7 Essential Leadership Skills for the Future
January 14, 2021
Leadership can be hard to define, as there are so many leadership styles to consider. You can usually sense the leadership style within a group by how people show up and engage together – it’s similar to the organizational or societal culture we swim in everyday and as such, includes many nuances.
We often ask whether leaders are born or made, we question the role of followers, and consider the difference between management, governance, and leadership. As these questions arise, they require that we take a closer look at both cultural and contextual frames. Where are we located, what is our current place in the world? Culture is known as the ‘way we do things around here’. Context usually affects why leadership is done and for what purposes.
If you haven’t yet heard of it, I recommend you check out the Global Leadership & Organizational Behaviour Effectiveness (GLOBE) Project, a large-scale study of cultural practices, leadership ideals, and generalized/interpersonal trust in more than 160 countries in collaboration with more than 500 researchers contributing on an ongoing basis. This project speaks to the complexity of what great leadership means around the world and the global arena we currently participate within.
From my perspective, leadership is something we are all capable of. Whether you have one follower or one thousand. Whether it is demonstrated through time volunteering with a non-profit board, as a parent representative at your local school, as a formal leader, or informal influencer of a team or organization. Leadership is something that can be learned and practiced. With focused intention, feedback to self-awareness, and a genuine commitment, you will indeed improve.
Based on the work of Brad Jackson and Ken Parry, one question most often asked in their leadership work is ‘what makes an effective leader’? They suggest, when pressed, we concede to five qualities as essential: confidence, integrity, connection, resilience, and aspiration. These come about as we try to isolate fundamental truths about leadership based on our direct and indirect experiences of successful leaders.
I appreciate framing these leadership qualities as a moment of reflection for you to consider and would offer a few more as we move towards leading from a spirit of strengthened global solidarity:
1 – Deep Listening. You may have heard of different levels of listening. As a quick summary, we are often stuck in our own personal narratives that disengage our ability to listen. Many leaders would benefit from learning to manage these stories in order to create a space of presence, active listening, and suspended judgement for that moment. Witnessing someone without any intent to respond, but rather to be thoroughly curious, is a powerful place from which to go deeper into relationships. Often, you start to notice what is not being said, what is the energy or emotion in the room, or even what is becoming more visible and clear as you listen more carefully to what is shared.
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” – Winston Churchill
2 – Lifelong learning. Initially, I would describe this as the ability to connect to and potentially shift your course based on new information, sensing, science, etc. Part of learning is the ability to unlearn, relearn, and continue in your quest for discovery. Critical thinking comes into play here, to understand there are many ways of knowing, being, and doing that can each serve a common purpose. Consider one definition that suggests ‘learning is the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study or by being taught’. From what I have seen, lifelong learning offers a pathway to improved self-awareness, humility, and level of openness.
3 – Compassion. My favourite way to describe compassion is empathy in action. It is a foundational piece of emotional intelligence and allows us to drop into and function at a greater capacity from our heart. Compassion literally means ‘to suffer together’. Among emotion researchers, it is known as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another‘s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. Leaders should be deeply involved with what it means to be a human being, of which includes compassion for themselves and those they are in service to. If you are looking to practice this skill, begin with self-compassion, as this will have incredible ripple effects once you’ve focused inwards.
“One of the secrets of inner peace is to practice compassion.” – The Dalai Lama
4 – The ability to Sense and See systems. In his Theory U work and U.lab courses, Otto Scharmer asks how can we develop methods that help us see and sense the system as a condition for shifting, evolving or transforming it? This means we find creative ways to make systems visible. As they become visible, we can then consider what has traditionally been missing within the system – voices, representation, power, etc. In order to move closer towards a fair, equitable, just society this visibility is essential. We ourselves are a complex organized system, and so are our societies and our environment. Nature itself, as it manifests itself on this earth, is a giant ‘Gaia’ system maintaining itself to the best of its ability (Laszlo, 2002). A systems view offers a holistic perspective from which to make meaning of the world around us, and to see and sense our interactions in and with the world.
