As a new year begins, especially one following a year so unpredictable and unprecedented, it makes sense to think about what successful leadership in 2021 will look like. While the timeless principles of leadership still remain, what does the context of today, of virtual work and constant change tell us about what skills will help us succeed? Here is my take on the State of Leadership in 2021.

Here are three big themes, with some specifics within each of them.

Leaders Must Be More Outwardly Focused

2020 was hard on everyone including leaders. It is possible that you feel mentally and emotionally spent. While leaders must take care of themselves, they cannot become insular or self-serving. Now, more than ever leaders must look beyond themselves.

  • Understanding the world. The work of a leader is more interconnected to the world than ever. Leaders must find ways to sort out the information sources that will help them stay aware of global trends – both economic and political – that will impact their business, team, and work. No longer is this only the realm or worry of senior executives or analysts.
  • Understanding the needs of the team. Leaders must be in touch with and understand how the team is doing and what they need. For many 2020 was the year of remote work. In figuring out how to get the basic work out, too often the needs of the greater team were lost. In 2021 as work remains remote or becomes more flexible and varied, leaders must think about the team as a unit, and what that unit needs to thrive and grow.
  • Understanding how team members are doing. As people work remotely, we have fewer interactions with them – and it is likely we as leaders don’t really know how they are doing and feeling. Previously, I have written about the Age of Empathy. The need for us as leaders to empathize with and understand the needs and emotions will continue to be critical in 2021

Leaders Must Look Forward

This may be easier advice – few people are wanting to look back too long on 2020! Leaders must have a future in 2021 – here are three specific places to be looking.

  • Considering the future of work. The workplace has changed forever. Even after the vaccinations have been given and the shutdowns are over, it is likely that not everyone will return to the office. Perhaps you plan to bring everyone back – but is that what your team wants? Leaders must grapple with – and learn to capitalize on – a working future that is more flexible, hybrid and varied. This requires new skills for leaders and team members.
  • Considering technology. Technology allowed us to continue to work while our workplaces were shut down. Having become comfortable and perhaps conversant in some tools is helpful, but the future of technology confronts us everyday. Leaders must be thinking not only about technologies that help the team, but that will transform the industries we work and lead in.
  • Considering organizational culture. As our teams dispersed, people took their culture with them. The stronger your culture, the easier the transition to and success in a remote working world worked for you. And while cultures always evolve, they have likely changed faster in the last nine months than in the previous several years. As leaders we must be considering organizational and team culture now. Talk with your team and form a clear picture of your aspirational culture, based on today’s working realities, then lead the team in that direction.

Leaders Must Think More Holistically

Thinking about the world or our work in component parts or pieces won’t serve us today. Leadership in 2021 will require we consider the bigger picture, because everything is connected.

  • Addressing societal changes and needs. The world is changing. New issues and concerns are becoming more prevalent and important, both to you and to your team. Now is not the time to hope things return to “normal” or play ostrich. Leadership in 2021 will require you to talk about equity, racism, and social justice, just to name a few. Whether these topics are among your personal priorities matters very little. The best leaders will be thinking about, talking about and acting on these topics within their teams and perhaps their communities as well.
  • Addressing Work/Life balance. Work/life balance was sorely out of balance in 2019. In a world where people are working where they live, this balance has gotten further out of whack. Leaders must address the challenges and realities of this situation with their teams. Please note that this can’t just be a conversation for the team. As leaders we must get in balance too – because a leader who has their balance shifted too far towards work is a major contributor to the problems others will have with their own work/life balance.
  • Addressing learning in new ways. We learned a lot in 2020 to survive – now we must be more intentional and strategic. The need to think about learning holistically in 2021 falls into two big areas – learning about a broader set of topics and learning in new ways. Yes, we must support people with the job skills needed for remote, flexible, and hybrid work. But more than that, people need enhanced personal skills. We want team members to be engaged and committed to work, but we haven’t always provided the mindsets and tools needed for them to succeed. Lastly, during the pandemic, you may have cut the training budget or wondered how to do training when you couldn’t put people in the conference or training room. Leadership in 2021 will require training and learning to happen even if using new technologies or learning approaches – your team members need it, and the environment will demand it.

Final Thoughts
I’ve shared nine insights about leadership in 2021 with you. While there is plenty here for you to consider, you must prioritize.

Here are some steps you might want to take as you think about these ideas.

1. Ask yourself which are the most important to your business and situation?
2. Share this article with your leadership colleagues or your team. Talk with them about the biggest priorities and use this list as a roadmap for your consideration.
3. Reach out to us. As you think about your biggest priorities, let us know how we can help. We are always ready to have a conversation to understand your needs and see how we can help or who we might suggest that could be of service to your greater success.

Kevin Eikenberry is Chief Potential Officer, The Kevin Eikenberry Group.


{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets on
{{ count_down }}