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2020 Leadership


RaeAnn Slaybaugh

January/February 2011, eSide Supply Management Vol. 4, No. 1

A new report examines the skills and character traits that will be critical for emerging executives to succeed.

According to an October 2010 report issued by The Conference Board — Go Where There Be Dragons: Leadership Essentials for 2020 — leadership won't look the same a decade from now. Gone are the days of the CEO-as-rock star. Future executives must hone a variety of aptitudes and characteristics — trustworthiness, courage, influence, adaptability and connectivity, to name a few. If you want to position yourself for a position of power down the line, the report outlines the skills and character traits you need to hone today to pave the way.

The Conference Board's Charles Mitchell, executive director of publishing publisher of Review magazine, and David Learmond, an adviser in the areas of human capital knowledge area, co-wrote the report. By 2020, they predict, the notion of a leader as someone who makes the decisions, is comfortable with command and control, trusts an inner circle, and prides himself or herself on being the best-informed person in the room will be outdated.

"Transformed business models, faster information flows, stiffer competition and changing worker and customer demographics mean leadership styles need to change, to be more collaborative," they assert.

They're Not Alone

Mitchell and Learmond's predictions — as detailed in Go Where There Be Dragons — are based on a series of five sessions with The Conference Board's Councils on Leadership Development, Organizational Learning, HR and Talent Management, and Diversity Inclusion. Beginning in February 2010, council members gathered in United States, Europe and Asia to not only evaluate the current state of business leadership, but to also develop a set of leadership drivers, competencies and behaviors they believe will be relevant for leaders in 2020 and beyond.

In the end, every constituent agreed on one thing: Keeping pace with evolving economic, social and technical norms will require additional competencies, an understanding of a diverse and fragmented world, and a keen sense of self-awareness and humility.

Future Leader: Stick figure out in front of the pack.

"The old way of developing leaders — to clone an organization's current leaders — is outmoded," the report surmises. "Do that now and you lose the opportunity that diversity offers and risk being irrelevant and isolated in an environment that demands a new model."

A Different Brand of Executive

According to Mitchell, Learmond and Council members, leaders for the next decade and beyond must focus on collaboration and hone their listening skills. "Smart leaders won't do it alone — they will create great teams where group expertise matters more than individual savvy," the report explains.

The next generation of leaders must also think beyond their own organizations and learn to trust nontraditional partners, the report adds. "[Future leaders need to] understand that problems can be solved by expert networks outside the traditional employee domain, and that others outside the inner corporate circle may have the best solutions."

Moreover, the report contends, leaders at many organizations — especially in North America and Europe — must embrace the concept of leading from within and from the bottom. "Gen X and Gen Y leaders move in networks, and networks challenge hierarchy," it explains. "They will rethink corporate structure."

Leadership Skills for 2020

Based on the cultural and workplace shifts they're observing right now, Mitchell, Learmond and Council members settled on the most important leadership skills for 21st-century leaders:

Building trust. A leader will need to be viewed as ethical, inspiring and trustworthy. "In an open-source, network-based environment, success will depend on this," they predict.

Reflection. Twenty-first-century leaders will need to figure out what really matters and, based on these reflections, be willing to step backward to move forward if necessary.

Influencing. This "power" will not be about command and control, they say; it will be based on a leader's ability to set subtle direction that unlocks the organization's creativity.

Thinking in the shape of a "T." Future leaders must have deep subject expertise in one or more areas, as well as be knowledgeable about functions and issues that are important to the organization, the business and the social environment; i.e., practice T-shaped thinking. "Single-subject expertise will be less relevant," they explain.

Facilitating the possible. Mitchell, Learmond and council members believe that being able to connect the dots within their own organizations ("knowing corridors where knowledge is created, and then forging links within the organization so the knowledge spreads") will be critical for 21st-century leaders.

Embracing ambiguity. Even under pressing time constraints, the next wave of leaders must be willing to make and drive decisions with limited (even unreliable) information, they say.

Telling a compelling story. While Mitchell, Learmond and Council members acknowledge that information alone is not knowledge, they also point out that knowledge that's not communicated is wasted. "Future leaders must be able to communicate a visionary story that inspires and engages the workforce," they explain.

Inspiring innovation, creativity and open-source thinking. In the future, it must be understood that true innovation extends beyond technology or product development, they assert. To this end, leaders must create cultures that reward innovation and allow failure.

Going where there be dragons. The next wave of leaders must face their fears of the unknown and "go where there be dragons," say Mitchell, Learmond and Council members. This will require them to stretch their horizons, leave the familiar and take the risks that lead to new ideas.

Embracing a "did-it-ourselves" attitude — but also preparing for and allowing failure. In coming years, the most effective leaders will let their staff members be creative, help find solutions and contribute, but also allow for failure, according to the report constituents. "Fail fast, fail often and fail early — but don't fail to say it's OK to fail," they advise. "Be ruthless in learning from failure. Without failure, there can be no innovation."

Knowing thyself. Mitchell, Learmond and council members say empathy, social and emotional intelligence — as well as an understanding of their and others' limitations — will be essential for future leaders.

Modeling adaptability, they add, can be demonstrated by leaders putting into practice the behaviors and character traits they hope to see in others.

Harnessing the energy. According to the report constituents, the next generation of leaders must not only know how to capture the energy of natural systems and of their organizations, but also to feed this energy back in. "Most revolutions happen with networks of people coming together, yet most companies ignore the energy crowds can create," they warn.

Adaptability and Connectivity, Above All

More than anything, Mitchell, Learmond and council members believe the best responses to the ensuing challenges of leadership development are adaptability and connectivity. "Tomorrow's leaders must be adaptable, aware of their biases and capable of tuning in and connecting with changing views of reality," they explain.

In the meantime, the constituents challenge today's leaders to start convincing all levels of management — from the C-suite down — that leadership development is not an event; it's an investment that requires time, commitment and patience.

"The return may not be immediate," they conclude. "But, it will be worthwhile."

RaeAnn Slaybaugh is a writer for the Institute for Supply Management™. To reach this author, please send an e-mail to

For more research and survey findings, visit the ISM articles database.

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