5 – Facilitation of Respectful Dialogue. This skill is ever more important as we look to the future and place a deeper value on what diversity means in action. When enrolled in a course around managing difficult relationships, one of the key points that stuck with me was the ability to suspend my own judgement and consider the possibility of multiple truths. This was quite new to me at the time. After taking professional coach training, I have seen this to be reinforced as a place from which you can approach conversations with a beginners mindset and trust that you have the internal resources to hold space for many different, and often competing perspectives. Choudhury (2015) offers that at the core, diversity is about differences. This may require a level of generosity and willingness not to know all the answers. However, you do seek out common ground, shared values and enhance a spirit of reciprocity to all involved. You bring together multiple voices with emotional agility and a long-term mindset. Listening, learning, compassion, sensing and seeing systems all contribute to facilitating respectful dialogue.
“Dialogue is a non-confrontational communication, where both partners are willing to learn from the other and therefore leads much farther into finding new grounds together” – Scilla Elworthy
6 – Leading towards Sustainability. It has been said that the ‘regeneration generation’ is amongst us, bringing together greater intergenerational collaboration and transformation across boundaries. When in conversations around sustainability, it can be a significant concept to connect with and most people do recognize the pressing need to accelerate both learning and action to support a more sustainable way to be in relationship with all living beings. Sustainability scientists have provided much evidence for the ways in which humanity has overshot a number of planetary boundaries. Centering sustainability into leadership conversations, values, and priorities is a true calling of our time. Leaders are in a position to build cultures where sustainability is embedded as both a skill and a value, where people see how small actions add up to collective impact, and their role as a global citizen.
7 – Rebalancing of the Feminine and Masculine Energy. It is worth noting this is not tied specifically to gender but rather to traits traditionally associated with each dimension. It has been suggested that in ‘masculine’ societies, dominant social values emphasize assertiveness, competitiveness, toughness, and visibility, while in ‘feminine’ societies, values such as collaboration, social relationships, intuition, and wellbeing are priorities. You may appreciate that Margaret Thatcher was thought to have displayed masculine qualities while Nelson Mandela offered a view into the feminine. When balancing these energies, it is worth reflecting on which qualities are most often seen and rewarded. There may be a time and place for each. How could you as a leader create the conditions where both the masculine and feminine are valued and made visible?
“When I say feminine, I don’t mean gender … the feminine is a presence, and relatedness, and a heart that can open so that when you meet another person you actually are seeing that person’s authentic self. What meaning does human life have if nobody has ever seen you.” – Marion Woodman
So what now? It would be worth spending a few minutes to identify which of these skills you consider yourself to be strong in and which areas would benefit from greater attention? What do you need to let go of, and what could you embrace for the year ahead? What do they offer in relationship to your values – personal and organizational? Consider who on your team may possess these skills from a shared leadership perspective. You don’t have to have all the answers. Leadership is a team sport. Reflect on your ability to support and build other leaders. We tend to appreciate those who share their learning journey with us. How might you share these ideas with your team?
Stephanie Calver is a Leadership & Wellness Coach, Retreat Facilitator and Community Builder. She has worked in sport, sustainability and education management with more than 16 years in formal leadership positions. She completed her Master of Arts in Global Leadership from Royal Roads University and is an active member of the International Leadership Association (ILA) and International Coach Federation (ICF). Her company, Leaping Fox Consulting, is grounded in the values of reflection, inspiration, and vision to support accessible leadership development and learning opportunities at a global scale. You can find her @leapingfoxcoaching or www.leapingfoxconsulting.ca
Choudhury, S. (2015). Deep Diversity: Overcoming us vs. them. Between the Lines.
Jackson, B. & Parry, K. (2011). A very short, fairly interesting and reasonable cheap book about studying leadership (2nd ed). SAGE Publications Ltd.
Laszlo, E. (2002). The systems view of the world: A holistic vision for our time. Hampton Press Inc.
Scharmer, O. (2016). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges (2nd ed). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.