The Leader of the Future – Ten Skills to Begin Developing Now

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What will tomorrow’s successful leader look like? As the Baby Boomer generation continues to transition to retirement and we prepare to hand off the baton of leadership to a new generation, what skills and knowledge will they need to meet the challenges of the future?

To answer that question, we have to take a look at what is not going to change about leadership success. In their book, The Leadership Machine, Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger make the case that the fundamental competencies and skills that lead to effective management and leadership have not changed at all throughout history, and probably never will. Lombardo and Eichinger write, “Throughout the history of layered and organized work, there have always been start-ups, shutdowns, acquisitions, divestitures, expansion, new technologies, contractions, conflict, and consolidations. Each of these situations—although across a wide range of time, content, settings, and contexts—requires the same set of skills. Hannibal taking the elephants over the Alps was a start-up requiring the same skills (and maybe more) as any modern start-up.”

There are a number of research-based leadership competency models that clearly spell out what those critical, never-changing skills are. The Center for Creative Leadership, Development Dimensions International, Personnel Decisions Inc., Hay-McBer and Lominger all have excellent, proven leadership competency models. About 85 percent of the skills listed are the same across all of these models. Things like energy and drive, intellect, decision-making and problem-solving skills, resiliency, and the ability to communicate effectively have always mattered and always will.

What will differ is not what the skills are, but how much they matter in a future that is dominated by rapid change, globalization, economic uncertainty and seismic technological shifts.

While no one can accurately predict the future, we can at least take a look at what’s going on today and take our best guess at what tomorrow’s leadership challenges may require.

Here are 10 skills an aspiring leader can begin developing now in order to be ready to receive that leadership baton in the future:

  1. Get global. We are already operating in a global economy; there’s no such thing as a “domestic” business or organization. The world around us affects us all. Get a passport; travel; learn a second language; sell, trade or make something outside of your home country; study abroad; be the first to volunteer for that expatriate assignment.
  2. Financial acumen. Can we assume that today’s leaders might have been lacking in the basics of finance, accounting and economics? Or perhaps they’ve delegated this unglamorous part of the job to the so-called experts? Either way, it’s time to get out your graphic calculators from high school and learn how to use them again.
  3. Character matters. Character trumps skills every time, and tomorrow’s followers will demand integrity, trust, honesty, self-confidence and loyalty to principles from their leaders. They will also hold tomorrow’s leaders accountable for these values.
  4. Technological mastery. Web 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, and other emerging technologies bring new opportunities to market, sell, communicate, network, partner, innovate, solve problems and lead change. Stay on top of new technologies, experiment, participate and play—even if there’s no apparent practical application (e.g., Are you Twittering yet?).
  5. Develop resiliency. The ability to learn and recover from setbacks has always been the key differentiator between successful and average performers. Leaders will need to take risks, be willing to fail, admit their mistakes, learn and move on. Start doing this now. Don’t become paralyzed by mistakes; you’re going to make a lot of them.
  6. Shared leadership. The leader of the future won’t be able to do it alone. Leaders will need to recruit and develop strong, diverse teams and be willing to give power away. The current U.S. treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, is learning the hard way about the perils of trying to do everything himself.
  7. Learn to surf (lead change). This one seems so obvious, it may not even be worth mentioning. We can safely assume that the waves of change will keep coming at us, faster and bigger, with tsunami-like intensity, so leaders are going to have to learn to ride those waves and lead change like never before.
  8. Information synthesis. A key challenge for leaders of the future will be information overload. They’ll need to be able to filter and prioritize what’s important, as well as what’s real, and find meaning in all of that data.
  9. Ongoing learning and renewal. Formal education can’t stop after graduate school. Leaders will need to devote at least 20 percent of their time to studying, and then be able to incorporate what they’ve learned to continuously reinvent themselves.
  10. Partnering. Leaders will need to be able to reach out, collaborate, build coalitions and put their own self-interest aside for the greater good of the organization. The old rules of “winner takes all” negotiation no longer work. Leaders will need to master listening, empathy and the ability to come up with creative win-win solutions.

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