Leadership in 2020 – as predicted in 2014

In 2014 we were asked to write an article about what leadership would look like in 2020, and why. The published article follows below.

Have a read – does this represent the leadership landscape of 2020? And what do you think are the leadership development trends for the next few years? Please comment below. Thanks!

Leadership is fluid and dynamic, it is changing continuously.

What leadership was all about 20 years ago has already changed, several times over. What it will need to be in 5 and 10 and 20 years will be different again. In only 6 years we will move into another decade. So what will leaders be like in 2020?

Organizations need to proactively approach leadership and leadership development to make maximal use of the powerful force that leadership is. Organizations that can “get leadership right” will be the winners in their industry.

OK, enough with the management talk, let’s talk straight.


Regardless of what your definition of leadership is, we can probably all agree that it’s about achieving results through people, by influencing them to carry out their tasks to the best of their ability. A leader can’t do it all by him/herself, but by effectively leading others who can do their job well, he/she can deliver the expected results. To illustrate this: we recently spoke to a CEO who had come into the office during holiday time with half of the work force away. He found that there was very little he could do on his own! He was indeed very well aware that his role is that of a visionary, a guide, an enabler. His employees will carry out the bulk of the work – he needs to make it easy for them to do just that.

“People join companies and leave leaders”


If you also consider this hard-hitting Gallup finding (around the importance of leaders, it becomes very obvious what influence or power leaders have. When at its best, that power can engage and drive business and thus needs to be a top priority for all organizations. With open-mindedness and an ongoing focus on development, leaders can evolve to meet the needs of the people in the organization as well as the business demands overall.  When at its worst, leadership is a costly and damaging burden that drives employees and/or business away.


The world of business is getting more and more complex due to a number of different factors:

  • Globalization. The world is becoming smaller and there is possibility to have global reach and presence. Even small companies that just used to operate locally, may today find clients, suppliers, business partners and even employees/talent located all over the world. This requires new knowledge and skills to deal with cultural differences as well as the practicalities of geographical spread. We will be working with a “pool of talent” in the future where people could be based anywhere in the world.
  • Transparency. There is a growing expectation of greater transparency from external stakeholders (internally, expectation of transparency have existed longer), which means leaders’ actions are more closely scrutinized and judged. Everyone is constantly “on display, on stage”. Actions are seen and can have consequences. Everyone wants more openness and accessibility to the truth.
  • New generations. New generations expect and crave other things from their work situation and their leaders than previous generations have done. Having less hierarchical structures and practices will be the expected norm. There is also a growing expectation of more freedom and greater work/life balance (while still be “connected” all the time).
  • Speed of change. The speed of change is getting faster and faster, what we knew yesterday may no longer be valid. Much change is driven by a fast technological evolution. Not only do leaders need to keep a keen, open mind, they also need to help their employees do the same. This is crucial in order to not just cope with change but to allow for innovation to happen. Leaders need to be much more flexible in the times of even faster moving change which lie ahead.
  • Sustainability. Limited natural resources are challenging organizations in all industries to become smarter and more responsible in how they operate, produce goods and deliver service.
  • Attracting and retaining the best people. The best leaders will both attract and retain the best people. This becomes even more important as we go forward because this becomes the differentiator between businesses. People do business with people not just companies. 


All leaders are not created equal, meaning that everyone has to find their own unique leadership style. Simply copying what someone else is doing may not be effective, unless it feels genuine and authentic and suits the leader. However, there is a lot that we can learn from studying research and other leaders, with regards to some key skills and behaviours that successful leaders have.

Based on our observations from working with some 200+ organizations in 30+ countries over the last 17 years, here are the key leadership skills needed for 2020 and beyond. Most of these are already relevant but will require greater and greater focus.

