Real Leaders

What Qualities and Skills Will Define the Next Generation of Leaders?

The leaders of the next generation of business will have to be prepared to handle the accelerated pace of change, and the best skill these leaders can build is one of lifelong learning. The best career arc must have a strong foundation, and with three specific skills, emerging leaders will have a strong advantage in the uncertain future.

Current leaders know that the nature of leadership has evolved, especially over the last couple of decades. Between emerging technologies and global events such as the pandemic, the way your employees’ work has changed and will continue to do so. Naturally, this means leaders must also continue to evolve as the business world faces any number of challenges.

The future of business leadership will require emerging leaders who can quickly adapt and execute in the midst of changing technologies, cultures, and priorities. To keep up with the accelerated pace of change, staying aware of new developments and technologies that could disrupt the status quo are crucial, as is the ability to upskill quickly when necessary.

How can you, an existing or emerging leader, do that successfully?

Stay Educated and Adaptable to Lead Successfully in the Future

There is a strong connection between leadership and lifelong learning. The best way to stay nimble as a leader is to commit to continuing to educate yourself. Whether that means reading widely, talking to people outside of your industry, or staying connected across different sectors and geographic areas, practicing a learning mindset will help you see the latest best practices as they develop within the industry and potentially even spearhead the leadership trends in business.

Additionally, you should cultivate a desire for lifelong learning within your teams. By sponsoring your mid- and early-career pipeline talent in executive degree programs, you can ensure your employees are networking, staying involved with community organizations and professional associations, and remaining open to new information.

Being educated on what’s happening in the world also requires an interest in learning from others. Business leaders are incredibly busy, so it can be easy for you to narrow your focus to only tasks that have immediate ROI. But to remain in the know, you can and must create daily or weekly rituals where you consistently reach outside of your organization to listen to and internalize ideas and best practices.

This can be as simple as listening to podcasts on the commute, reading the paper each morning, joining a book club for professionals, or being active in a professional group with executives from other organizations. Staying connected to people outside of the organization will pay dividends in seeding new ideas and consistently testing the strength of existing beliefs.

What Skills Should Be Priorities for Emerging Leaders?

For emerging leaders, there’s a lot to focus on. Avoid getting overwhelmed by all of the potential options, which will only hinder your progress or lead to early burnout. Instead, focus on building and expanding on these three specific skills:

1. Accurately draw conclusions from data.

A tremendous amount of data is available to leaders. Next-generation leaders need to create systems—dashboards, automated reports, or live data pipelines—where they can instantly access meaningful, purposeful data and accurately draw conclusions. This kind of data goes beyond quick performance indicators. Instead, it allows the leader to study long-term trends and competitive strengths and weaknesses so that each can be handled appropriately.

2. Practice genuine empathy.

Thanks to technology, we know more about one another than ever, and we expect to get a sense of the humanity of one another. Likewise, we expect empathy in business leadership. Modern professionals want leaders who don’t see a binary split between running a business that is strong financially and respecting the diverse group of people who work there. They want both. The leaders we most admire achieve core business goals while also treating people well and building a culture that attracts and retains talent.

3. Master interpersonal communication.

Good leaders are strong communicators. People in leadership positions must be able to speak well on a public stage and communicate effectively with professionals at every level of their company—from the new hire right out of college to the senior executive they have worked with for a decade. The strongest leaders will specialize in strong interpersonal communication and will galvanize a culture behind their leadership style as a result.

How Can You Strategize and Prepare for the Complexities of Future Leadership?

Study how other leaders speak, act, and behave during and following crises. In this age of social media and fast-moving news cycles, leaders must prepare to be at the helm of decision-making and public speaking in times of crisis. This is why many of our students at Washington University’s Olin Business School choose our Strategic and Crisis Communication class as an elective in their graduate degree, giving them that extra preparation for leadership in the 21st century.

Remain curious about new technologies. I recall Professor Hank Feeser at Purdue University, my alma mater, who was near retirement and was more excited about new technologies than anyone I’ve ever met. He instilled that curiosity in our class and he consistently told us that technology would transform many of the processes in organizations. Scan the environment to see what competitors are using technology for.

This is not always because it is something that must be blindly adopted—there are many inopportune or not strategic ideas about technology too that are only adopted for a moment—but so you can assess the strength of a technology and make good decisions about when it’s time to act. Building that core strength and intuition around technology is difficult for non-digital natives, but staying curious is a great way to stay current. Remember that technology might change processes, but it doesn’t change the core principles of good business.

Develop a set of core values and visibly display them in several places in your daily life. You might consider listing them by hand. Olin Business School has a set of core values that guide our decision-making and courses; they act as our North Star. As a business leader, you should decide on your own core values. Hold true to these, no matter how the winds of change pass through. They will provide an anchor that you can rely on during times of severe change or difficulty. Alignment between core values and company vision gives both you and your organization a strong sense of purpose. And carrying that purpose through into action ensures that you will lead with authenticity.

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