The financial collapse. Digital transformation. COVID-19. The Great Resignation. Over the last 15 years, the business environment has undergone some seismic shifts, forcing leaders to adapt and evolve their styles to meet the unique challenges of each period. 

Not unlike the business environment itself, the operational skills, emotional engagement, and individual characteristics leaders need today are vastly different than they were in 2007. “What worked coming out of the housing market collapse is different than what’s needed post-pandemic,” says Dennis Baltzley, global head of leadership development solutions at Korn Ferry. Whereas coming out of the financial crisis leaders needed to take charge and put guardrails around risk and innovation, as business returns to pre-pandemic levels, a completely new leadership profile is emerging. Baltzley says the work of the post-pandemic leader is to move information and energy through the organization, sort of like an electrical conductor. “The goal now is to reduce organizational friction,” he says. 

Baltzley and Khoi Tu, global head of the culture and change practice at Korn Ferry, traced how leadership has evolved since the financial crisis and identified four leadership profiles to coincide with the times. Here’s a look at each style relative to what was happening in the business environment at the time. 

The hero leader

Circa: 2010

The widespread fraud associated with the subprime mortgage crisis shook both Wall Street and Main Street. The loss of not only jobs, but also retirement savings and even homes resulted in a massive reevaluation among consumers, employees, and investors in who they put their trust in. They didn’t want risk-takers or even innovators. What they wanted was consistency, security, and reliability. 

From a leadership perspective, that meant CEOs with a strong track record and proven ability to deliver on commitments. It meant hierarchical organizational structures with clearly defined roles and responsibilities for executing the leader’s singular vision. Think leaders like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, who combined laser-like customer understanding with the ability to standardize and localize services on a global scale. “It was a time when teamwork was talked about, but a single leader did all the talking,” says Baltzley.

The collaborative leader

Circa: 2016

Following the financial crisis, business went on a massive growth streak — both financially and in terms of size and complexity. The end of the financial crisis marked the beginning of a 128-month long financial expansion in U.S., the longest in history. 

The explosion in digital products and services ushered in not just new ways of doing business, but also new ways of leading businesses. Leaders realized they could no longer do it alone. It was a murky time when leaders collaborated but only through a tightly chosen network of senior executives. They were team-focused — this period amplified the matrixed organizational structure — but only insofar as it pertained to executing their instructions. “The leader as an iconic point of focus gave way to gifted teams managing extraordinarily complex businesses in rapid change,” says Khoi Tu.

The leader as orchestra conductor

Circa: 2020

Everything was going along nicely. Organizations were growing in scale and complexity, but leaders were effectively — and profitably — running them via a team-based cross-enterprise architecture. We saw the rise of end-to-end value creation and supply chain thinking. Then the pandemic hit. Entire economies were shut down. More than 140 million jobs were lost globally. And our entire way of working, along with our collective attitude about work, changed overnight. 

Leaders were used to continuous change, but this was a different kind altogether. They needed to rally — and fast. Leaders needed to quickly adapt their business models, cascade information around the globe, and get everyone aligned around a common goal. They needed to do this while also safeguarding the health and wellness of their employees and their families. 

Leaders during this time acted as orchestra conductors, says Tu, choreographing the company’s disparate units but leaving the playing to them, in part because the pandemic forced them to. Their job was to provide direction and timing. Companies that didn’t adapt fast enough didn’t survive. “It was all about keeping the same beat,” says Tu. 

The leader as electrical conductor

Circa: 2022

If the pandemic taught leaders anything, it is that speed is not just a competitive advantage, but also necessary for survival. Those businesses that were able to shift to e-commerce or pivot operations succeeded while those that couldn’t often ended up closing, sold, or in bankruptcy. 

But speed without empowerment is like running alone. Leaders who review, correct, or approve every decision at best slow things down, and at worst keep them from moving forward. Instead, building on the adaptive capabilities of the orchestra leader, the post-pandemic leader must now operate like an electrical conductor, connecting people and resources in the most seamless way possible to encourage faster decision-making and innovation. Trust is needed now just as much as it was during the financial crisis, but the difference is that it is the leaders who need to trust their people to make the right choices. Organizations, says Baltzley, need leaders who are experts at capturing and creating opportunities from the fast flow of knowledge. He says the key leadership skill, and paradox, they must master now is “how to lead without being in charge.”