  • Great observation and listening skills
    • Self Awareness. Authoritarian leadership will be even less accepted than it is today (this does however vary based on cultural and personal preferences). For this reason a leader needs to be aware of his/her behaviours and their impact on other people. How does what you are doing make other people feel, and what does it make them think? – because this will effect what they do.  This is a part of EQ (emotional quotient) or Emotional Intelligence.
    • Social awareness. An understanding of the world around, other people as well as both corporate and national/geographical culture. It’s about empathy and the ability to pick up on the subtleties of culture and acceptable norms. If you are going to do business with other cultures, you need to know more about how they think, operate – so that you can approach them in a respectful and appropriate way. This is a part of EQ and/or SQ (Social quotient) or Social Intelligence.
  • Curiosity and open-mindedness. This could be the most important skill of them all. Without it we simply are not able to grow our awareness. What we know and believe to be important today may not be the same as what will be important tomorrow. Or as Sir Ken Robinson said in his hailed TED-talk from 2006 about “How schools kill creativity”: “Nobody has a clue — despite all the expertise that’s been on parade for the past four days — what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.”

His argument was that schools must teach students to think for themselves and keep an open mind, not just learn current facts. This is of course equally true for learning and development that takes place in organizations.

  • Being comfortable around technology. There is no need to be a tech guru, but the more you are able to embrace and value technological solutions, the better. We are certainly not going to have less technology in the future than what we have now, that’s for certain. The whole way we do business will change with the help of technology.
  • Holistic thinking and Complexity Management. Being able to see to take a holistic view, to see the big picture, and understand how everything links together. This means being able to see beyond ones own area and see how it fits into the organization, the customer experience, the value proposition, overall. This includes sustainability thinking, which is the ability to consider three bottom lines for long-term business success: People, Planet and Profits. Taking a holistic view of the business, being able to assess impact and make decisions and take actions that are not just about an isolated, localized issue.
  • Leading virtually. Many leaders are already experiencing the challenge of having their employees in different locations to themselves, and this is likely to grow. Outsourcing and project hiring alongside geographically dispersed regular employees mean that leaders have to be efficient at staying in touch virtually as well as being able to assess performance and drive employee engagement. Leading “pools of talent” around the globe includes being aware of skill sets and how behaviours affect each other. This will need to be taken into account when choosing which people will work with which different projects/tasks. So a high level of awareness on personality and behavioural traits will be required.
  • Communication skills. This evergreen skill will continue to be of utmost importance for leaders and non-leaders alike. It’s through communication that connections are made, people are influenced, ideas are born. The ability to get other people to join and to follow is certainly one of the most important for anyone who wants to get other people on their side, side by side on a mission. With the continued move to more virtual communication the need to be creative with communication and getting people together is imperative. Thinking about how to motivate people in different places with different cultural backgrounds needs to always be top of mind. It’s not just WHAT you communicate, it’s HOW you do it.   
  • Sharing Wisdom. There is always a need to share more than we currently do to help others and share our wisdom with each other. In the future there will be a need to share our knowledge and wisdom with others even more.  With access to more information through the technological advancements we will have to be sharing and encouraging others to share. The power of passing on insight to others who are new to either the business or the role becomes paramount. The generation changes require the more mature leaders to share with the less mature and that sharing of wisdom cascades down and across all businesses. There’s no time for greediness.
  • Creating a Learning environment. Yes, everything is learning. Allowing people to explore and try new things creates a learning environment. As does allowing people to occasionally make mistakes. To create more openness and transparency we have to share how we learn and what lessons we had along the way, in a transparent way. By doing something for other people instead of letting them do it themselves we take away their learning and we don’t want to do that!


Don’t be daunted by all of this.

Yes, leaders’ roles are becoming more challenging, more demanding than ever before. But make no mistake about it, this is not to be seen as a threat but as an opportunity.  One of the main reasons why this is an opportunity is this; as leadership becomes more and more inclusive with leaders involving people around them, they can make better use of the knowledge, experience, strengths and skills that each person bring to the table. Not only is this more interesting and rewarding for everyone, in many ways this also makes a leader’s situation easier.

No one person can have all the answers, yet we meet leaders every day who think they have to have all those answers. And as a result, they become fearful and guarded, afraid to let other people see that they don’t know it all. In fairness, many employees also want their leaders to know all the details of the job that the employees do, but this is not necessarily needed and leaders need to manage their employees’ expectations and let them know what can and cannot be expected. As change speeds up it would be near impossible for a leader to have this level of detailed knowledge. Everyone is better served by a leader who knows enough to give useful guidance to employees while also looking around them to understand the context which the team/organization operate within, as well as looking ahead to be able to stay relevant and viable as a choice for customers and other stakeholders.

