5 skills to shape modern leadership styles in the changing world

Table of contents:
  1. Traditional vs. modern leadership skills 
  2. The importance of diverse workforces 
  3. Modern leadership styles
  4. Global issues impacting leadership 
  5. Effective leadership skills 
Are conventional leadership styles enough in a world increasingly defined by conflict and change? Influences ranging from ESG compliance and workforce diversity through to geopolitical crises and other global developments continue to redefine the skills needed for effective, impactful C-suite leadership and business success. Indeed, adaptability and agility are fast becoming cornerstones of modern leadership. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated trends like remote and hybrid working, and historically undervalued ‘soft skills’ are gaining traction as organisations race to compete on a global landscape. Yet with evidence suggesting that many senior leaders and investors are still failing to acknowledge the shift in favour of a more traditional C-suite skillset, the need for and importance of adapting modern leadership styles in the changing world intensifies. According to Robert Half’s Boardroom Navigator 2023, a global survey of 400 executive leadership teams and boards of directors, and 50 private equity investors, conventional skills such as leadership experience, strategic thinking, and project management are still being prioritised by employers above ESG and diversity, agility and creativity, and even emotional intelligence (EQ). Despite creative thinking, for example, being a skill widely accepted as key to developing solutions to new and complex challenges, only 16% of survey respondents identified it as being a priority skill in executive recruitment. Active listening ranked similarly low (17%) along with agility (remarkably low at 12%). “Modern leadership will continue to call for a depth and breadth of skills and experience in strategic thinking, effective communication, and problem-solving,” explains Craig Bernhardt, global acquisition specialist and Senior Managing Director of Executive Search at Robert Half. “Workforces are evolving. Technology, globalisation, and artificial intelligence (AI) will continue to transform every aspect of our lives so it’s essential, in a rapidly changing world, that leadership and leadership styles keep pace.”
The need for increased diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in workplaces also means it’s no longer enough for organisations to introduce DEI policies without also genuinely supporting their implementation through broader cultural change. For organisations to attract and retain top talent today, clear evidence of and leadership in the space is vital. Actively promoting women and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds into leadership roles, for instance, will both accelerate and improve diversity in the C-suite. Craig Bernhardt also highlights the need for modern C-suite leaders to adapt their leadership styles to better manage a multigenerational workforce. “Today it’s not uncommon to be managing the diverse skillsets and needs of five generations in a single workplace,” he says. “So, improving and refining how these groups interact and share experiences across projects, and being able to identify leaders within teams who can effectively manage multigenerational collaboration, is key.”
Gone are the days of top-down, strictly command and control – or transactional – leadership styles. Modern leadership styles must consider employees’ unique personal backgrounds, interests, and experiences. It’s not a hollow pursuit, either. Executive leadership teams that can understand and effectively integrate nuances within their workforces and customer bases are better equipped to successfully manage change, develop creative thinking, and improve collective decision-making. People want to work with and for employers who they feel actively listen to and involve them. Customers want to support organisations who do same. Naturally, then, markets respond positively to both internal and external cultures of DEI.
Global issues such as sustainability and human rights abuses are also challenging boards and C-suites to modify not only their business processes and operations but also their leadership styles. ESG is one example, the complex management of which will define executive careers and dominate boardroom thinking in the next decade. Likewise, the EU Taxonomy, which aims to provide clarity on environmentally sustainable activities, will continue to be expanded, with legislation to protect against human rights abuses in supply chains also being phased in. Emphasising the importance of being able to either assimilate into or at least have an understanding of international working environments, Robert Half’s Managing Director of Executive Search Gareth Whalley explains: “That 59% of Australia’s ASX 200-listed CEOs bring to their roles prior international experience highlights the competitive advantages of global work experience in C-suite recruitment. “I began my career with Ernst & Young in London, joining Viacom internationally as a Business Process Analyst before eventually joining Robert Half in Sydney in 2006. So, I’ve witnessed first-hand how leadership experience benefits from exploring, developing, and maintaining stakes in overseas markets, beyond Australian shores.”
In an age of extraordinary change, executive leadership needs to adapt. So how can aspiring leaders develop the range of skills they need to get ahead? 1. Take part in active learning. A strong leader won’t be afraid to initiate and engage in authentic debates and problem solving with colleagues and staff to help deal with novel situations and develop innovative solutions. Aspiring leaders should go through everyday life with the maxim: ‘Everyone in the world knows at least one thing that I don’t.’ 2. Learn to fail. Likewise, common sense (effective ‘situational leadership’) dictates that when collaboration is endorsed by senior leadership, it creates a psychologically safe environment that encourages innovation and in which everyone, even those in leadership roles, feels comfortable conceding personal ‘defeat’ in favour of the common good. 3. Say no to micromanagement. Allow for autonomy and trust to develop by giving employees ongoing opportunities to take responsibility for their own personal and professional development. 4. Encourage job rotation. If it’s feasible in your workplace, job rotation not only gives staff exposure to different business areas, it is also a powerful professional development tool. It can also help strengthen succession planning and enhance retention and recruitment. 5. Practice empathy. ‘Listen like a leader’ (LLL), emotional intelligence, and other social competencies are key to authentic modern leadership styles in the changing world, says Gareth Whalley. “Effective leaders today must demonstrate the skills needed to really connect with and nurture staff,” he explains, "and be open to embracing new people, ideas, and leadership and communication styles.   The blend of technical/traditional and soft skills needed to be a strong leader in today’s workplace has evolved. While experience will always matter, aspiring leaders with a genuine commitment to ESG and DEI can come from anywhere in an organisation. Ultimately, a strong leader is one who can tackle challenges, navigate crises, deliver change, and lead successful teams with confidence, care, and compassion.
1. How does emotional intelligence relate to modern leadership? Emotional intelligence (EQ) – understanding one’s own and other people’s emotional drivers – is the modern leader’s superpower. More than simply ‘charisma’, EQ in modern leadership embraces self-awareness and empathy to connect with, motivate, and inspire teams and is essential for effective networking, team-building, and maintaining a positive organisational culture. Teams led by emotionally intelligent leaders tend to perform better, manage conflict better, and navigate change more smoothly.    2. How do modern leadership styles differ from traditional ones?  Modern leadership styles in the changing world are a far cry from traditional ones. While modern leadership will continue to call for a depth and breadth of skills and experience in strategic thinking, effective communication, and problem-solving, traditionally overlooked ‘soft’ skills and qualities such as emotional intelligence, empathy, creative thinking, and adaptability are increasingly important. Modern leadership styles enable executives to better connect with and cater to their evolving and increasingly diverse workforces, and to lead with care and compassion over authority and control.   3. What are the different types of modern leadership styles? The Authoritarian leader may be effective during a crisis or period of disruption but ultimately puts teams at risk of burnout, whereas Democratic leadership is more collaborative and fosters a culture of working together towards a common goal. An Empathic leadership style takes collaborative team building a step further by focusing on harmony and a sense of belonging and ‘team spirit’ which can be hugely beneficial during periods of high stress. Motivational leaders can be similarly effective in motivating staff, while Visionary leaders harness self-confidence and inspiration to help communicate their vision and inspire teams.