Leadership is Evolving. Are You?
We have extensively researched and listened to leaders from around the world to get a global view on what it’ll take to succeed in the years ahead.
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Leadership is Evolving. Are You?
We've surveyed over 400 CEOs from around the world as part of our ongoing CEO for the Future study. And every year, we tap hundreds of senior executives from the World's Most Admired Companies to identify the top attributes for success.
We've collated what we've learned over the years to give you a global perspective of how leadership is evolving. One Success Profile doesn’t fit all, but there are clear traits, drivers and characteristics tomorrow’s top leaders are likely to have in common.
Here are some of the changes you can expect—and traits and characteristics we’re expecting leaders to cultivate in the coming years.
The role of leader has always been big. But it’s now so multi-faceted that almost everyone agrees: one person can’t do it all alone. Instead, leaders will need to collaborate like never before, leaning on their teams for support—and using their collaborative powers to energize and connect the whole business. Of the WMAC executives we surveyed in 2022, one third agreed that collaboration (whether virtual or in-person) is the one behavior that will have the biggest impact on business performance in the future.
Collaboration doesn’t always come naturally—especially if you have climbed the ranks in hierarchical organizations focused on role clarity and control.
To unite your teams and business, be aware of all three critical domains you work in:
‘We’ is the domain we’ve seen leaders struggle with most. In the past, many have chosen juggling and multitasking over asking for help—often leading to burnout. As your leadership role grows, that’s not sustainable. So, juggle less and join hands with others across your business more. Many leaders are good at asking a lot of the individuals in their teams, few are good at harnessing their collective power. Connected, collaborative leaders are the ones whose businesses will succeed in the coming years.
In a world where ambiguity is every day, future leaders’ strategies will need to turn on a dime to stay competitive. In one of our CEO for the Future surveys, 76% of participants said they would prioritize ever-changing socio-political expectations, the escalating climate crisis, and technological advancements, including the emergence of AI. Tomorrow’s leaders will be voracious learners, too. By devouring new content and ideas, they’ll stay ahead of rapidly shifting trends to make timely decisions on big issues.
In such rapidly changing times, you don’t need to know it all. But you must be open to learning more. Become an agile learner by looking for lessons in everything you do. Be endlessly curious and ready to seek out new knowledge. And unpack the things you learn in actionable ways for yourself and the rest of your business. So instead of fearing change, you see it as a chance for you and your business to grow.
Nearly 66% of leaders in our CEO for the Future research said that agility and openness to change would be critical qualities for future success. Some say that’s always been the case. But to thrive in future, leaders won’t just accept change, they’ll seize it and use it as a chance to revolutionize their businesses.
And when leaders make a change, it’s visible and public. Thanks to 24/7 social media, the senior leaders in your C-suite and top teams will be more visible and more scrutinized than ever before. In fact, 94% agree that leaders should consistently hold high moral and ethical standards.
You need to be willing to let go of old ideas that aren’t working as well and to try new ones. Listen to views very different from your own so that you’re ready to innovate and adapt as needed. Stay focused on the business outcomes you're aiming for but remain open to new ways of getting there. Use agile processes to help you move quickly when needed.
In a world demanding us to do things differently, change aversion and fatigue amongst colleagues could hold leaders back. To gain buy-in for change, they’ll need to do more than hit short-term performance goals. They must become the visionary in their business—energizing others through uncertain times and striving for sustainable growth.
This is about more than simply setting out a bold plan (which is rapidly becoming table stakes for any leader). It’s about connecting their vision to an even bigger societal picture. Indeed, no leader can escape the context they’re working in. 86% told us that the line between business and society is blurring, meaning tomorrow’s leaders can expect to report to society as well as their board.
To build buy-in for change, you don’t need to win everyone over all at once. Research shows that if you can get the right 10% of people to come around to your way of thinking wholeheartedly, you can influence the other 90% to hit a tipping point.
Ask yourself, is everyone clear on who we are, and what we stand for? Then, give everyone a clear line of sight, so they see the part they personally play to help your business fulfil its purpose and reach its goals. That means making sure everyone:
Leaders will need to listen at a greater scale than ever before—to their colleagues, stakeholders and society at large. They’ll need to act on what they hear with empathy, creating psychologically safe spaces for people to share their views. And they’ll do this all while leading from the heart. 61% of leaders think it’s time to be more genuine, open and empathetic—and empathy starts with listening.
Do you really know what your people think and feel at every level of your business? We encourage leaders to spend more time listening and empathizing with viewpoints that differ from their own. We've known, for decades, that empathy is critical to effective leadership. But the last four years have underscored just how important empathetic leadership is—and how it is still sorely lacking.
And once you’ve listened, act. Understanding opposing perspectives will allow leaders to prepare their responses to critical feedback and not get taken off track. It might feel uncomfortable at the time, but if you can reflect and adapt, you’ll become a stronger leader—and build a stronger business, too.
In the future, employees will still look to their leaders to make the big, difficult decisions—and even shake up the way everyone works. In fact, 76% of CEOs ranked making big changes as a top driver for tomorrow's leaders, but change is rarely easy. Leaders will need to be accountable for the decisions they make—never blaming others or making excuses.
It’s in tough times that authentic leaders shine: their genuine sense of mission gives them the resilience they need to stand by their decisions, regardless of the scrutiny they’re under.
Shift your perspective from "reliable deliverer" to "relentless explorer." Be willing to make bold choices—even while knowing not every bold choice will land. How you bounce back from missteps and stressful situations will make all the difference. Resilience comes from being both self-aware and mindful of others. Understand the depth and breadth of your role while staying true to yourself and accepting that you can’t do it all.
Failure could even become one of your most valuable assets. It will it help colleagues and stakeholders empathize with you when they see that you’re human. And growing from those mistakes will pave the way for your success in future.
Trust is essential for any leader. Over five years, we found the businesses with the most-trusted leaders had a 22% better financial performance than their less trusted peers.
And what drives that trust? Authenticity. 74% of CEOs agree that having a genuine sense of mission and purpose is vital. This makes it easier for any leader to stand by their decisions, it fuels their inner fire, and it means they’re less likely to burn out.
It’s hard to lead in a low-trust world, but our organizational consultants have some suggestions. It all starts with you. When you’re feeling confident and in control, others are more likely to trust you.
Clear communication will also be vital—especially as businesses evolve their hybrid working models. Do you speak authentically and bring your people along with you? Use our communication checklist to find out.
Look beyond your business
“Leaders are being called upon to have their vision be part of what is going to be a better future world. And their vision is part of making that happen.” – CEO & President
“Companies that have invested in modernizing themselves through technology have been able to adapt to a post-COVID world quickly.” – CEO
Leave your ego at the door to inspire change
“There is a changing of the guard at CEO level. Fewer big egos and grandees and many more individuals who lead with humility and are prepared to be held to account for the impact their companies have on society and the planet.” – CEO
“I think what has to happen is the executive team must be more representative of the customers and the society as a whole, to get the optimal value and to unlock what’s possible within the company. As a CEO, you’re going to have to really be focused and purposeful in figuring out how your executive team has that kind of a face.” – CEO
We’re living in extraordinary times. And leaders need to be equally extraordinary in order to keep up. Whatever the challenge you face, we’re here to help you lead through change.