So yes, leadership will need to be more and more inclusive, allowing for a cross-pollination of knowledge, ideas, wisdom and inspiration. This is also what creates real innovation – very few great ideas are created by a single person on their own having “eureka moments”. Innovation happens when people with diverse experience and ideas come together to have an exchange and allow the best ideas to flow from there.


The first thing to acknowledge is that society as well as organizations must continuously encourage learning. Leaders need to know that just because they have attended a leadership summit or programme, this doesn’t mean that they are done. Instill in leaders the realization that learning never stops and that someone’s development is ultimately their own responsibility. An organization may offer opportunities for development, but it may never be quite enough or specific enough to meet each person’s need. For that reason, encourage curiosity in people, tempt them with the excitement of insight and the sense of achievement that comes from expanding knowledge and skills.

All indications are pointing towards the demand for a more open-minded, flexible, inclusive, communicative leadership style of non-hierarchical character. For that reason, any leadership development activities would do well to mimic those characteristics in their application. Here are some ideas on how to approach leadership learning and growth:

  • Interactive workshops. Training needs to be “multi-way”, where communication flows between teachers/facilitators and participants. Gone are the days of one-way training from the front of the room. Interactive workshops make the participants think, discuss, share and try out.
  • On-the-job learning. Nothing beats learning in the moment, being able to work with someone else who may know more or have greater experience, or being given assignments or projects that offer learning opportunities, that truly “stretches” the person. Encourage people to share their wisdom.
  • Buddy and mentor schemes. Everyone knows something that another person doesn’t. This is why these types of schemes can be so valuable. Everyone should benefit from being in one of these formal or informal relationships, both mentor and mentee as well as both buddies.
  • Networking. You’ve heard the old saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. This is of course not the whole truth, but whom you know is vital to the insights you can have when interacting with them – and they may of course also be able to “open doors” for you through their networks, which can lead to even greater learning.
  • Knowledge exchange sessions. People enjoy learning from each other. In all the development solutions that we have delivered over the years, this is a prominent observation that we have made; that people love learning from their peers.  In fact when people attend training programmes they say the coffee breaks are invaluable as they learn so much from their peers during that informal exchange.
  • Innovation pods. Targeted knowledge exchange can also happen in the format of innovation pods, where you sit people down with the specific objective of creating something new; a new product, service or business etc.
  • Make the most of globalization. Consider joining the plethora of online networks for learning across the globe, from different cultures, practices and experiences. This could be anything from LinkedIn groups, online universities and industry associations. We tend to learn the most from people who are different from ourselves and can challenge our thinking into new paths.
  • Infrastructure solutions. Create tools, structure and processes that can help, such as holistic assessment templates that consider the impact of decisions and actions, virtual team check-in points and online discussion forums, to mention a few.
  • Teaming.  Teams will constantly be changing in the future, so we need to have a team skill set on “how” to work as a team. In the new world we need to use our “transportable team skill set” and quickly put it to use in each team we join or work with. Eg. get to know people to develop trust and greater openness create some informal time to do this


Leadership is fluid and dynamic, and the leadership map will keep shifting, of that we can be sure.

Any organization and any leader that wants to stay ahead of the game should be encouraged to keep ears and eyes open, to observe what’s going on in the world, the industry, the organization, the team and with the individuals therein.

No one knows exactly what will happen in the future, so we absolutely expect these predicted findings to change again over time. Certain leadership competencies are likely to remain, even though the specific application of them will change. For example: we expect communication skills to always be of high relevance for leaders but the channels of communications for example will change. And by staying curious, sharing wisdom and being open-minded we can learn and evolve as leaders and enablers of business long into the future.   

In our next blog post, we’ll reflect on the latest leadership trends in 2020 and beyond, and what we as leaders all need to do to continue to futureproof our leadership.

Author: Mandy and Elisabet

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