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