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How to Develop Leadership Skills for the 21st Century

Good leadership has always been a crucial factor in business success. However, today’s rapidly changing business climate and increasingly digitalised workplace create new challenges for leaders in the 21st century.

How to Develop Leadership Skills for the 21st Century

Published on:

6 Oct 2022

As we seek to engage our team, boost business productivity and foster innovation we must re-consider the traditional leadership model.

This article examines how leadership is changing, what kind of leadership model is needed for success in today’s climate and the vital leadership skills required for the 21st century.

How is leadership changing in the 21st century?

Traditional leadership has always favoured a ‘top down’ style of management. underpinned by hierarchy. Leaders make the decisions in the boardroom and employees simply perform the tasks assigned to them.

This rigidity risks stifling innovation and creativity in the organisation and employees can feel like cogs in a machine. It isolates employees from one another based on hierarchy, hinders collaboration and engagement across the organisation, and can quickly result in a toxic company culture.

We have witnessed unprecedented, fast-paced changes during the 21st century that have profoundly impacted the way we live and work.

Technological advancements in areas such as AI, automation, remote tools and big data have and will continue to reshape the business landscape.

Leaders of today must learn to navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution and be ready to embrace the challenges ahead.

A survey by Deloitte found that 80% of respondents felt that 21st-century leadership has unique and new requirements that are important or very important to their organisation’s success.

Inclusion, diversity, culture and social responsibility were not important factors for business leaders to consider 50 years ago.

However, shifts in values have placed more emphasis on enjoying our work and benefiting people and the planet above salary. Therefore, these values must be at the forefront of leadership in the 21st century.

Hierarchical leadership has been scrutinised for some time but the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Covid-19 pandemic have accelerated the need for a new style of leadership.

In March 2020, many leaders had to quickly devise strategies to manage their teams remotely whilst encouraging engagement and collaboration from outside of the traditional workplace.

What kind of leadership skills are needed for the 21st century?

It is time to invert the traditional hierarchy pyramid and recognise that our employees are central to business success.

Leaders should be creating people-centric organisation. Employees who are in direct contact with your customers and product have hugely valuable insight into what your organisation needs to do to improve.

Employees should be at the top of the business, involved in making key decisions and management should be there to provide overarching support and guidance.

What are the top skills needed for leadership success today?

Create a shared vision for your organisation

Ensure your corporate vision, values and goals are clearly defined and shared regularly with everyone in the organisation. Staff who understand how their contributions fit into the bigger picture are more likely to feel engaged with the organisation and workplace productivity will increase as a result.

Hire the right people for the right roles

It goes without saying that candidates need the skills required to complete their job. However, the importance of shared values and a positive outlook are often overlooked.

Make sure your values and behaviours are clear during the recruitment process and evaluate how candidates exhibit these qualities. A diverse team, each with their own skills and positive energy, can combine to create the perfect organisation.

Set realistic goals for your team

It’s great to have ambitious goals to work towards but it is the leader’s responsibility to break these down into smaller, attainable goals.

It is unfair to expect a team to perform the impossible and reprimand them when they fail. Confidence will begin to waver and no one will want to take on future challenges, knowing they might fail.

Foster honest and open communication

Communication is key to being a good leader. Everyone should be able to talk to you, ask questions, solve problems and clarify expectations regularly.

It is time to do away with the arduous appraisal process and be there for your employees continuously. Hold regular feedback sessions as well as fostering an open-door policy.

Talk to your team straight, tell them the good, the bad and the ugly. Complete honesty and transparency builds trust. Your team know that you will inform them of upcoming challenges and this will prevent toxic gossip and miscommunication.

Recognise the importance of collaboration in the workplace

Collaboration is key to innovation and engagement. Leaders must encourage collaboration and ensure everyone has the time and tools needed.

The challenges of remote working during Covid-19 have changed traditional collaboration methods but now, more than ever, teams must come together to problem solve and innovate.

Create a ‘talk and listen’ culture and provide plenty of opportunities for participation and team brainstorming.

Listen to your employees and welcome feedback

As important as it is to talk, it is even more important to listen. Your employees are on the front line, they speak or interact with your customers regularly.

They see first-hand what does and doesn’t work. Listen to what they have to say and help to change processes that aren’t working well.

Be an emotionally intelligent leader

Emotionally Intelligent leaders understand their own and others emotions and show empathy and compassion. Address your employees’ needs, encourage wellbeing, eliminate stress and show understanding during difficult periods in their lives.

Team members who feel supported and appreciated will be happier in the workplace and want to work even harder. Compassion increases loyalty, engagement, trust and workplace productivity.

Empower your team

Empower your staff by involving them in the decision making and giving them control over their own work. It shows trust and loyalty and, as a result, employees will feel they are a valuable asset to the team. They are much more likely to work hard when they feel their contributions have a positive impact.

Track without micromanaging. Whilst it can be tempting to continually watch to ensure work is being done, find more positive ways to check in on the process. Micromanaging can demoralise employees and create mistrust.

Build a positive company culture

There are many benefits to having a positive company culture and leaders play a vital role in creating, evolving and managing culture. A positive company culture attracts better talent, increases employee retention, improves your reputation, creates happy and healthier staff and increases workplace productivity.

There have been considerable shifts in attitudes towards work in recent years. Younger staff tend to value happiness at work and contributions to the planet and its people above salary.

Show resilience to change and setbacks

Resilient leaders are able to adapt well to change, see setbacks as temporary and motivate others through challenging periods.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a period of unprecedented uncertainty and profoundly changed the way businesses operate. Resilient leaders have maintained a positive attitude throughout, looking for ways to adapt and improve during these stressful and unpredictable times.

Setbacks or missed goals must be seen as learning opportunities or temporary hurdles, rather than failures.

Reward and celebrate success in the workplace

We all seek approval and praise when we work hard. A thank you or a small token of appreciation goes a long way. A good leader should consistently recognise and reward employee achievements.

Staff will be happier and feel valued for their contributions which in turn creates loyalty, improves engagement and boosts workplace productivity.

Embrace diversity in the workplace

Leaders should educate themselves about diversity and inclusion and should not see it as a mundane HR exercise.

A successful organisation needs to be made up of people who bring different skills and experience to the team. Research has shown that both gender and ethnic diversity in the workplace has a direct correlation with improved profitability.

Be flexible

The coronavirus pandemic has taught us valuable lessons about the need to offer flexibility to our staff. Many employees previously struggled with flexibility for childcare, faced long commutes and were stuck within the confines of the 9-5 workday.

Flexible working opportunities allow for a better work/life balance, decreases stress and prevent employee burnout.

Continuously coach your staff to improve performance

Leaders should coach employees and guide them rather than command and control. Ask questions to understand what areas need improvement, encourage in-house experts to share knowledge and teach one another and offer training and refresher courses where required.

Lead by example

A leader’s role is to motivate and inspire those around them to achieve goals. You must be a role model and show your staff the way by practising what you preach.

Telling your team to do one thing and doing the complete opposite yourself is going to cause resentment and mistrust. Get involved, communicate openly, deliver on your promises, accept responsibility for your mistakes and your team will return the favour.


Due to the fast-paced technological advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the ongoing challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, the role of the leader within the workplace is changing dramatically.

The skills needed to be a successful leader in the 21st century look different to those needed 50 years ago. Leaders must now communicate openly, listen to their employees, foster a healthy culture and understand and empathise with their staff.

At Awardaroo, we believe that your employees need to be at the top of your business, and as a leader your role is to support and guide them from the bottom up.

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